Berkshire arts evolve in the wake of national protest

In wake of the murder of George Floyd and increased national focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, arts organizations across Berkshire county are reckoning with their pasts, evaluating their practices, and reimagining how to use their art to tell stories in the most diverse and equitable way possible.

As an epicenter for all sorts of arts, Berkshire County is home to more than 20 art museums, historic sites and gardens, more than 30 music, theatre and dance companies and 20 galleries. At the same time, census data from 2019 reports that the racial makeup of the county is 87.7 percent white, meaning that voices of color are rarely the majority in arts spaces here.

This summer, many of those spaces say they are looking closely at what they can do to make sure that people of color are respected and feel comfortable, when they come as artists or to experience the creative energy that grows here.

Berkshire arts organizations do the work of honoring diverse artists and stories and forming meaningful relationships with the community in a variety of ways; one is turning to community leaders for mentorship, and one leading voice in many evolving efforts is Gwendolyn VanSant, the CEO and Founding Director of Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education).

“It’s been BRIDGE’s mission for twelve years to be a catalyst for change and integration,” she said. We do the work of trying to shift systems and hearts and minds. We do that on farms, and with children who are five and bankers who are fifty. We do this work well because we think about community and humanity.”

Among many projects with Berkshire creative organizations, she is working with the Berkshire Taconic Foundation to guide organizations who receive Arts Capacity Grants to build connections with lower-income local families, communities of color, youth and immigrants; among them The Mount, Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Museum, WAM Theatre, Community Access to the Arts, and Mass MoCA.

“They’re taking a dive into what they need to do, and some are seeing what they’ve missed, who are the artists in residence and who can access the art,” said VanSant.

Gwendolyn VanSant, chief executive officer and founding director of Multicultural Bridge, teaches and consults on diversity and equity.
Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, chief executive officer and founding director of Multicultural Bridge, teaches and consults on diversity and equity.

In addition to this grant, VanSant and BRIDGE work independently and long term with various other organizations. Two that VanSant feels are doing substantive work are the decades-old, world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the newer, smaller company WAM Theatre.

Jacob’s Pillow, a National Historic Landmark, home to America’s longest-running international dance festival and a prestigious training program, has been working with BRIDGE for nearly four years to build awareness, responsiveness, and inclusivity into their organizational culture and form authentic community collaborations.

“I’ve been working with the Pillow for four years,” VanSant said. “That’s evidence of how they show up. When issues show up, they’re ready to respond.”

Executive and Artistic Director of Jacob’s Pillow Pamela Tatge said “this moment in time really has accelerated work that we’ve already been doing. We’ve taken the time to center ourselves on the meaning of this moment and really understand our 88-year-old history. We need to understand where everyone stands in terms of addressing systemic racism in our organization.”

Reckoning with this history goes as far back as the founder of Jacob’s Pillow, Ted Shawn. Born 1891, Shawn traveled the world studying with masters of dance and performance, from Kabuki actors in Japan to flamenco artists in Spain. In the Americas, He worked with artists of the Osage-Pawnee, Lenni-Lenape, Choctaw and other nations.

In the 1940s, as the Pillow evolved into a nationally known performance space, Shawn invited indigenous artists to perform and instruct dancers in their traditional styles at the Pillow school.

“He kept these styles alive at a time when they were banned in the U.S and brought them to larger acknowledgment in the dance world,” VanSant said.

At the same time, recent talks and exhibits at Jacob’s Pillow have reckoned with the ways in which Shawn appropriated some artforms from the people who created them.

“It alarms and hurts people to see images of Shawn dancing in a costume based on Hopi regalia,” VanSant said.

In 2019, Jacob’s Pillow Director of Preservation Norton Owen published an in-depth summary of the intersections between Jacob’s Pillow and Indigenous peoples and traditions of the Americas, and the Pillow’s central art exhibit last summer invited artists from many perspectives to give their views on Shawn’s work.

Red Sky Performance will bring the U.S. premiere of Trace to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
Red Sky Performance / Jacob's Pillow

Red Sky Performance will bring the U.S. premiere of Trace to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

The Pillow also welcomed the internationally recognized group Red Sky Performance to perform on their Main Stage, led by artistic director and Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe dance artist Sandra LaRonde. Tatge also invited LaRonde to curate The Land on Which We Dance, a week-long celebration of song, dance, and storytelling bringing together contemporary artists such as Wampanoag dancers and award-winning blues and soul singer Martha Redbone. To commemorate the one-year anniversary of this event, they will share elements of the stories and performances virtually on August 5.

The Pillow has redesigned their 2020 summer festival to run virtually. The lineup includes performances, master classes, and community events with diverse artists from companies such as the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ballet Hispanico, and a weekly virtual PillowTalks series that invites artists and scholars to share their thoughts on the field.

