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    Appearances are not always an indicator of what lies beneath the surface. The downtown art boom of the last decade seems to have come to an unsettling halt. A second downtown gallery will be closing its doors to art exhibitions. Local artists and art organizations are looking for places to exhibit.
    The Fayetteville Museum of Art’s plan to relocate in Festival Park is temporarily on hold until fundraising can recover from the blows it took from local politics. At a time when there are more talented artists in Fayetteville then ever before, I don’t think one can blame the economy for all the artistic woes in Fayetteville.
    {mosimage} Even in this economic climate there is a silver lining if one looks a little deeper than appearances. You have to look closely at what is being unveiled locally and nationally.
    Nationally, the arts are part of the federal economic stimulus plan. As reported by Americans for the Arts, “The Economic Recovery bill package includes an additional $50 million in support of art jobs through the National Endowment for the Arts grants. We are also happy to report the exclusionary Coburn Amendment language banning certain art groups from receiving any other economic recovery funds has also been successfully removed.”
    Locally, the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County seems to be reexamining its role in the arts. The earlier idea of being predominantly a distributor of funds to art agencies has become one of leadership in a different way. 
    The present exhibit at the Arts Council — Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions — was a huge step toward the advocacy of educating the public about the rich history of African-American artists in art history and in contemporary art. The exhibit reads like an art history book, a who’s who of significant artists, spanning from the 1930s to the present.
Certainly there have been solo and group exhibits of significant African-American artists at the Arts Council, but never before has there been an exhibit by artists that spans over 60 years.
    The concept for the exhibit, according to Calvin Mims, arts services coordinator at the Arts Council, “started last year with a conversation with some of our local collectors. They began to tell fascinating stories about knowing certain African-American artists in their youth and how some of them went to school with a particular artist and started collecting their early, unknown works.”
    He continued, “We then thought that it would be an educational experience for the public to share in viewing some of the work collected by local educators, doctors, lawyers and others. Works that are steeped in the memories of magical moments spent with the artist, hearing them tell those stories of their life as an artist and hearing that artist tell the story about why the work was created. This all gave rise to the idea of an ongoing educational experience in African-American art.”
    Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions is the result of that effort to showcase the works by collectors; but it is also the beginning of a new initiative at the Arts Council. Confirmed by Deborah Mintz, president of the Arts Council: “The council is committed to developing an appreciation of African-American art by supporting programs, exhibitions and education. The spin-off of Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions will be a new affiliate membership called “Friends of African and African-American Art.”
    According to Mintz, “Friends of African and African-American Art will help our community focus on the extraordinary talents of African-American artists in our region and across the country. We are calling on the community to lead in this endeavor.”
    Mintz continued, “For many years, the Arts Council has been serving primarily as a launching place for new and aspiring artists. Today, as several local galleries have closed their doors, visual art opportunities in our community are dwindling. In response to requests from many local artists, the Arts Council is expanding its visual art component.”
    A timely effort, FAAAA according to Mims is “a special membership category at the Arts Council, committed to raising public awareness and appreciation for the artistic legacy of indigenous Africans and peoples of the African diaspora. The group serves as a catalyst to ensure that these outstanding artistic contributions will be enjoyed and valued by future generations. It is an effort to enhance the community’s cultural experience with African-American Art.”
    Mims talked to me about the benefits of FAAAA and how the Arts Council plans to establish the new affiliate.
“The Friends will promote an understanding and appreciation of African-American art through exhibitions, educational programs and social events,” she said. “They will develop unique exhibitions, lectures and symposia on American art to enhance the public’s knowledge of African-American contributions to the arts, while exploring American history, society and creative expression from an African-American perspective.”
    The primary focus, according to Mims, “will be to fund an exhibit each year during Black History Month and develop a schedule of informative events and activities to occur throughout the month of celebration. Members of the affiliate will raise funds and seek sponsors to underwrite the programs and exhibits for Black History Month, outside the regular sponsorship stream for the Arts Council. 
    A steering committee will develop, select, and plan exhibit content, select guest lecturers, and create a youth education component. Committee membership will include Arts Council board members, artists, art educators and civic leaders interested in African and African-American art and artists. The Arts Council Arts Services Coordinator will serve as a resource and assist the committee in its work.
    The Arts Center is preparing to launch the FAAAA membership drive in late March. The Apprentice level ($25) or higher is a prerequisite for joining the Friends of African and African-American Arts. In addition to your Arts Council membership level, Friends Individual membership is $25 — all tax deductible.
    Members in FAAAA will enjoy benefits and arts enrichment opportunities. Not only are you supporting the arts, but members will be invited to participate in Friends meetings and social events, invitations to special lectures pertaining to African-American art by internationally, nationally, and locally prominent artists and scholars, and attend previews of gallery exhibitions. Members of Friends will take a role in building an understanding and appreciation of African and African-American art in Fayetteville and Cumberland County.
