"BLACK ARTISTS can survive -- if they want to," said Vernard Gray, his face solemn, his hands clasping the arms of his chair. "If black artists really decide to buckle down and deal, there are opportunities."
He sighed. "We've got these idealistic ideas about what an artists is. People say to me, 'I want to be in the theater. . . .' It's a 40-plus-hour-a-week job. J-O-B. For Black artists, for white artists."
Gray should know.
He is a fixture in Washington's grass-roots arts community, running his narrow-walled, fragrantly scented Miya Gallery at 720 11th St. NW in the downtown area that local black artists flocked to when businesses went down and so did rents. But he is equally at home among the sophisticated, established groups both large and small. While most other black arts groups shun Washington's Cultural Alliance, Gray done more than just join -- he recently became a member of the board, spending time in meetings with people like National Symphony Orchestra administrators and Xerox executives.
"He can walk in and out of all those different clusters," said Mildred Bautista, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts.
For some, Gray, 38, is a figure of conservative respect. He has a soothing and sober low voice. He listens. He doesn't confront -- that's not his style. It makes him nervous, he says.
For others, he is a sage, almost a guru, his high-cheekboned face and beard patched with gray at the chin enhancing the image. "I've had lunch with him at d.c. space," said the Dance Exchange's Jim Patterson, referring to a downtown artists' watering hole. "It's like a processional of people coming up to talk to him."
He has been nominated for membership in the D.C. Commission on the Arts (pending the City Council's approval). He has founded, presided over or been a member of a staggering number of local arts organizations. Chief among them are: ADAPT (an oraganization that looks for badly needed space for district artists); the D.C. Foundation for Creative Space; Allied Arts; and his own CA-FAM III (Collective Action for Alternative Media in the Third World).
For the upcoming Lansburgh project -- which will turn a vacant department store into space for local art groups -- Gray identified prospective tenants before the selection process and helped keep them together during the problem-ridden planning stages. He was elected chairman of the tenants' council. And he joins organizations that other local groups are wary about -- usually ending up defender of small black arts groups. "It's not necessarily that he's so good," said one observer."He's simply there."
For a man so in tune with the times, he looks a decade out of date. He clothes his lanky 6-foot-6 frame in bright colors, wearing baggy pants tied at the waist and long muslin robes in the summer, made inexpensively for him by local Caribbean tailors. Around his neck, he wears a leather neck wallet -- a juju bag -- in which he carries letters from a woman in Uganda he fell in love with several years ago. His youngest of three daughters, 3-year-old Miya (the namesake of the gallery), has a Hindu name.
But if he looks like the '60s, he has the business sense of the '80s. His four-year-old gallery not only sells art, but has done a thriving business in cornrowing and braiding hair for the last three years. "In the summer there's so much business, you could braid until your fingers fall off," he said.
"There's this controversy about white women cornrowing their hair," he said. "We haven't been asked our opinion on it, or given credit for having done it all these years.But when a white woman comes in and asks all the same silly questions that black women ask about cornrows and braiding, we answer them. We're in business."
Still, Gray will not braid white women's hair in the shop. "People walking in the door simply wouldn't understand. We're an African-American cultural institution and we plan to be here a long time.
It's a matter of business sense.
He's leaned forward.His clothes were more subdued than usual -- gray sweater, turtleneck and dark green slacks. "I operate within the reality of the white-dominated art culture," he said. "The Cultural Alliance is an example. There's racism that exists in all these things."
In the Alliance?
"Certainly. But it's not necessarily bad," he said, eyes wide, voice louder. "That just means a white person standing up and saying, 'I'm white and I'm better.' It doesn't mean you can't be black and get up there and deal and achieve."
He had a simple reason for joining the Cultural Alliance. "I saw an opportunity to rub elbows with the movers and the shakers in the cultural community. I'm on the executive committee now, right at the top . . ." he said, trailing off, as if simply thinking out loud.
"Pat Hayes and I are on a first-name basis. It's symbolic. But people have gotten to know me and know my name -- I'm not just that man over on 11th Street who runs that black gallery. They can say to themselves, 'He's not one of those militant niggers running around. He's a successful businessman, and he cares about the city.'"
