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Dark Matter Made Visible: Artists Illuminate Breaking Ground "Idea Lab"

Nerissa Street

Carlton Turner

Osh Ghanimah

JR Russ

Gus Yellow Hair, "Rolling Out the Arts" panel

Sue Jens and Margaret Hunt, "Thinking Big" panel

"Race and Space" panel

Osh Ghanimah and friends at happy hour

Attendees during Breaking Ground

Dark matter, what physicists call the invisible stuff binding the universe together, is also what Carlton Turner calls the equally invisible “stuff that holds community together—like history, memory and relationships.” Artists, Turner continues, are among the alchemists who are able “to identify, witness and translate this history—dark matter—into art, creative process and visioning.”
During Artspace’s Breaking Ground “Idea Lab” October 14 and 15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Turner’s dark matter was made clearly and vibrantly visible. Over two days of learning about, participating in and conversing around a diverse array of artist-led initiatives, hundreds of artists, funders, community developers and city planners from across the United States joined together (in person and virtually through live streaming) to collaborate and celebrate the dark matter that creates communities and improves lives.
With his inspirational and aspirational keynote address, Turner established the Idea Lab’s remarkable tone, in which accountability and intentionality came to the fore. Turner is executive director of Alternate ROOTS, an arts, community and activist nonprofit organization based in Atlanta. For almost 40 years, the member-driven Alternate ROOTS has connected and supported artists working on behalf of their communities and whose cultural work intersects with social justice concerns. Turner is also co-founder and co-artistic director of M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction), a Mississippi-based performing arts group that blends jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry and soul music with non-traditional storytelling.
Turner’s work was clearly manifest in his keynote, which he grounded in his own history and his singular take on the role of artists as dark matter in our communities. “It is impossible to measure and is often overlooked in development initiatives,” Turner said. “However, without this dark matter, a community cannot function.”
“Too often the case for our work is made through economic indicators such as jobs created, property values and new businesses. These indicators drive investment and serve as benchmarks and measurements of a certain type of success. This focus on economic driven measurement is problematic, especially in light of the fact that the income and wealth gaps in our country historically divide across racial and ethnic lines, and only continue to widen.”
“But the community is always there—their constant presence, energy, labor and relationships are part of the dark matter that holds the community together. It is up to the individual, the institution with financial and material resources, to make the choice whether to see or not see them. So in this role of community development, who is seen and is not seen is a choice. Choosing not to see the community in its wholeness, including the dark matter that holds it together, leads to inequitable and unsustainable development practices.”
Artists: The building blocks of community
Artspace has always put artists at the forefront of its projects. In 1979, Kelley Lindquist created the nonprofit development organization to advocate for affordable living and working space for artists; in the 1980s, Artspace become a developer of such buildings. Today Artspace has more than 40 projects in more than 20 states across the United States, in restored historic schools and warehouses, in newly constructed buildings and in structures designed to meet the singular needs of culturally specific communities.
In each project, the artist residents become a self-organizing community that in turn reaches out into the larger community around them, to share creativity and stories, and empower the people in the community to do the same. During the morning of the Breaking Ground Idea Lab, several residents of Artspace projects presented on the significant impact they’re having on their communities.
Nerissa Street, a resident of the Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts in Fort Lauderdale, infused her talk on her organization Girls Call The Shots with tremendous compassion and humor while emphasizing the need for “women to not be afraid to be the truth in public” by telling their stories. That kind of vulnerability, she added, is how others can find a positive reflection of themselves that “makes them the hero.”
JR Russ, who lives and works in Washington D.C.’s Brookland Artspace Lofts, reiterated the ways in which the live/work units, galleries, performing arts theaters and arts nonprofit offices Artspace includes in its buildings are “spaces that are not only metaphors for community,” but become the building blocks of community by housing and connecting the “bodies of knowledge and experience” artists bring with them.
