Opening Art Portals

By on May 24, 2018

How a push toward diverse programming is shifting Jackson’s cultural landscape and empowering audiences

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jasmin Nava Moreno was waiting in town to meet her mother when a white man accosted her. “Go back to your country,” he said.

Moreno fell silent.

The Jackson Hole High School student didn’t have the courage to defend herself, to say this is her country, too, and she is proud of her cultural identity.

That was two years ago. Now, she said, she would have a different response. She gives credit for her new confidence to African pop singer Angélique Kidjo, who recently performed at Center for the Arts.

“She was so empowering,” Moreno said. “She is proud of all of who she is, and she gave me the confidence to be all of who I am—Latina and American.”

Moreno was among 40 high school and middle school girls who attended Kidjo’s May 10 concert as part of a special effort by local nonprofits that support girls’ empowerment. After the concert, the girls met Kidjo, sang with her and asked her questions. Many of the girls, like Moreno, were buzzing about the experience for days afterward.

Kidjo is one in a line-up of influential performers, writers and artists of color to visit Jackson Hole.

It is a roster that reflects the valley’s changing demographics.

Legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones has been an artist-in-residence several years running. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera spoke here in 2017. MacArthur fellow and award-winning poet Claudia Rankine visited in 2015.

Musicians Judith Hill, Trombone Shorty, Victor Wooten and Robert Randolph all played at Center for the Arts in the past two years. Comedian W. Kamau Bell made an appearance in 2016. In the visual arts, the Art Association hosted a major exhibit in 2017 with contemporary Mexican artists.

That same year Off Square Theatre produced Water by the Spoonful, which has only one white character. Off Square’s Thin Air Shakespeare summer productions, meanwhile, feature actors of color, and engage in nontraditional gender-bending casting.

Jackson is often referred to as a “mostly white, homogenous place”—a misnomer in an area where a third of the population is Latino. Could increasingly diverse arts programming help shift local power dynamics and the valley’s lack of non-white representation?

A Sense of Belonging

Local girls met with pop star and activist Angélique Kidjo May 10. (Karissa Akin)

America Martinez Carrillo, 15, also attended the Kidjo concert. Like Moreno, Carrillo grew up in Jackson, the child of Mexican immigrants. Both girls are part of the Latina Leadership club at Jackson Hole High School.

She said Kidjo’s stories about her life left a lasting impression.

“She told us not to be afraid to be who we are,” Carrillo said. “She said we are human first. It was so nice to hear that from somebody who had the same treatment that we have had, being told we don’t belong.”

In 1983, Kidjo fled Benin’s political turmoil and censorship and resettled in France. In addition to her acclaimed career as an international pop star, she has become an activist for young women. A UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Kidjo has traveled through much of Africa, advocating for girls’ education and empowerment.

Hearing that Kidjo had to flee her homeland, Moreno thought, “I don’t ever want to be in that situation.”

But she realized she feels a similar insecurity. The United States is her home and her country of citizenship. Yet she lives in fear that some of her family members could be deported, even though they have lived in Jackson for many years.

“It’s scary when ICE comes to town and I have to text my parents to warn them to stay indoors,” Moreno said. “I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

Hearing how an artist has dealt with adversity can give audience members like Moreno and Carrillo courage in their own struggles.

“My experience is not the same as one of my white peers,” Carrillo said.

The more diverse the artists who speak and perform in Jackson, the more lives are touched with stories that either reflect audiences’ experiences or open windows into other realities.

Internationally and nationally celebrated artists don’t arrive here by magic, however. Arts and cultural venues like the Center for the Arts, which brought Kidjo, serve as gatekeepers. They decide who appears on local stages, in galleries and behind podiums. Increasingly, these gatekeepers say they have a responsibility to reflect Jackson’s changing demographics in their programming.

“At the Center, we want to be inclusive of the entire community to the best of our ability,” said Shannon McCormick, Center for the Arts’ programming director. As a white man who has done music programming throughout the valley for decades, he said he thinks outside the box of his own gender and race.

“I try really hard, and have for many years, to be as diverse as possible,” he said. “Jackson’s audiences are diverse, from workers on up to the second homeowners. I’d like to see them all get in the door.”

McCormick noted that not everyone can afford to travel to big music festivals like SXSW where they could see a multitude of diverse artists in different genres. He said he feels, “a sense of responsibility to bring that diversity to our home.”

Some might argue that, at $60 to $100 a pop, tickets to CFA events are cost-prohibitive for many. But there are occasions when the Center partners with other organizations and offers free tickets to community members. This was the case for the group of girls that attended Kidjo’s performance.

