University of Maryland hosts arts legends at recent forum

Dubbed “Legends in the Field,” the forum focused on the challenges faced by African American and Latino arts organizations.

U MD forum participants.
Forum participants, from Left: Miriam Colon, Tina Ramirez, Arthur Mitchell, moderator Darren Walker, Rita Moreno, Carmen de Lavallade, and Lou Bellamy. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

COLLEGE PARK, Md., March 18, 2015 – Whenever a university president takes the time to kick off an event and introduce a distinguished panel of visiting legends, you know it’s a big deal.

Case in point: University of Maryland President Wallace Loh lists strategic partnerships for research, innovation and the arts as his number two priority on the university’s web page. To emphasize the point, he recently delivered an impassioned message of praise at a university forum to the chair of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, Michael Kaiser, for his visionary work.

This recent forum, the first in a 2015 series of events focused on the challenges faced by African-American and Latino arts organizations, featured presentations from six powerhouse performers that more than lived up to the event’s title, “Legends In The Field.”

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh.
University of Maryland President Wallace Loh. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

“I view arts as the flower that blossoms from a vibrant stem grounded at the university in science, technology, engineering and math,” said President Loh as he enthusiastically introduced the evening’s moderator Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Walker kicked off the forum with a round-robin introduction of the participants, asking each, “in this post-Selma moment of reflection and introspection,” to share their thoughts on the progress of their organizations and careers in the arts.

The panel was composed of artists and managers who have performed at the highest level in the creative realm for decades.

Individual highlights included intimate conversations with Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican actress to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a GRAMMY Award; Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and the founder of Dance Theatre Harlem; Tina Ramirez, a Venezuelan-American dancer and choreographer and founder of Ballet Hispanico, the pre-eminent Latino dance organization in the country; Carmen de Lavallade, an African-American choreographer and dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Míriam Colón, the founder and artistic director of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, the pioneer of Hispanic theater organizations throughout the country; and Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company, the leading African-American theater in the country.

“When I was signed as a ‘starlet’ by MGM in the ’50s, I was cast as the ‘dusky maiden,’ and it took what seemed like a lifetime to use my talent as a forum for social justice,” said Moreno.

Mitchell, a self-described “political activist through dance,” launched his career at the New York City High School for Performing Arts. Despite his natural skill and talents in popular dance, he chose a scholarship in classical ballet at the School of American Ballet, where he was later recruited as the first black principal dancer in the New York City Ballet by choreographer George Balanchine.

Yet he walked away at the height of his career, returning to Harlem to start a dance theater. “No one had ever gone back,” said Mitchell, describing the disbelief of his career mentors and patrons, whom he later recruited to serve on his board at the Dance Theater of Harlem. They eventually came around when they realized how serious he was about his mission to bring the art of professional dance to his native Harlem neighborhood.

Reflecting on her unique career organizing and managing the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, Colon recalled her New York roots as well as her good fortune in being invited to perform at the 1964 World’s Fair. During the fair, “If they wanted a Dominican or Cuban or Puerto Rican dancer, we were able to deliver whatever they wanted” said Colon, due to her connections with the rich Latino immigrant community she came from originally.

Bellamy had the great luck to befriend great American playwright August Wilson early in his writing career, after he moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where Bellamy had founded the Penumbra Theater. Even though it had only 160 seats, Wilson was so impressed with the professionalism of the theater, which included an excellent lighting system and assigned seating, that he told Bellamy, “I wondered if I would ever be good enough to have one of my plays performed in a professional theater like this.”

Bellamy went on to stage Wilson’s first play, a sexist western called “Black Bart,” and managed to survive the outraged walkout of several female patrons and audience members protesting the less than stellar production. However, Penumbra eventually went on to produce 38 world premieres, including more of Wilson’s eventual masterpieces than any other theater in the world.

The second half of the recent forum shifted to a different but related topic, the future of arts in diverse communities. Panelists wondered at how fragile these arts organizations still remain in the face of today’s massively changing financial environment. “We are in the arts, but we are also always out with the begging bowl,” said Carmen da Lavallade, who also founded the dance company Paradigm while she was building her long and storied career as dancer, actress and choreographer.

“We have to get away from the phones and computers and get back to communicating,” implored Colon as she reflected on the need to stay connected to citizens and theater patrons at the grass roots level without being overwhelmed by the constant demands of today’s new and ever-evolving social media technologies.

Tina Ramirez of Ballet Hispanico was one of the few panelists who believed that mixing arts and advocacy actually works. She railed passionately against the distracting mix of advocacy and the arts. As a past recipient of the National Medal of Arts, she was the lone voice of protest against the increasing tendency to mix politics and the arts.

“Is access to the arts is being limited to the elite?” asked moderator Allen. “The arts ignite the mind and give hope. Nothing feeds the soul like the arts,” replied Mitchell, with a note of optimism regarding the challenges faced by black and Latino arts organizations in sustaining their organizational presence.

“I am now searching for a new model where arts and advocacy are part of the same mission,” said Lou Bellamy, who, after 38 years as the driving force behind his theater company, is handing the reins to his daughter, who will lead it into the future.

As University of Maryland President Loh reminded the audience in his opening remarks, he is busy leading the charge to make the University of Maryland more competitive through innovative arts partnerships.

One example of this new direction is the respect the university is paying to diversity on its flagship campus is  providing a platform for these living legends in the arts. This recent campus event was clearly geared toward drawing attention to the school as an incubator for the arts, as opposed to its widely-recognized excellence in sports, and particularly in basketball, including the university’s recent successful move to the Big Ten.

The DeVos Institute of Arts Management is steadily carving out a national reputation in its first year of operation, as evidenced by its hosting the first in a series of forums on the cutting edge issue of diversity in the arts.

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  • Ama Zohn

    If one thing is clear, it’s that we now have a rogue executive branch.