Black arts organization has new leader

The Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia announced the appointment of Valerie Gay as it new Executive Director. ( SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer )
The Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia announced the appointment of Valerie Gay as it new Executive Director. ( SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer )
Posted: July 14, 2012

After founding Art Sanctuary 14 years ago and nurturing the organization into a premier platform for black literary and performing arts, the novelist Lorene Cary is turning over the reins.

On Monday, Valerie V. Gay, a classically trained soprano, a financial whiz at PNC, and a former Temple University assistant dean, will become the organization's executive director.

"I love the idea of having black art as a base and foundation for connecting to everything else," Gay, 47, said at a news conference Thursday at Art Sanctuary headquarters at 16th and Bainbridge Streets. "I believe it is a missed opportunity if people of all ethnicities don't see their connection to black art. Art Sanctuary could provide that bridge."

Cary, 55, whose historical novel The Price of a Child was selected in 2003 for the citywide One Book/One Philadelphia reading extravaganza, said that she had been ready to turn over Art Sanctuary leadership for some time but that the organization was not quite as ready.

"My goal was to grow it into an organization with the capacity of being passed on," she said, adding that the moment had come. "Look at this whole community of people. I could step out of the room and nobody would miss me."

Cary, now a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, established Art Sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond Streets, in 1998. Her programs brought in writers and youths, musicians and performers. The purpose was and remains to use "the power of black art to transform individuals, unite groups of people, and enrich and draw inspiration from the inner city."

Larry Robins, head of Moonstone Arts Center, who has fostered programs on black writing and artists over the years, said Art Sanctuary's "concept was big enough to account for the variety of black writing." For that reason, he turned over his annual Celebration of Black Writing for Art Sanctuary to run.

"The ability to be open to a variety of aesthetics is something I value, and Art Sanctuary has it," he said.

Among Art Sanctuary's other current projects is Hip H'opera, a collaboration with the Opera Company of Philadelphia that involves young writers and singers as well as professionals and educators. Art Sanctuary also has programs tied into Philadelphia schools, and it also works with prisoners.

"What I think is really unique about Art Sanctuary is, while the African American experience and celebrating African American writers is the core, it is able to take that core and transform it into something that serves the whole community," said Gary Steuer, the city's chief cultural officer. He called Hip H'opera a case in point, using hip-hop and opera, the languages of young urban writers and classically trained professionals, to create "a new blended art form."

Gay, whose selection followed an 18-month search and planning effort, said she would be looking for ways to expand the reach and impact of the organization.

"The work has been amazing," she said. "Now, how can we grow it and impact more people? Everything in the organization is so scalable and could be more deeply embedded in Philly."


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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