WNY-Urban Arts Collective Inc. Are We Not Part of the ‘Public’ in Public Art?

by John Baker

WNY-Urban Arts Collective Inc. was established as a direct result of local African American artists and concerned citizens being fed up with the historical inequity of process and opportunity in the implementation of the Public Art Project (Freedom Wall) in the African American community. It was our collective view that the process and implementation of the project about our history did not serve the best interests of the community or local African American artists. Without question it was totally disrespectful.

The excuse for exclusion,  “we don’t know any Black Artists,” is no  longer valid   because of the  formation of  the   Urban Arts Collective (WNY-UAC).  We have identified almost  100 local African American visual artists in our community. Additionally, the WNY-UAC has participated in exhibitions and local events creating opportunities for local Black artists and positively representing our community  (i.e. Burchfield-Penney Art Center, WNY Artist Group Gallery, Main St Gallery, BCAT, Juneteenth, Sankofa, African American Heritage Festival and Jefferson Art Festival).

It is said “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” 

Is history repeating itself?

There is a tremendous infusion of funding resources and opportunities currently being experienced   for Public Art.   A number of projects in the planning process are targeting  our community. 

Do our local African American artists and community occupy a respectable seat at the table?  There are already suggestions to offer the majority of this funding and opportunities to artists not only from different states but from other countries!  Dollars will be made here but not spent here.  These  actions show what is not being said verbally.  Clearly these developers don’t understand, appreciate or respect our art or local African American artists! 

We will soon be  invited to a public meeting  where information will be shared and our input sought. Will this truly be an interactive process? Or    just designed to give the appearance of public engagement?  Will it be what we have historically recognized as a “done deal” under  the pretense that substantial input  took  place in order to craft a successful public project?

We must confront the real challenge of cultural relevance whereby local African American artists and communities are approached with greater respect and  timely, effective communication.  We are obligated to call out presentations, masked as engagements, which in reality are a vain attempt to disguise the true purpose: a rubber stamp of approval.  Decisions made without developmental dialogue between local African American artists and their community with Public Arts organizations,    reveal  both inequity and exploitation

Local African American artists and community advocates voices fell on deaf ears in the past.  With unified voices, WNY Urban Arts Collective   will not allow historic inequity and exploitation to be continuously repeated. 

How many local African American artists have been selected out of all the Public Art projects since the 2017 FREEDOM WALL?  We demand equal representation especially in our own community!

(John Baker is the President of the  WNY-Urban Arts Collective)