Dr. Shamell Bell, dancer/choreographer, and documentary filmmaker and visiting faculty at Dartmouth in Theater and African and African American Studies, opened the series with a talk on street dance as an alternative strategy for radical social change. Theresa Ruth Howard, the founder and curator of the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet and founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance, will close the series in a conversation on Black Artists in Dance Today with panelists and acclaimed choreographers Kyle Abraham and John Perpener, to talk about past practices and modern changes in institutions of Black artists in dance.

“I think that where we have been successful is at centering Black and Brown artists in our programming,” she said. “What I don’t think we have been as successful at is diversifying our board, our staff, and our audience.”

In 2019, Tatge published an opinion piece in The Berkshire Eagle detailing the disturbing and inappropriate experience an audience member of color faced while attending Jacob Pillow’s gala; her hair was touched without her consent and she was repeatedly questioned about her racial background.

“I am upset because I know that this story is not isolated,” Tatge wrote. “Our staff members of color endure similarly offensive interactions with some of our patrons. This patron trusted me enough to tell me her story. What about others who have had similar experiences but have never returned? We can diversify the artists and themes we celebrate onstage, the dancers we teach in our school, and the representation of people of color on our board and staff. What can we do to evolve our audiences so that our institution is truly inclusive?”

These questions remain relevant in Tatge’s nearly weekly meetings with VanSant. “That is really going to be a big focus of this accelerating plan to see what we can do to create more of a sense of belonging for audiences from diverse backgrounds, while at the same time taking a look at all of the decision-making practices, and looking at who’s at the table when those decisions are made.”

A smaller task force of the board has formed to work on determining next steps, creating a plan to present to the rest of the board at their August meeting, then the larger board will publicly publish a full report at the end of the year. The Pillow published a commitment on June 5 to recruiting and retaining a more inclusive staff and board, along with other commitments, in a thorough statement of commitment for Black Lives Matter. The Pillow’s statement stands out among more general offers of support VanSant has seen.

“Sometimes people can only make a statement, because that’s all they’ve got,” said VanSant.

In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, she said, she read 35 statements on the subject from different organizations in eight days and wrote a blog post about making authentic statements. She has been working with various organizations to turn their statements into action, as she is doing with Jacob’s Pillow.

WAM Theatre’s statement begins with the words of Leah Cooper, a theater colleague who lives four blocks from where George Floyd was murdered: ‘Show up with whatever you have. Ask ‘are you ok? Here’s what I have, what can I do right now?

While the Pillow’s statement gives clear action steps, WAM theatre’s statement of solidarity, makes a recommitment to working for justice, because this action is the core of their work; the acronym WAM stands for “Where Arts and Activism Meet.”

Led by Artistic Director and co-Founder Kristen van Ginhoven, for each show WAM produces, the company selects a local or global organization taking action on the theme of the show to donate to, and has donated more than $75,000 since its founding in 2010, the same year BRIDGE was founded.

‘If I’m going to earn the title of ally, I have to walk the walk,’ – Kristen van Ginhoven

In 2017, van Ginhoven attended an embodied leadership class VanSant led.

“That was a turn of the dial in terms of me understanding that if I’m going to focus on feminism, it is only one spoke of the wheel of the systems of oppression that exist,” said van Ginhoven. “I got really excited and passionate about dismantling those other systems of oppression. My way into that is women and girls, but my responsibility is also to address the other spokes and use my work to intersect with them so that all of us are working towards dismantling that larger system.”

VanSant sees her role with WAM as helping them figure out how to make their work best address the intersecting identities of marginalized women, and help them think about how to best be an ally as a white-led organization.

In the fall, van Ginhoven brought VanSant Pipeline, a play by Dominique Morisseau about a teacher at an inner city school and her ex-husband, a successful businessman, whose son is one of the few students of color at a prestigious prep school. When tensions rise, she will fight to protect her son and ensure his access to opportunities that her students will never have.

Van Ginhoven only wanted to produce the piece if VanSant would be a part of it and if she thought it would further the work already being done on racial and educational equity in Berkshire county.

Kevin Craig West as Xavier and Hubens 'Bobby' Cius as Omari appear in WAM Theatre's production of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Photo by David Dashiell.
WAM Theatre

Kevin Craig West as Xavier and Hubens 'Bobby' Cius as Omari appear in WAM Theatre's production of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Photo by David Dashiell.

Dawn Simmons joined them to direct the play; she is the artistic director and co-founder of the Front Porch Arts Collective, Boston’s newest Black theater company, and the executive director of StageSource, a member service organization for theater professionals.

“If I’m going to earn the title of ally, I have to walk the walk,” van Ginhoven said. “This felt like a way of doing that, where the art could be of service in a deeper way. We were really clear from the beginning that if Gwendolyn listened to the play and did not feel that it was going to be of service to her work that we weren’t going to do it,” said van Ginhoven. This model was a huge shift, Van Ginhoven said, as usually selecting the play comes before choosing an issue or community organization to and get involved with.

