Arts education regularly finds itself on the chopping block. In school budgets, it can be the easiest to cut, and overall access to arts education remains “steadily declining” in the United States, according to a 2021 report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Concerns around exposure to the arts abound even more in rural Alabama.
About 76% of students living in rural Alabama have little or no access to arts education, says a 2018 report from Alabama’s Artistic Literacy Consortium.
MONTGOMERY HIP-HOP ARTIST:Aaron Jordan debuts in world of southern soul music with ‘Leave You’
For the past 16 years, though, the Black Belt Community Foundation has worked to change this statistic by funding in-school, after-school, and community-based groups that provide arts experiences for their communities.
This year, the foundation will award 20 groups across nine counties with $62,050 in arts grants. The funding is available through the Black Belt Arts Initiative, a partnership between the Black Belt Community Foundation, the Youth & Cultural Committee of the Black Belt Action Commission and the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
“Art is a catalyst for change,” ArtsRevive executive director Becky Youngblood said. “It is absolutely a vehicle to bring people together. It is absolutely a vehicle for economic enhancement, and every festival that we do, especially the Photographic Nights, brings in people from all over the region that want to come and be a part.”
ArtsRevive is a nonprofit in Dallas County that operates under the belief that art can be an opportunity-maker for communities and individuals alike. One way the group promotes these opportunities is by hosting the annual Photographic Nights of Selma Festival.
The $3,000 grant that the Black Belt Community Foundation will award ArtsRevive will go toward putting on the festival, which has an overall budget of $30,000, Youngblood said.
Come November, more than 30 photographers from across the globe will travel to Selma to highlight the power of photography as an art form.
“It’s always fun to see the children interact with and have the opportunity to be around people that they otherwise would never have met,” Youngblood said. “They would have never run into a famed photographer from France just in their everyday life — unless we brought them to Selma.”
New experiences and opportunities are the basis for many of the projects and programs that the arts grants will fund.
In Greene County, for example, many kids in the public schools do not have the chance to engage in theater or choir extracurriculars, but this summer, they will have the opportunity to participate in a local musical.
Funded by a $3,000 arts grant, the Center For Rural Family Development in Eutaw will cast, produce and perform an original three-act musical titled “CFRD Forever.” CFRD is an acronym for the center, and the musical will tell the story of its origin, starting with its founder, Amanda S. Burton.
“We decided on a three-act stage play and musical because we found out that the high school no longer provided an avenue to the fine arts,” CFRD Director Naomi Cyrus said. “We have so many talented children, and youth in Greene County, adults as well. In keeping with the Black Belt Community Foundation’s mantra, we’re going to use the talent that we have here to showcase what we can do.”
Cyrus said the center will hold auditions on June 6 and work toward an Aug. 27 opening night to correlate with Greene County’s annual Black Belt Folks Roots Festival. The organizers of the festival, the Society of Folk Arts and Culture, will also receive an arts grant from the Black Belt Community Foundation.
Beyond major festivals and large productions, there are more simple, heart-to-heart proposals that will receive funding as well.
One of which is the Lowndes County Community Life Center’s veteran quilting project. Led by the Rev. Dale Braxton, local children and adults will make about 50 personalized lap quilts for veterans in the community.
“We’re going to present them with the lap quilts in November to let them know that they are not forgotten and we appreciate their service,” Braxton said.
The group embarked on a similar project last October to make a king-size quilt with the names of slaves who had once lived in the area. Both projects center around connecting art to memory and honor, according to Braxton.
All winners of the 2022 Black Belt Community Foundation Arts Grants will receive their awards on Saturday, May 21.
All 20 grant winners:
Chilly’s ICE Cool Band, Bullock County
Fathers of St. Edmund, Southern Missions, Dallas County
ArtsRevive CDC, Dallas County
Charity Fellowship Outreach, Dallas County
Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Dallas County
Center For Rural Family Development, Greene County
Society of Folk Arts and Culture, Greene County
Lowndes County Community Life Center, Lowndes County
Too Good for Drugs Photojournalism, Macon County
Tuskegee Repertory Theatre, Inc., Macon County
From Under the Tree Ministries, Macon County
The Podcast Club, Macon County
Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, Macon County
Louise O. Newman Center for Learning, Macon County
Community Foundation of Uniontown, Perry County
Tranquility 2020, Pickens County
Divine Girls Coalition, Sumter County
Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center, Wilcox County
BAMA Kids, Inc., Wilcox County
Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, Wilcox County
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at [email protected].
Editor’s note: The Montgomery Advertiser has partnered with Report for America to bring our readers coverage of the rural communities across the Black Belt. We are able to fund this work through reader subscriptions and the generous donations of those who support this unique partnership.