The reality of such connections, and the larger impacts they can lead to, was clear in the Idea Lab’s afternoon sessions. In “Rolling Out the Arts in Rural America,” artist Gus Yellow Hair, coordinator with the First Peoples Fund Program and staff for Rolling Rez Arts, along with Joseph Marion, executive director of the Heart of the Turtle Gallery, talked of how their projects empower Native artists in North Dakota and South Dakota. They also discussed how their projects preserve Native heritage and culture; enable artists to share their work with others; and build economic equity by teaching creative skills and selling artists’ work.
During a happy hour Friday afternoon, Yellow Hair compared his work on the Pine Ridge Reservation with what he’d learned in another panel discussion titled “Race and Space: Building with Inclusive Planning, Equitable Outcomes.” While projects in urban areas often are accompanied by the infrastructure and technology that helps artists get right to work, in rural areas “we have to build from the ground up,” he said. On the reservation, where unemployment is 80-90 percent, projects like the Rolling Rez are essential in bringing to artists the technical and business skills they need to be successful, from knowing how to wrap artwork for shipping to knowing how to write, shoot, edit, market and sell a video.
Providing artists them with the skills they need to succeed is educator and actor Osh Ghanimah’s mission. A resident of New York City’s El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, Ghanimah is the founder of Broadway for All, a nonprofit conservatory for youth whose mission is “to transform the American stage and screen to reflect the diversity of America.” During his presentation Friday morning, Ghanimah talked about his success with Broadway for All, and initiated a new national conversation with Idea Lab attendees on diversity in casting that he hopes will serve as a platform for a future symposium.
Supporting artists so "they can change the world"
During the Friday evening happy hour, Ghanimah was enthusiastic about how the Idea Lab had created “a place where we can have honest conversations about race, gender identity and inequity in the arts, and can share and put forth new ideas without having to worry about whether it's wrong or we’re making mistakes,” he said. He also attributed his move to El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 as a watershed moment in his life and career.
“I’ve had so much success lately,” he said, mentioning a new TV pilot he’d written, new roles he’d taken on as an actor, and earning Artspace’s Su Job Award for Education, which he accepted Saturday evening during the Breaking Ground and Artists Awards Celebration. “Since I found a home at El Barrio, and had my basic human needs met for an affordable living space, I’ve been able to really do the creative work I want to do. Artspace enables artists to feel supported so artists can change the world.”
Cathleen Flournoy, a business and development services specialist at the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, MO, said that a 2015 study showed “there’s a $250 million impact in the Kansas City metro area from arts and creative businesses. I’m thrilled to be here and to be meeting the kinds of people, like Osh, who have been affected by Artspace and are making an impact—who are paying it forward through the work they’re doing in their communities.”
As the Steven Kramer Award for Community Service was presented to David Rogers (who lives and works in Artspace Patchogue Lofts in Patchogue, New York), the Dejunius Hughes Award for Activism was presented to Juan Alonso-Rodriguez (who works in the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts in Seattle), and Sue Gens accepted the Paul Brawner Award for Support of the Arts on behalf of the Minnesota State Arts Board, the role artists play in transforming a community’s dark matter into creative, visible realities was clear.
Not only are artists and creativity assets to culture, economy and society; by putting artists at the center of communities—where they belong—they can have the greatest impact. As Turner said in his keynote, the development process must work “with the creative community from the beginning. Artists are visionary by definition. They create something where nothing existed. Although we all possess the ability to create, artists operate from their creative center more consistently than others. Being in tune with their creativity allows artists’ perspectives to be well-suited to the generative phase of the development process.”
Moreover, Turner continued, “Just as artists need to be present from day one, the whole community should have access to conversations and decisions related to the development process from the beginning to ensure that the initiatives being designed for their homes are in alignment with their needs and consistent with their vision…. The community, however it self-defines, should be able to influence direction and be empowered to make decisions—in particular, decisions that will directly impact their lives.”  

Camille LeFevre is the editor of The Line
This story is part of a national series—supported by Artspace—about the arts, housing and community transformation. You can read previous articles in the series here.
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