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The Southeast Community Arts Project

A possible grant from the Knight Foundation could reinvigorate the arts in Southeast Fort Wayne

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-10-31


On October 20th, community leaders, artists, and other citizens of Fort Wayne came together at what was billed as a Town Hall Meeting for the Arts, sponsored by Arts United of Fort Wayne and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The agenda: to gather information and opinions as part of a massive ongoing project that could reinvigorate “the Arts” in Fort Wayne, particularly in the Southeast quadrant of the city.

On the panel at the meeting was a representative of the Knight Foundation, and John L. Moore III and Alecia Bradley of the JOMA Arts Group, a North Carolina consulting firm hired by Arts United to do a “needs assessment” in Fort Wayne’s southeast community.

Of course, the phrase “needs assessment study” or “hired a consultant” might cause any long-term Fort Wayne resident to start feeling that dull ache behind the eyes that usually signals a whopper of a headache. When it comes to city or community issues, it often seems as though there’s nothing like an assessment project to generate a lot of bustle as a substitute for real accomplishment. But the level of seriousness with which all the principals — the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Arts United, community arts organizations and leaders — have approached this project indicates that there could be some real change in the future.

The project begins with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a philanthropic foundation (independent of the Knight-Ritter newspapers) with and a long-time relationship with Fort Wayne. We are one of 26 cities in their Community Partners Program, which aims to improve the quality of life in U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, focusing on specific “funding priorities.” In Fort Wayne’s case, that’s Vitality of Cultural Life: to provide all residents access to a wide variety of artistic and cultural pursuits, and nourish creativity in children, youth and adults, according to the foundation’s literature.

To say the Knight foundation is generous would be an understatement. In 2004 alone, the John S. and James L. Knight foundation’s Community Partners Program gave 201 grants totaling $61 million.

Back in January of 2000 the Knight Foundation released its “Report on Public Opinion in Fort Wayne Indiana” as part of its Community Indicators Project. That report stated: “African-American residents are more likely than white residents to perceive a lack of arts and cultural activities in Fort Wayne. 62% of African-American residents say there aren’t enough. 39% who say this is a big problem. In addition, younger residents under age 30 perceive a lack of arts or cultural activities.”

“They (the Knight Foundation) wanted Arts United to facilitate a needs assessment from within the community — focus groups, town halls things where we extracted what the community itself felt their arts needs were — before coming up with a plan to would implement something over the next few years after that,” says Kerry Rutherford, Community Outreach Manager at Arts United.

But having an institution like the Knight Foundation involved could mean a lot more than “just” a generous grant. “To the consultant’s and Knight Foundation’s credit, they seem more interested in people and programs than buildings,” says Catherine Lee of Fort Wayne’s Cinema Center.

“One of the things that a foundation like the Knight Foundation can do is apply pressure to reluctant community partners,” adds Lee, who attended the town hall meeting on October 20th. “It can inspire people to say ‘okay, we want to collaborate, we want to build new and good programs and strengthen existing programs but we’re all so busy doing what we’re doing, we don’t get around to it.’ But the best thing that people with expertise and energy and funding can do is bring everyone to the table and bangs some heads together. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

John L. Moore III (or “Moe,” as he likes to be called), the co-founder and principal of the JOMA Arts Group, the consulting firm hired by Arts United (with a grant from the Knight Foundation) to do the needs assessment, began his career as an actor, eventually moving into the management and consulting side of the “arts business.” He says that JOMA has just wrapped up their third visit to Fort Wayne, talking with different community groups and leaders, collecting surveys, and doing basic one-on-one interviews.

Moore stresses that they’re “about in the middle” of the project right now (he expects to present their findings in February of 2006) and is reluctant discuss what he has found so far. However, when pressed, he does share some impressions of what Fort Wayne has to offer as it relates to the issues he has come here to study. In general, he says Fort Wayne is a typical mid-sized midwestern city, with aspirations to be something bigger — no new news to any resident.

But things start to get a little more interesting when Moore talks about what JOMA has seen in Southeast Fort Wayne. “In the area of the city we’ve focused on, we’ve found a lot of duplication as it relates to youth services, a lot of territoriality,” he says. “There’s no cooperation, no communication.” This leads to a lot of activities, events, and services smashing up against each other, minimizing their effectiveness and diluting their mission. Moore points out that this doesn’t mean there’s necessarily any antagonism between different organizations offering similar services; no one group is really out to get any other. “It’s more like ‘I got mine, and I want to keep my thing, my thing,’” Moore says. “Not that I don’t want you to have yours, but I got mine, and mine is mine.”

Ketu Oladuwa of the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble, a group that performs and promotes traditional West African music, was one of the community arts leaders that attended the town hall meeting. “There’s cooperation to the extent that people have the time and the resources to cooperate,” Oladuwa says when asked if he thinks there’s any truth to Moore’s observations. What he would like to see happen with any Knight Foundation grant money is to create a structural foundation for that cooperation to exist, and better serve the needs of the kids in the south end. “What I’d like to see is a communications network among the organizations,” he says. “Not necessarily a building. I don’t think we need another building. What we need is the structural components, whether they’re technical, organizational, or institutional. We need a forum and the ability to communicate across service populations. We need to be able to know, from week to week, what one another are doing, and to come together in a common forum to discuss those priorities that they individually have, to see where they overlap, where they dovetail and how we can cooperate.”

In part, Oladuwa’s sentiments are not that far off from many of the other community leaders and arts organizations that attended the town hall meeting. Not all of them necessarily rule out the idea of an arts center in the southeast quadrant, but “another building” seems almost beside the point. The real issue is education and exposure, and changing the perception of African-Americans that “the arts” is something outside their culture.

Shirley Woods of the Euell A Wilson Center, a Christian-based community center that offers after-school programming for at-risk youth, ages 5 – 18, thinks that an arts center might be a good idea. She says that to many of the kids she works with, something like the Philharmonic is “a totally different world.” But, once exposed to it, she says they often enjoy it. “Sometimes, you have to bring the artists and arts organizations to them,” Woods says. “So having the artists in a place like a community center, and that center in this community, they could more easily be exposed to some of the performing arts.”

But the need for education is seen as a priority. “I’m sitting there in the meeting and thinking ‘we have an educational issue here,’” says Marshall White, founder of Unity Performing Arts Foundation, a performing arts group. “When I look at the arts in the urban community in Fort Wayne, I see a community that has not been properly educated to what the arts is. Frankly, I believe that they have been neglected, not only in the participation of the arts, but in the education of the arts. You’re trying to get a community to express what they’re missing when they don’t even know what the arts are. You can’t take money and put it in the hands of people who don’t have a clear understanding of what to produce, and expect to get results.”

White says that before he founded the Unity Performing Arts Foundation, he spent three years researching the perception of the arts among African-Americans in Fort Wayne. He found that most African-Americans only saw art as what they did in church. “The reason for that is because what they did in the church gave them freedom to express their artistic ability,” White explains. “Outside the church, it was either laughed at or made light of.”

“Fort Wayne has done a great job at keeping performing arts to one culture,” says White. “But what’s happening now is that it’s not working anymore. Ticket sales are declining. The problem with that is that they’ve failed to educate other cultures — African-Americans, Hispanics — and include them. This is a great opportunity for somebody to step up to the plate and say ‘okay, it’s time now to include everyone.’”

Kerry Rutherford of Arts United stresses that any discussion of how to implement a possible grant from the Knight Foundation will have to wait until after JOMA presents its findings in January or February.

There is a blog for the Southeast Community Project, where you can give your ideas, feedback, and opinions. Go to www.artsuntied.com (yes, that’s “untied,” not “united”) to register.

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