    While the details of when and how FAAAA will be premiered at the Arts Council are still underway for March, there is plenty of time to see Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions. The exhibition will remain up at the Arts Council until March 21.
    Before entering the Art Council’s freshly painted gallery spaces, don’t expect to see large contemporary works of art. The works by all the artists are modest in scale, but significant in who is being exhibited. Original images that range from prints, drawings, watercolors, mixed media and paintings represent major African-American artists that have been historically important for some time.
    When first viewing the images, the narrative subject dominates the galleries. Upon closer inspection visitors will see two distinct styles. The narrative competes with a group of abstract artists from the Michigan area.
    The narrative begins with a compelling photograph by Ph.H. Polk. Untitled, the black-and-white photograph, captures the image of a dark man with eyes in the shadow of the brim of his worn hat. The man’s name in the photograph is George Moore, his penetrating eyes create depth in the image, mystery in the story.
    Although the portraits of Polk resonate with visual and emblematic power and are beautiful beyond words, it was his photograph of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who visited the Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941 that many people are familiar with. In this candid photograph, Polk documented Mrs. Roosevelt getting ready to take a ride in the back seat of an airplane, black pilot Chief Anderson at the controls. Mrs. Roosevelt requested a photograph to take back to Washington, D.C. to show President Roosevelt.
    For over 50 years, as a photographer, Polk focused on life at Tuskegee Institute. As an artist and a teacher, his photographic legacy included portraits of everyday people and many significant people, including George Washington Carver and Dr. Martin Luther King.
    Although few African-American women during the 1930s were practicing artists, and art museums in the segregated South were closed to African Americans, Elizabeth Catlett pursued her goal of becoming an artist by enrolling at Howard University in 1931. Elizabeth Catlett is an artist whose is known for her contributions to the graphic medium.
    In this exhibit there is a relief print by Catlett titled Survivor. A limited edition print, the defiant women in Survivor echoes the politically charged message of many of Catlett’s works — the lives of everyday people, the heroines and heroes of African-Americans.
    Catlett is a master of the relief print and one who uses the medium as much as the message to forge her power of the image. Her technical proficiency is the underpinning of her command of design, form, and content.
The exhibit also includes many prints by John Biggers, a famous artist from North Carolina. A muralist, teacher, printmaker and easel painter, Biggers is widely known for his images that use recurring themes and objects: the shotgun house (a style in southern black low income housing), Afro-centric symbols; women are always portrayed to denote hope and strength.
    Everything in Biggers images promotes optimism and power. Biggers has been noted as “drawing inspiration from African art and culture, from the injustices of a segregated United States, from the stoic women of his own family and from the heroism of everyday survival.”
    The who’s who of narrative artists in Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions includes Charles Bibbs, Hughie Lee-Smith, Betye Saar and William Pajuad. In addition, there is a large body of abstract work from the Michigan area.
Local artist Dwight Smith was eager to explain how he had come to know all the artists in the exhibit and many, many other historically important artists.
    Smith reflected, “As a young artist in the late 1960s, I joined the National Conference of Artists, a specifically African-American group of artists in academia and professional artists involved in networking. Being from Michigan, I, just like many other artists in the exhibit, was a member of the Michigan Chapter of the National Conference of Artists. Some artists in the exhibit were mentors of mine. Our chapter met once a month and the conference met once a year.
    “I never missed a conference. At any conference you would meet noteworthy artists who were already beginning to be added to art history books, people like Martin Puryear, Romare Bearden, John Biggers — everyone who has made a distinct contribution to the history of art in some way was a part of the conference at some time. Any artist who was doing anything came through that organization.”
    Smith was very clear on the early purpose of the conference and how the organization changed.
    “During the late 1960s and early 70s there were no venues to learn about African-American art — networking was the best way. In networking we knew what type of work was being produced in the studio, we learned who was working in the museums, who was writing the books and who was collecting African-American art. We also did quite a bit of picketing of museums since they weren’t showing African-American artists during that period.”
    Although several of the narrative artists might be better known, the abstract artists in the exhibit reflect a style. Smith pointed out that he, Charles Finger, Shirley Woodson, Al Hinton, Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts and Hugh Grannum are all from the Michigan area, represent the Michigan chapter of the National Conference of Artists, and everyone knew each other.
Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions is more than just a collection of works. It is a cross-section of those artists who have pioneered the African-American voice in art. For information on Distinguished Visions, Timeless Traditions and Friends of African and African-American Art call the Fayetteville and Cumberland County Arts Council at 910-323-1776 or visit their Web site www.theartscouncil.com.

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