This chance to be involved from the beginning was also somewhat new for VanSant, who has led many community conversations about race at her own events, and spoken on panels and talkbacks at other performances. The experience of the latter has often been difficult. “I and other Black leaders in the community were invited to the same kinds of panels,” she said. Theaters would perform work by a Black, queer playwright for an older, white audience. The plays and talkbacks would cover topics the audience members don’t usually talk or think about, and they would pick the play apart.

“These were traumatic experiences,” she said.

She recalled an experience much like the one Tatge described, when an older, white woman kept touching an artist’s hair without consent. The artist felt deeply uncomfortable.

Van Ginhoven takes those experiences seriously at WAM.

“I’m trying to turn that paradigm around,” she said. “My personal belief is there’s a lot of harm caused in the long term by arts organizations by peeking into these social justice organizations by having them be in a talkback and then the relationship is gone with no long term investment to that relationship.”

With Pipeline, VanSant and van Ginhoven took an entirely different approach, setting up talkbacks the way VanSant sets up BRIDGE dialogue spaces, building deep trust and authentic relationships between the two organizations, and protecting and caring for the artists and speakers. Both women agreed that having an ongoing relationship with the partner organization involved in post-show programming was much more impactful and fulfilling for all involved, including the audience.

“By the end of the two weeks, the audience looked completely different. We had a Black student group from Hudson, Black Masons, and many people who don’t usually come to Berkshire theater,” said VanSant. “For three months afterward, I’d meet people who had been in the audience who would thank me.”

“We had one or two shows where the white members of the audience were the minority,” van Ginhoven said. “That has never happened in Berkshire County. Our big question now is how does WAM continue to deepen the relationships with the community if we are not in collaboration with BRIDGE.”

‘(We are) thinking about our role as citizens of Berkshire County.’ – Pamela Tatge

Tatge described this program as Jacob’s Pillow “thinking about our role as citizens of Berkshire County.”

“Many other organizations come to underrepresented communities, make a big splash, and then leave, without making a commitment to the community,” said VanSant. “Jacob’s Pillow started Pittsfield Moves but did not go away when it ended. They have stayed aligned with the community.”

Like Pittsfield Moves, WAM has a People of Color Ensemble and Elder Ensemble for underrepresented community members to collaborate and devise art together, guided by professional artists. Meeting weekly over Zoom, WAM Theatre’s Elder Ensemble and People of Color Ensemble are presenting The Suffrage Project, a free online gallery of original art, visual art, songs, monologues, poetry, dramatic scenes, dance and photography, centered around the theme of suffrage and citizenship. The gallery includes reflections on the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment alongside statements about marginalized groups who are still fighting for full and unwavering citizenship and equality.

Just as WAM wants to shift the theatre-making process to involve community organizations early on so their voices can guide the work, and select shows that are service to the organization, Jacob’s Pillow wants to shift its interactions to support community organizations.

“I would love it if community organizations called us and said, ‘I really need an artist that can help do X, Y and Z.’” Tatge said. “We have found ourselves providing an artist for a gathering of local LGBTQ organizations, and Pittsfield Moves was called upon to do a performance in town hall in Pittsfield. I would like us to become a resource for how the power of dance can be leveraged for the community.”

‘We want to make a place where people can tell their stories authentically and safely.’ – Gwendolyn VanSant

While both groups are working towards diversifying the Berkshire arts scene and engaging the community, and holding themselves accountable, they both say they have more work to do.

“We want to make a place where people can tell their stories authentically and safely,” said VanSant, noting that equity and diversity is not just about bringing in artists of color, but making sure it is a comfortable and joyful experience for them. Working with BRIDGE is one way that arts organizations can do this.

“The mirror has been facing white people for so long,” said van Ginhovan. “If we do a play about indigenous marginalization to help our white audience learn about this issue, we must also think about how deeply traumatic and painful it is for the indigenous artists involved in the show. That’s not the story of their culture, there are many different perspectives, and we need to present those stories of joy.

Tatge shared a similar sentiment, highlighting an upcoming performance of And So You Must Swing, a show celebrating the essence and legacy of swing and tap dance and music, by internationally acclaimed tap masters Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, and Tony nominated guest artist Camille A. Brown. The Pillow is celebrating it in their virtual programming this summer after an original World Premiere performance in 2016.

In that opening summer, Tatge said, the dancers performed after a week of a series of killings of Black and Brown men at the hands of police.

“The ethos of the day really entered into this performance, which was actually quite a joyous work,” said Tatge. “What we all remember about that performance was how thick the air was with sadness, rage, and anguish over these series of killings. To me, it was really important to revisit this work in light of today’s times.”

Now, Jacob’s Pillow is focusing on diversifying the board and holding themselves accountable to the commitments made in their June 5 statement by meeting weekly and forming a climate of trust.

WAM is doing the same.

“There are many ways in which white supremacy culture is completely embedded into WAM,” van Ginhoven said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can begin to dismantle that.”

WAM is also looking at their board, as well as the rest of their team, she said, everyone from ushers to printing companies, to see where they are all at in their anti-racism work.

“We have so much to learn.”

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