Once the Center secured funding from its community partners, it contacted Jess Yeomans of Girls Actively Participating, a local nonprofit that works to empower young women through various activities, Michelle Rooks of Jackson Hole Middle School who brought students from dual immersion, and Piper Worthington with the Latina Leadership club.

Nearly half the girls who attended were Latina.

During the girls’  visit with the singer, Carrillo asked Kidjo to sing one of her songs in Spanish. Kidjo proceeded to sing in perfect Spanish.

“I was blown away by the students’ response,” Rooks said. “Girls were gasping and crying. It was so powerful to them to hear someone who is making a difference in the world speaking their language.”

Artistic Force

Allie Pratt and Kendall Johnson perform in ‘The Tempest’ in 2017. (Off Square Theatre Company)

What would structural and institutional change in the arts look like? New York City is trying to tackle this question head-on. In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave New York’s museums and arts groups an ultimatum, The New York Times reported. He told them to diversify their leadership and staff or risk losing city funding.

A survey by New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs found that only 26 percent of senior staff at cultural organizations identify as people of color in a city where 67 percent of residents are non-white.

Though Teton County is more than 30 percent Hispanic, leadership in cultural organizations does not reflect these demographics (Teton County Library being the exception, where several women of color hold key staff positions). Institutional change, then, may be longer in coming to Jackson Hole than in big cities.

But well-meaning programming directors like McCormick take racial diversity seriously at least in terms of programming.

Dancers’ Workshop artistic director Babs Case also feels a responsibility as a programmer. From the New York City Ballet and Savion Glover to Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Dancers’ Workshop presents acclaimed dancers and companies from around the world.

For several years running, Case has brought choreographer Bill T. Jones and his company to town as artists-in-residence. Jones’ work delves into issues of race and ethnicity as well as memory, forgiveness and the intersections of history and current events.

Case said Jones speaks to the issues of our time. “We are seeing racial hatred, random violence, intolerance for people who have different beliefs, and a lack of compassion for those in need,” Case said.

“Artists like Bill T. Jones create work that generates dialogue about difficult issues,” she said. “His voice is rooted in humanity, and all that humanness involves.”

This is the integral role artists play in society, she said.

“It is important for those of us who live in Jackson to hear from artists who live elsewhere in the world. Especially for the youth. We need to better understand what life beyond here can be and what others face.”

For Natalia Macker, artistic director at Off-Square Theatre, presenting diversity on stage is one of the best ways to grow empathy and understanding between individuals and for an entire community.

“So much fear of ‘the other’ really stems from the unknown,” she said. “Arts, and especially theater, are a way to present experiences and points of view that can build bridges and illuminate our shared humanity.”

Macker said “color-conscious casting, equity, and inclusion” are foundational and critical for her as artistic director. “Theater is meant to tell the stories of all human beings, and those are stories that only many voices can tell,” she said. By sparking dialogue around current issues, Macker believes theater can bring diverse groups together and help communities—local, national and global—move forward together.

While diverse voices can open windows onto what it means to be part of humanity at large, those voices can also speak to specific issues in Jackson.

Last year, the Art Association presented an exhibition focused on Jackson’s Latino community. “Art in Translation” featured work by three contemporary Mexican artists who worked with Latinos in Teton County to tell their stories. The show explored themes of home, language and identity.

For the exhibit, artist and writer Verónica Gerber Bicecci created a radio program in English and Spanish that combined visual and performance pieces to highlight the experience of similar stories being told in both languages.

Multimedia artist Sandra Calvo utilized her social, collaborative and site-specific artistic practice to create an installation about housing, shelter and territory issues in Jackson. And filmmaker Edgardo Aragón made a video showcasing the parallel landscapes shared by Jackson and Tlaxcala, Mexico.

The exhibit was deemed a worthy effort. The Art Association received a prestigious $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the project.

Art is a powerful conduit for conversation between cultures, said Mark Nowlin, head of the Art Association. “Art is a language in itself. You don’t have to speak the same language as the artist in order to understand it.”

Incorporating Latino stories into the larger story of Jackson Hole is important: “They are us,” he said.

“We have to include them because, at some point, they will be comfortable enough in this community to start running it,” he added.

Nowlin’s programming also reflects a desire to present a variety of aesthetics. He wants to expand viewers’ notion of what constitutes “good” art.

“Having this other cultural aesthetic here opens us up to a more diverse landscape of art in the community,” he said.

