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Banking on KC – Glenn North of African Artists Collective

Banking on KC – Glenn North of African Artists Collective

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Glenn North. He's an award-winning poet, who in 2016 was named the first poet laureate of the 18th and Vine Historic District. He's also the co-founder of the African American Artists Collective, and an activist, educator, and arts executive. Welcome, Glenn.

Glenn North:

Thank you so much for having me, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, first of all, some congratulations are in order. You've just started as the Director of Inclusive Learning & Creative Impact at the Kansas City Museum.

Glenn North:

Yes. Yes. I am really excited about this opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

We're really going to talk about that and what the grand reopening of the museum means for Kansas City and our history. But, what I want to talk about first is, take yourself back to 2014. You were part of the group, that created the African American Artists Collective. Tell us about that group, and how it's bringing awareness to the African American artists and the Black Arts Movement?

Glenn North:

Well, 2014. Seems like yesterday.

Kelly Scanlon:

Doesn't it though?

Glenn North:

Yeah, it does. But, I was working at the American Jazz Museum at that time. I was the Director of Education, working very closely with our curator, Sonie Ruffin, and a Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. Who as Mayor, had started that whole renovation and revitalization effort on 18th and Vine, asked us to meet with him at the gates on main. So it was Sonie and myself, along with two photographers, Jason Piggy, and [Dyatlov French 00:01:42], there was also a great musician saxophone player, Director of Entertainment for the jazz museum, Gerald Dunn was there. And, Congressman Cleaver had expressed to us that... Although the 18th and Vine area was doing well, there were still a lot of things that he hoped would happen there, that hadn't happened yet. And he said that, one of the things that he had realized is, he wanted that to be a great area and a dynamic area for artists.

Glenn North:

But in terms of the organization, I guess the planning of the revitalization, effort did not include any artists. And so he thought, perhaps getting input from us could help him come up with some ideas about how to move things forward. And so, after that we started looking for a place to kind of have a headquarters on 18th and Vine. And, unfortunately, that didn't happen. But at that point, that conversation had gotten started. And so, there were a couple of other things that we had tried and we just kind of lost momentum, and there were a couple of iterations over the course of the next four years. But finally, around 2018, Sonie was just like, enough's enough. We've been talking about this for four years and it's just time for us to be serious about this effort. In the 18th and Vine area, there was also conversations around equity in the arts community.

Glenn North:

We had noticed a lot of arts organizations, were oftentimes getting a lion's share of money that was coming from grants and fellowships, and opportunities for residencies and things like that. And, just seemed like we were not at the table, when those decisions were being made. And so we figured it would be important for us to act as a collective and to have our voices unite, so that we could not only find a seat at the table, but perhaps even create our own table. Along with that, just to build a network of artists that could share resources and even opportunities for mentorship. So, that was the conversation in 2018, and fast forward to this past spring, we were invited by the Nelson, to have an exhibit. And as we were discussing what the theme of that exhibit would be, we got to talking about representation and we got to talking about the importance of telling our stories. And out of that conversation, we decided that the exhibit would be called Testimony, and it is currently at the Nelson. And we'll be there, through March the 27th.

Kelly Scanlon:

So that is one example, of how holding together multiple voices like you did with the collective, really starts to increase your influence. Here, you have this new exhibit on display at the Nelson, which is the center of a lot of the cultural activities here in Kansas City. School children go there, visitors from out of town go there, in addition to the residents. So lots of awareness that that is creating, what are some of the other things that you have been able to do as a collective?

Glenn North:

We have developed a website that really provides connectivity to all of the different artists from various disciplines that comprise the collective. Many of us are connected to artists outside of the Kansas City area, so that's been a wonderful way for us to build and develop relationships above and beyond Kansas City. We've worked with Charlotte Street to do exhibits. There have been some opportunities to have access to different buildings so that we can do workshops there, and artists can have studio space. And, it's just really been an incredible ride, we've had exhibits at the Lee Vocus, 21c, we've been working closely with the 21c hotel to do some programming there with some of the members of the collective. So it's just kind of been this ripple effect. And there were things that were really happening before Testimony opened up the Nelson. But since that has happened, there's just so many conversations we're having about what the next steps are. And it's really exciting.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, can you tell us a little bit about that future? What you're thinking?

