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Arts Council again accused of being tone deaf regarding race

Invitation for Black History Month exhibition invited ‘artists of all nationalities’


For the second time in 18 months, The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County has stepped into a morass of racial discord.

This week, The Arts Council issued a call on Facebook for “artists of all nationalities” to submit artwork for the organization’s upcoming “Our People Exhibition: The Black Influence in Contemporary Culture.” The exhibition, to be presented from Jan. 26 to March 2, will coincide with February’s Black History Month at the Arts Center Gallery downtown.

The “artists of all nationalities” phrase led some to conclude non-Black artists were being invited to submit works for an exhibition that ostensibly was to focus on Black artists. This quickly drew criticism in comments on Facebook.

“It seems like The Arts Council has an uncomfortableness with how to address, in proper way, diversity and inclusion,” Fayetteville resident Angela Tatum Malloy, who is Black, said. Malloy and her daughter, who is an artist, visited the Arts Council’s offices on Wednesday to complain.

The Arts Council has since revised the invitation for artist submissions. CEO Bob Pinson said the original invitation was poorly phrased amid an attempt to say artists of mixed ethnic heritage were invited, citing exhibition curator Collyn Strother as an example. Strother’s father is Black while his mother is white, and he identifies as Black.

“In the past, we probably would not have even been looking to try to get that submission,” Pinson said.

Strother said on Thursday he was not involved in the language of the call-out and it is not representative of the exhibit.

Last year: Cancelation of A Dickens Holiday generated criticism

The “Our People” situation follows a controversy The Arts Council had in August and September of 2022, when it announced it was ending the long-running A Dickens Holiday celebration and replacing it with a festival of lights. The organization said it changed the event on the basis that A Dickens Holiday — inspired by the portrayal of Christmas in Victorian-era England in the novel “A Christmas Carol” — was not inclusive of non-white people.

A Dickens Holiday ultimately returned last year under the direction of the Downtown Alliance downtown Fayetteville merchants’ organization. As of this year, The Arts Council no longer hosts a Christmas-season festival.

Black people who enjoyed attending and participating in A Dickens Holiday said last year it was wrong to do away with the annual festival, which is known for throngs of revelers dressed in period costumes and a large candlelight procession along Hay Street.

Malloy, the founder and CEO of the Momma’s Village-Fayetteville nonprofit organization, was among those who said the Arts Council fouled up when it decided in 2022 to end A Dickens Holiday. She said it erred again this year with its call for “artists of all nationalities” to participate in the “Our People” exhibition in Black History Month.

She and her daughter, artist Jasmine Johnson, said they spoke with exhibit curator Strother about the Facebook post.

In 2022 when The Arts Council decided to stop having A Dickens Holiday, “they overcompensated. And instead of allowing a healthy conversation, they just canceled it,” she said. “So they addressed diversity, or the lack thereof, by avoiding the issue through the cancellation of it.”

During A Dickens Holiday, Malloy enjoyed portraying Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a Black woman who was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter.

‘Overcompensated diversity’

With the “all nationalities” phrase for the “Our People” invitation, the arts group went too far in the opposite direction, Malloy said.

“This year they overcompensated diversity at the wrong time. When it’s a month that is centered on one group, they chose this month to be ‘open and inclusive,’” she said. “So it’s like they keep missing the mark.”

Several others had similar thoughts as Malloy.

“For Native American heritage month, you put ONLY native artist[s] in your building. Give this community the same respect,” Littlesnowbird Jones said on Facebook.

“Arts Council of Fayetteville if this is an exhibit for Our People, why include other nationalities? Our story has already been depicted through the eyes and mindsets of those who are not Our people,” said Ja’Nelle Lunnermon.

 The Arts Council’s “LatinXhibit” show in September and October specified that artists “should be of Latin American descent,” and its October and November “Still Here, Still Native | A Native American Art Exhibit” show sought submissions from artists affiliated with Native American tribes.

Should the exhibition take other perspectives? 

Some Black people disagree with Malloy about the exhibition’s invitation.

“It will be refreshing to see how others embrace the idea of how Our People have contributed and impacted their world, their lives, Our Lives. How they see us as THEIR (Our) People,” Sheila Cuffee wrote in a Facebook comment in response to Malloy.

“We can’t say ‘learn about black culture, understand our history, accept us for who we are’ AND ‘don’t allow others to share their perspectives, don’t celebrate our legacy with us, don’t promote our history, struggles, and triumphs,” wrote Eric Washington.

What does the exhibition curator want?

“The goal of this exhibit is to give Black people their flowers, and to say, ‘Thank you for your cultural influence, and how you have shaped everything that we do,’” said exhibition curator Strother. Strother was one of the lead artists who painted the “Black Lives Do Matter - End Racism Now” mural on the traffic circle around the Market House in downtown Fayetteville. 

Black people have been a major influence on pop culture, Strother said.

The invitation with the “artists of all nationalities” was published without his knowledge, he said.

“Those were not my words at all,” Strother said. “Those words did not represent my exhibition. I would not choose those words.”

The jurors who will evaluate submissions with him are all Black people from diverse backgrounds and knowledge of art, he said.

“This exhibit will be graded for Black people. This exhibit will represent Black people,” Strother said.

“This exhibit is curated by myself, a Black male, with the intentions of appreciating — not appropriating — appreciating Black influence,” he said.

If Strother has two pieces, one from a Black artist and the other not, “I will go with the piece that is done from the Black person,” he said.

Artists interested in submitting their works for consideration can do so via this website: artist.callforentry.org/festivals_unique_info.php?ID=12598.

Senior reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@cityviewnc.com.

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