Teton County Library’s Adult Program Coordinator Leah Shlachter agreed. She said the library doesn’t simply look at skin color or identity when making programming decisions. “We want to show people good art,” she said. “We have our ear to the ground and we hear about who is good, who is up-and-coming.”

Poetic Power

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith visits the valley this week. (Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

The library happens to be another venue that places a high value on diversity. It is responding to demographic shifts happening in the U.S. at large.

“We’re committed to keeping an eye towards having our library programming and services reflective of generational, ethnic and cultural changes happening nationally and locally,” Isabel Zumel, assistant director, said.

Some of the most vocal commitment to diversity is happening in the realm of young adult literature: “Young adults’ reality is increased diversity,” Zumel said. “Being able to see oneself, as well as others with very different experiences, in the literature we read, the programs we attend, and in popular culture is a powerful portal for being recognized as a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Shlachter said the library brings writers of color not to replace white writers but to give equal voice to writers of color.

“Diversity in programming is one attempt to uproot racial inequality not just in the literary world, but in the political, social, and economic spheres as well,” she said.

Still, there is still a long way to go to in diversifying the arts, Shlachter said. Who is presented on stage or in a gallery is one thing. Who is behind the scenes making decisions is another.

A 2015 census showed that at the institutional level, small and rural arts organizations in America lack diversity. The census, conducted by Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, focused on local arts agencies throughout the country. The results showed that 34 percent of local arts agency boards and 51 percent of their staffs are entirely white.

“Diversity alone does not mean racial equality, and should not be mistaken for structural and institutional change,” Shlachter said.

A discussion of impactful visiting artists of color would not be complete without noting the library’s upcoming guest.

On Friday, it hosts U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Center for the Arts. Smith, who is African-American, will read from her work and discuss the power of metaphor as well as poetry’s ability to help readers envision lives and worlds beyond their own.

Smith’s work could not be more emblematic of the exemplary art the library means to highlight. She has been amassing awards for her work for more than 15 years. Recently, her critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and her collection of poems Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

When an artist, writer or performer of Smith’s stature visits a small town, the impact reverberates throughout the community. This kind of elevated position allows an artist to play an important role in society, Wyoming Poet Laureate Eugene Gagliano said.

“The poet laureate helps us to see our world in a different light,” he said. “They help us to empathize and give perspective through different eyes.”

Gagliano said that poetry offers a unique way to look at humanity and at history. “Poetry helps make us more aware of our behaviors and how they affect the needs, wants and concerns of our neighbors,” he said.

A retired elementary school teacher from Buffalo, Gagliano is the eighth Poet Laureate in state history. He is the author of several books for children, as well as poetry that celebrates life in Wyoming and the West. He received the Wyoming State Literacy Award in 2004.

Local poet Matt Daly (brother to this author) said that Smith’s poems convey a universality of experience. Even though Smith might write specifically about race or David Bowie or science fiction in an individual poem, the meaning can be applied more broadly.

“I am moved by the ways Tracy K. Smith addresses vast subjects and  themes in her poems,” he said. “She takes on historical, cultural, mythological, even cosmic subjects, while at the same time revealing a familiar vastness to the interior experience of a single person.”

In her recent poem “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” Smith responds to a now iconic photograph by Jonathan Bachman in which a lone protestor stands peacefully in the face of a line of police officers in riot gear in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Smith’s poem contemplates the purpose of police armor.

Even the men in black armor, the ones

Jangling handcuffs and keys, what  else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade

Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

It’s jolting to imagine love as a blade ready to slice a heart. By using this metaphor, Smith strips away the outer layers between the humans in the photo. She presents readers with the rawness of beating hearts facing one another. Smith asks in the poem, “Is it strange to say love is a language/Few practice, but all, or near all speak?”
Daly says this is Smith’s brilliance, using her art to at once embrace the specific and the universal.

“Smith’s work reminds me that poems can reach far,” Daly said. “Sometimes the farthest reaching is directed inward.”

When a poem or a song or a work of art reaches inward and touches a reader or audience member—as in the case of Moreno and Carrillo—the effect can be life-changing.

“Our community is recognizing that there is more than one kind of life story,” Carrillo said. “When you bring in a new era of amazing stories, it is really motivational and empowering.”

Teton County Library presents an evening with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith 7 p.m. Friday at the Center for the Arts. A book signing in the lobby will follow. Tickets are free and available at the library. Smith will teach a writing workshop “Nothing Like Itself: A Workshop on the Uses of Metaphor” 9:30 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Teton County Library’s Ordway Auditorium. The workshop is free and no registration required. Bring your writing tool of choice.

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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