Glenn North:

One of the priorities now is to find our own space, to find a building, hopefully, that would have room for us to have studios and performances. We've been very fortunate in that, as I said, Charlotte Street, and some other organizations have allowed us to utilize different spaces around the city, short-term, for exhibits and certain programs. But, we really want our own space. We also want to partner with other organizations, one in particular, Arrow Rock, Missouri to start providing artists residency opportunities, for members of the collective, and those who might be affiliated with the collective. We want to have ongoing programs, workshops, just to kind of have a consistent presence. And to continue, to grow, and to evolve right now in terms of our numbers on a national level, we're somewhere around 130. And the Testimony exhibit of courses, certainly giving us intention in that a lot of other artists are interested in joining. So, I'm hoping that in the future, the connectivity with people who live outside of Kansas City, will create opportunities for artists to expand their reach and scope as they continue to evolve.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's step back for a minute. I congratulated you, as we got started here on your new job at the Kansas City Museum. Again, that's very exciting because the museum has been closed for several years now, for renovations. And it's going to reopen here really soon on October the 21st, right?

Glenn North:

Right.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And so, my understanding is that those renovations were designed to create a 21st-century museum of Kansas City's multicultural history. But, one of the things that they're calling it is, that it's going to be the home of the whole story. Tell us about what that means?

Glenn North:

Yeah. In the museum industry, after the death of George Floyd. There were all these conversations about what museums could mean, and re-imagining how museums could be a part of the communities, and the cities that they reside in. The Kansas City Museum was already moving in that direction, in that museums, just like, we talk about what's going on in the education system, have not always been inclusive in terms of the narratives that are a part of the content in those museums. So there are a lot of people, particularly black people and people of color, disenfranchised communities, whose stories have not been told in those spaces. And so toward that end, put together a team, a design team comprised of historians, curators, artists, and educators from all different backgrounds. So that, diversity would be baked into the DNA of the content of the museum. And so, above and beyond what you would see in the permanent exhibit, the museum will also have performance spaces and opportunities for great programs. So it will be, an ongoing effort to make sure all of the voices in our community are represented there.

Kelly Scanlon:

And, this isn't your first time working in this space. You've been active in capturing the cultural history of African-Americans in Kansas City for many years now. I mean, you've worked with the Black Archives Of Mid-America and we've had Dr. Karma on the show and you were Executive Director of the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. And I believe, you were with the American Jazz Museum for a while. So, how have all those experiences shaped, what your vision for the Kansas City Museum will be and then, what your goals for it are?

Glenn North:

Well, I think that museums can stand in the gap, as a space where learning is taking place, museums and cultural institutions have a little more liberty in our ability to be more inclusive, and it's our responsibility. And so I feel that it's important that you tell the whole story, because what I noticed when I worked in the American Jazz Museum and the Black Archives, and even in Bruce R. Watkins, is that white people are also disenfranchised when they don't understand the fullness, or are not made aware of the fullness of American history, which is our shared history. So there were oftentimes, when people would come in and they weren't fully aware of how Kansas City evolved and how redlining impacted people who were living east of Troost, or other things that they just weren't aware of. And I've oftentimes seen them be angry about that.

Glenn North:

And I think that, if we educate our youth and help them to understand that America is comprised of all these different ethnicities and all of these different heritages, and it creates a space for us to move beyond a racism and all of those things that divide us. And I know that's a noble kind of a thought, but I think that, we have to think in those terms, because we're battling against a, 400 years of a certain way a system has operated. So, it takes all of us to do the work of dismantling those systems that keep us divided.

Kelly Scanlon:

In your poetry, addresses social justice issues, and, that self-empowerment you talk about for the disenfranchised. But, artists themselves, sometimes aren't as prominently featured in the annals of history, because it's the artists who are preserving the historical record and, they're doing it before we're even thinking about it as history. So, what are your thoughts on that intersection between art, and activism, and history?

