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A response to Diversity and Inclusion in Annapolis Arts Community

When I worked at Maryland Federation of Art I drove from Bowie to Annapolis everyday. My commute was literally 30 minutes from the time I stepped out of my house and into the gallery on State Circle. From time to time (aka when there was traffic), I used to turn off of Rowe BLVD and onto Taylor Ave., and each time I took the roundabout I would look over at the grassy lot and think, “it would be amazing if there was something there.”

Well, guess what?! I finally found out what’s going on with the lot. A group of organizers are raising money to build a 1200-seat theater and conference center in that location! Needless to say, I was excited to read the article in the Capital Gazette that briefly described the project. It's easy to imagine the potential programs that space could offer: concerts, pop-up exhibitions, screenings, fairs, you name it!

To my surprise, and disappointment, the organizers are currently lacking support. They’ve been trying to fund this project for 7 years! That’s a decent amount of time (and energy) to be raising money for a project, because after you get funding you have to solidify a design, go into the execution faze, have a grand opening, etc.

Apparently the group has now pivoted to a more racially progressive approach, citing that they are hoping to focus more on “equity, diversity, and inclusion” in hopes that that will help increase community support.

Let’s explore this ordeal from a few angles...

Why hasn’t the group been able to garner support thus far?

One reason is that Annapolis already offers decent sized performance venues… Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Ram’s Head Tavern, Annapolis Shakespeare Company, and more… People have an abundance of choices and I guess after 6 or 7 years the group finally recognized that and have now decided to pivot. As the Executive Director mentioned, “[Annapolis] has the same group of donors, going to the same type of performances.”

Being able to recognize this is important, because it informs the lack of investment from the community. Now, let’s look at this from a second angle… How is this group going to successfully gain community investment after changing their stance and prioritizing more diverse programming?

Let’s unpack some things mentioned in the article in which I have questions about.

1. The organizers mentioned that they brought more People of Color on their board to make it more diverse.

Okay, cool. But who are these people? Do they have connections with these new communities you are trying to reach? Being a person of color is all well and good, but if you see things through a whiteness gaze, your efforts are going to be futile.

2. They mentioned they want to “reach deep into the African American community” and promote “Jazz, Blues, creativity.”

What exactly does that look like? Is this something the community wants/needs? If not, have you defined the group(s) you are trying to reach with this new brand of programming?

I ask these questions because I think the initiative is great and needed, but if it isn’t done correctly, the entire project runs the risk of missing the mark. I did some research about the organization’s staff and board members, etc. The group seems diverse, which is promising - putting a diverse group of people on a board is important, but it is just as important to show stakeholders a larger investment.

For example: if you are trying to include a larger African American presence, will staff and board members be required to undergo anti-racist trainings? As Robin DiAngelo wrote in her infamous essay on Whiteness practices, many Black people and other POC do not feel safe in many White-led spaces, even if there are other BIPOC in leadership positions.

What are you willing to commit to as far as equitable compensation, representation, and exposure? Saying all of those things sounds nice for PR, but when it comes down to business, what are you actually going to do?

According to the US Census, Black people make up almost 22% of Annapolis’ population, yet none of the arts organizations are Black-led besides the organizations that Darin Michelle Gilliam leads (love her). That has a direct correlation with the types of programs that prioritized and ultimately carried out.

I would love to see this theater and conference space come to fruition and I like the fact that the work being done by African Americans and other POC is being prioritized by this group. Urban Walls World is all about cultural exchange and we need more of that in Annapolis. The questions and concerns I have surrounding this project focus on whether or not we’ll actually see a shift in investment from the organization itself and the community (and surrounding communities). I mean, you wanna talk about tourism?! Even before I started working in Annapolis, I used to visit Annapolis from PG County a decent amount. So, I could definitely see a lot of people traveling down to see what this new conference center has to offer.

I hope things work out and we see a real equitable change. This conference center seems like a great start!

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