Arts Organizations and Urban Communities

Valerie V. Gay (right), executive director of Art Sanctuary, laughs with founder Lorene Cary. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Valerie V. Gay (right), executive director of Art Sanctuary, laughs with founder Lorene Cary. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: August 01, 2012

ART SANCTUARY was founded in 1998 in North Philadelphia with the purpose of bringing African-American artists to speak, lecture and perform in a venue within the African-American community. As arts excellence rises out of the inner city, it ought to cycle through it. The purpose of this organization was to serve as the entity that connected communities — black, Latino, Asian, white; young, old; educated, non-educated — directly with African-American art and all that it entails, so that they could find themselves, their history and their culture within it.

Art Sanctuary has continued to use the power of black art to transform individuals. And now, in its 14th year, founder Lorene Cary and the Art Sanctuary board of directors have passed the reigns over to me. Was change necessary? Yes. Why? Because the vision, as set by Lorene, was to build an organization that would excite others enough to bring their own visions and share their visions with even others, until, as she has said, "we go big, beautiful, and sophisticated." This is how arts institutions — all institutions — continue to grow.

So what do we do now? What does my becoming executive director of Art Sanctuary mean? We continue the work — it's just that simple. For 14 years, we haven't been afraid to get our hands dirty. We've gone into neighborhoods and institutions — we haven't waited for them to come to us. We must continue to do so. All arts organizations must do so. We owe it to our communities and to ourselves.

We go into the prisons. With Grammy-nominated trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe, we have created the Music Liberation Orchestra — a humanities-based program for inmates at the Philadelphia Detention Center that uses genealogy, journal writing and literature all in conjunction with music to bring about healing. Using music as a tool and guide, the project seeks to bring participants back to their own particular "door of no return" — the point at which their lives turned from light to darkness — and use art and self-expression as a path back through that door into the light. This program helps the inmates transform their lives while still incarcerated; it's a gift to the community to have people with a positive purpose re-enter our society.

We go into the schools. Via our program Class Acts, we bring noted artists such as Becky Birtha and Jacqueline into six Philadelphia public schools for workshops, lectures, and performance matinees. And we work closely with educators to design affordable programs for students.

And we go into the community. Every year, we bring noted journalists, writers and performance artists from across the U.S. to Philadelphia through our signature event, the Celebration of Black Writing, the nation's only literary festival of its kind, offering 13 days of literary discussions and workshops, music showcases and film screenings within communities in North and South Philadelphia — and this year, we added Center City to our community participation.

There are geniuses in our communities and we don't know who they are. They don't know who they are. It is the role of arts organizations to meet people where they are and show them their connection to the arts. Art is not only for entertainment purposes — it is also useful in helping people improve their human experience.

We have to stop just saying that the arts are accessible and actually take the hand of members of the community and show them their connection to us — no matter their ethnicity, economic status, gender or education level. All people can find themselves within our work. We just have to show them.

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