The man who wants his oldest daughter, Nikki, 14, to attend the Madeira School adds, grinning, "I am a militant nigger like I was 10 years ago. I'm outside -- I don't wear Brooks Brothers suits. But I'm wiser than I was 10 years ago," he said, laughing. "I know how to deliver things."
He separated from his schoolteacher wife two years ago and now lives with his mother, in his boyhood Northeast home, surrounded by neighbors who treat him a bit like the neighborhood boy who made good. "They say, 'You're doing a good job. We read about you in the paper,'" said Gray.
He's worked since he was little, delivering papers, starting a carwash in front of his home. In his late teens he sold newspapers at a stand in front of a Cafritz family-owned building on downtown I Street. "Interesting," he said, allowing himself a smug grin and a soft low laugh, "Now, I know a Cafritz." He was a city track star at Eastern High School. Later, his few years at Howard University and Bowie State fizzled. "I'm not good at school," he said. "I don't have the discipline."
He quickly married and worked at the post office for seven years. In 1966, he met another clerk who was a photographer. "I stood with this guy, throwing mail all night, talking about photography," he said. He bought a camera then. Two years later, when he was a window clerk, a young woman customer he sometimes flirted with at the window told him one day she was going to California. He asked her if she'd take him with her. She replied: gsure.
Within a week, she had gotten him a job helping on her project -- recruiting for VISTA. He'd never been north of the Newport, R.I., Jazz Festival. fHe spent about half of 1968 traveling around the country recruiting for VISTA, meeting people he'd never met before -- like Black Panthers and other activists. "It was an eye-opener for me," he said.
He eventually came back to Washington and got another job interviewing former Job Corps workers. "That was a time when you jumped from job to job," he said. And he did. He worked as a human-relations specialist at the YMCA, then as a youth organizer and a free-lance photographer. He branched out into free-lance video work, fascinated with the new portable equipment. "I was going to start a video studio," he said, "then someone suggested I start a gallery." In the summer of 1976, he took his grant money and started Miya, a nonprofit gallery.
The phone rang. "I'd have to see it," he told the caller. "Does he have slides of the work? Have him call me and we'll set a time. Solid."
Gray uses the word "solid" so often he sounds like a latter-day member of "The Mod Squad." Still, it fits him. The call was from a friend who ran across a "fantastic 17-year-old charcoal artist." Gray will take in and sell the work of artists on the street who are willing to do business with him: "I make them talk wholesale price and retail price." tBut his gallery has also hosted musicians, religious evangelists, filmmakers with their films and poets with their poetry.
Sitting in his crammed office, which is littered with papers, huge notebooks and files, Gray talked about art, politics and business. His gallery also sells beads, magazines, books on the Harlem Renaissance or Iran, and discount best sellers. His business produces a bi-monthly, cleanly laid-out newspaper called Black Arts Review, a compilation of information "patterned after the Whole Earth Catalogue," he said.
No one in the arts community seems to doubt Gray's intentions or, even selflessness. But some feel he spreads himself too thin. "He's terrific, but he wanders," said one observer. "He's just utterly torn in so many directions."
Although he says he has cut back on some activities, he is part of several groups looking for much-needed space for artists, and is already negotiating for different properties. He is also part of the effort to recruit more black arts groups for the Cultural Alliance, and he says he has been "moderately successful." A few he has won over. With some, like the African Heritage Center Gallery, Dancers and Drummers, run by his longtime friend Melvin Deal, he was not been successful. "Vernard is a crusader rabbit," said Deal matter-of-factly." "He'll join anything in the political hope of getting minimal or moderate results."
Gray looks around his office forlornly when he talks about success. "I'm 38 years old," he said, smiling. "I should be making $40,000 or $50,000 like the other people my age." All of which he would love -- "If I could make it doing what I want to do."
Meanwhile, he pays himself $200 a week. Last year, he couldn't make the last four months of salary.
"For the most part, I'm happy," he said. "If I could, I'd like to do visual anthropology. A lot of us are so out of touch with our roots. I could groove on being in a place where people just deal with the sun rising." He smiled. Meanwhile, his newspaper graphics artist needed to talk to him and there was the Cultural Alliance board meeting just two days away.