Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
My first poetry reading in Corning, I wanted to include the other black artists I knew and create, if only for a couple of hours, a larger experience. I believed in collaboration and a multiplicity of experience and wanted to exemplify that in my reading. Had I known musicians, I would have invited and included them, but I had not met them yet.
I asked the art center if I could have access to the space I would be performing in before my performance. Sure. I contacted my friend, a designer, who had some wonderful prints and paintings, and another new friend, a woman who made what is now called art dolls. I gathered some pedestals for her dolls, easels for the paintings, incense burners and other decorations and made the white-walled room alive with color and interest. The hours before the reading I received a call at work. It was the #2. With barely contained fury, she ordered me to dismantle what I had put in the room. Why? Because they had a process, because this work could not be “presented”. I argued that the work was part of my reading. I was only trying to create an atmosphere conducive to my reading, and that it would all be gone by the end of my reading.
I remember writing to friends in the city about this, puzzled. At the time I had 16 years of readings under my belt and in the City, I had been active as a presenter and organizer. How was it that this place would be so distrusting and insulting?
How limited and limiting their idea of presentation and how mean that whatever their “process” that this could not be set aside for my performance.
Her hostility alarmed me. I didn’t want my friend’s work to be harmed. So I made excuses and left work early, gathered up their creations. Now the reading that evening was standing room only. ( I had been put in the smallest room) I was delighted that I had the same size crowd— about 40 people– in Corning as I had in New York City.
I’ve never forgotten the hostility and denial. It was a sad lesson: I could not expect the arts, at least in this region, to be enlightened or welcoming. I turned my sights and readings to Ithaca. My painter friend joined the board of this organization years later. I think his presence helped soften some of that rigidity and short sightedness. When I won my first NYFA, a year later, it was a balm and affirmation.