The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Local art and spaces devoted to it can help build community and equality

Technology and commerce can’t substitute for local art spaces

A man visits the Haitian Cultural Center in Miami on Jan. 10, 2018. (Andrew Innerarity)

Despite the uncertainty caused by covid-19, the commercial art market continues to garner considerable media attention as its financial successes reach new heights. Although some galleries have had to close their brick-and-mortar spaces, other commercial art galleries have thrived during these times as wealthy collectors and select museums continued to purchase art. Digital art presentations, like the Vincent Van Gogh experience, have attracted national attention, further reinforcing the intertwined nature of art, commerce and experiential engagement.

But what about nonprofit artistic ventures? While such spaces have long supported artists — including those without commercial representation — they have functioned in the margins and in-between spaces overlooked by the media, funders and the public. They’ve also been tuned in to community needs and social justice. The founding of the Miami Black Arts Workshop in 1969 offers a catalyst to rethink the past, present and future of artmaking and political action.

The very idea for a workshop in Miami run by and devoted to Black artists and community originated at a meeting on the campus of the University of Miami with legendary Black dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. During a 1969 campus visit, Dunham urged university administrators to introduce her to Black students. At the meeting, she encouraged promising students not only to pursue their individual goals but to give back and engage in Black communities.

Originally founded on campus as the Black Arts Council of Miami, the Miami Black Arts Workshop (1969-1985) developed into a vital storefront space on Grand Avenue in West Coconut Grove, a historic Black community. Approximately 1,000 square feet, it became a space for exhibitions, artmaking and teaching.

Young people were especially welcome at the workshop. Member George Wrentz recalls befriending parents in the neighborhood and building trust. Wrentz and other members coordinated field trips and launched a free breakfast program for area children. This effort paralleled the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program that began in Oakland in 1969 and spread across the United States during the 1970s.

The Miami Black Arts Workshop also responded to social and political developments for Black people in the city — including fighting school segregation and police violence. The members of the workshop also witnessed firsthand the economic divide between two different Coconut Groves — one where predominantly White residents lived and the other where Black residents had lived since the late 19th century due to racial segregation and lending practices.

Roland Woods Jr., a founder of the arts workshop, worked with other members to paint the facades of local businesses in an effort to improve individual business successes. The neighborhood of West Coconut Grove was also a creative inspiration for Woods as he produced watercolors that celebrated daily life experiences in the community.

Woods’s more political work is evident in “Pitts and Lee” (1977), a print that memorializes the injustices experienced by Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two Black men who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the 1963 killings of two White men. There was no evidence to support their conviction and a White man confessed to the crime in 1966 — but it took until 1975 for Florida Gov. Reubin Askew to issue a pardon.

While the artists at the workshop engaged in many different media, printmaking was a key tool for raising awareness for broader audiences. Rather than limiting and tracking the edition numbers for each print to raise their economic value, Woods printed many images of a singular image and even varied titles. As a result, art forged community rather than yielding profits. Woods’s art spread knowledge and shared imagery that frequently addressed societal discord or the unity and strength of Black families.

Woods and other members also encouraged younger Black female artists to pursue their career goals. Consider, for example, the career of Kabuya Pamela Bowens-Saffo who was mentored as a participant at the workshop. Bowens-Saffo, who was from a predominantly Black community in Miami-Dade County called Richmond Heights, studied at Howard University under Jeff Donaldson, a founder of the Black artist collective AfriCOBRA. She retained a connection to West Coconut Grove through teaching art classes at the Barnyard, a local community center. At the Barnyard, Bowens-Saffo engaged with children from the neighborhood on various art-making projects as she began mentoring and supporting the next generation.

Outside the commercial gallery and museum work, the Miami Black Arts Workshop was driven by a desire to engage with community, one that produced both rigorous art and personal connection. The Miami Black Arts Workshop ended in 1985 as members changed professional and personal paths. Its legacy continues in the work of artists like Bowens-Saffo as well as Robert McKnight, Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, Valerie Patterson and Reneé Ransom — all of whom continue to make art today. And it also continues in other artist-run spaces in Miami — such as Bridge Red Studios and Dimensions Variable — that consistently present work by artists without commercial representation.

Marie Vickles and William Cordova are developing a documentary titled “Presence: on the lower frequencies/Miami Black Arts Workshop, 1969-1985” that tells this story, while also supporting the local artistic community. Vickles is the curator-in-residence at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. As part of his work as a cultural practitioner, Cordova has organized exhibitions of Miami-based artists’ work at Prizm and at Bridge Red Studios.

And this type of artistic community is not limited to Miami. Founded in 1973, Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles continues to promote the intersection of art and social justice, support local artists and engage youths. Founded by artists in 1992, Women Made Gallery in Chicago serves female-identifying and nonbinary artists through juried art exhibitions.

These intimate and supportive spaces, much like the Miami Blacks Art Workshop, foster dynamic and impactful experiences for individual artists and community members. The workshop responded to the needs of a moment marred by political discord, a quest for civil rights and business development not envisioned for everyone. The participants dared to imagine a better future.

This history offers a critical lesson for our contemporary moment as we emerge from months of separation: that art created for, with and by communities can offer a more profound, visceral response and that — although technology or commerce can also work to those ends — they too often do not. The ideas of artists and diverse community members coming together to create space can yield probing questions and crucial answers absent from current public discourse.