Glenn North:

I think artists are typically at the vanguard of struggle. I think, Nina Simone said it best when she said, it's an artist's responsibility to reflect the times. We are documentarians, and we are very interested in making sure that we are recording, what has taken place during the times that we live. I think what makes an artist different than a historian though, is that there is an opportunity through art, whether it's music or poetry or visual art to capture emotions. That's so important to know the facts, but I think art captures the truth and it captures the truth in a way that resonates on an emotional level. And that's how change takes place. I think about my college years, I was very angry and organized several protests on the campus of Lincoln University, and I would oftentimes give speeches that got me in trouble.

Glenn North:

And oftentimes, I would be in these debates with the administrators about the things that I was communicating. And, as I became more and more interested in using poetry as a vehicle to express those thoughts, I started to see that the response was much different. Now I could be saying the exact same thing in a poem that I said in the speech 30 years ago, but it just hits people different. And I think that art has the ability to do that. And once you tap someone on an emotional level, I think that's when change starts to take place.

Kelly Scanlon:

Art has the power to unify, it helps to break down those divisions. The artwork itself can provoke or encourage natural conversations, that might not take place without that piece of art. And, in addition, it helps to create the identity, a lot of times of a place. Can you talk to us about that?

Glenn North:

Certainly. So, when you think about Kansas City, we looked at 18th and Vine is helping to shape part of who we are as a city. And we talk about being this place where jazz music grew up. And one of the things that we also talk about, now we'll consider the culinary arts, we're a great place to find some good barbecue, right? And so that's kind of a help to shape our identity. And I think that Congressman Cleaver was moving in the right direction, because he had talked about essentially artists being involved in civic engagement, and artists should be working with the city council. Artists should be working with the office of city planning, to kind of help shape how Kansas City evolves. And, not think that we have just an abundance of artists and a bunch of cultural resources here. You've named several of them, Jazz Museum, the Negro League Baseball Museum, the Black Archives, Bruce R. Watkins, the Nelson, the Camper. We've got all these.

Glenn North:

It's really ill for a city this size, and embarrassment of riches in terms of the artistic community that exists here. And if we were more involved, I think that we could help shape Kansas City's own unique identity, and so the people would be looking at us. And in terms of the economic impact, we could be a destination for tourism. If we were able to just amplify the voices of the artists in this community, when creative people and even professional people are thinking about relocating, they oftentimes look to what is the art and culture of that city like? What kind of identity does that city have? Before they make decisions to move there. Those are a lot of the things that are considered when a major convention is trying to decide where they want to have their convention. So, I think that if we were able to incorporate artists in all of these different aspects of what happens if we work collectively. There are some incredible things that could happen, as Kansas City moves forward.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, on that note, Glenn, thank you so much for everything that you have been doing for all these many years, to elevate black artists in Kansas City. And we just really appreciate all that you're doing.

Glenn North:

Well. Thank you so much for having me, thank you for providing a platform for folks in the community who are just... We're all out here doing our best to make Kansas City better.

Joe Close:

This is Joe close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Glenn North, for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Artists like Glenn, strengthen communities. When community support for the arts, art becomes a thriving part of the culture and attracts others to the community, contributing to the economy. Artists also helped to shape a community's identity. Using art as an expression of a community's cultural and social values, artists preserve our history, even as we are still living it. And artists bridge divides, as their art invites candid conversations. Kansas City is brimming with talented artists, who express themselves through a variety of forms, painting, sculpture, textiles, live performances, architecture, and more.

Joe Close:

We encourage you to explore their work, which is on display all around us, in museum settings, such as the Testimony exhibit at the Nelson, to murals on the sides of buildings, to live performances in venues ranging from the Kauffman Center, to coffee houses and nightclubs. Country Club Bank is proud to work with, and showcase local artists. Through our relationships with community partners, such as ArtsKC, and the Nelson. And we're also privileged to rotate the work of many local artists in our headquarter lobby at One Word Parkway, every quarter. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.