Photos by Toni Smailagic
Mark Walker, director of the Jessie and senior program officer of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, and Shawana Brooks, executive director of the Jacksonville Cultural Development Corporation, talk about the Corner Gallery, a new downtown cultural cornerstone
Walker: The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has two focus areas for its grant making and those are placemaking and equity. Two of the things we do that most people know about are that we provide below-market space for nonprofits to rent and that we encourage collaboration amongst nonprofits. As director, one of my new focuses has been on how we use this asset for placemaking and equity in the interest of the community—bringing the community into this building and making this building a part of the community.
I reached out to one of the best people that I know—Shawana Brooks—and began conversations, which piloted Moving the Margins. Shawana, tell us a little bit about Moving the Margins and how that virtual conversation has led to this brick-and-mortar space that we now call the Corner Gallery.
Brooks: How did Moving the Margins go from this conceptual idea in my mind to what we’re going to be doing now? You and I just had a conversation. I wanted to understand more about what the Jessie Ball duPont Center does with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. For instance, the relationship that you had with ArtRepublic—I was obsessed with the murals, these beautiful mosaic pieces that were featuring some of the most prolific Black people of our time with this contemporary connection.
I really started to see how you all broke those figures down, looking at philanthropists, educators, and then activists. Those three counterparts are what springboarded the Moving the Margins virtual program.
Walker: I want to be able to think about how philanthropy, education, and activism intersect with one another. Who’s doing things that are prolific right now that we need to talk about so that we could also gain the public’s consciousness?
Regarding those six figures that you mention in Moving the Margins—Ebony Payne-English, Zora Neale Hurston, Rodney Hurst, Rutledge Pearson, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Eartha M. M. White—it became important to think about how we were going to be able to bring that greater conversation into that virtual realm during COVID.
Brooks: It is so important to me to not only bring that art, bring that dialogue, but to also use art as that center. Because at the base of what I can do, I’m a curator who looks at community and activism in my own right. But I also really love to be able to create what I like to think of as art integrations into those dialogues and panels.
Too often, especially in our community, we bring in national artists or regional artists, and we relegate our local artists to smaller projects. I think there has to be cross-intersectional realism around having artists that are outside of our community, but they still need to understand who our community is. I think that’s where the local artists really kind of bind together.
With the Moving the Margins virtual conversation, it was time for us to get people thinking about how art can help to shape conversations around social justice. Those still seem to be hard words for our community to say, social justice, but I was encouraged by talking to you and learning what the Jessie wants to do to activate that conversation.
Especially with respect to the advocacy of the nonprofits that you service as tenants. You also have beautiful friends of the Jessie program that offer a space, an opportunity for smaller nonprofits to be able to come in and utilize your services as well. So that all got me thinking, once we came out of the virtual sphere, what does that look like? Implanting something that is a more physical, tangible space in the center; placemaking, and what the Jessie could really start to say.
Walker: Just to go back to the original public artworks outside that really form the basis for the original Moving the Margins conversations, it really spoke to a lack of representation. As we know, there’s a community conversation happening around monuments here and taking down monuments that divide us, but the fund and the Jessie also believe that we need to do a better job representing all of the perspectives in our community.
Prior to the public work we’ve put up outside, along Forsyth Street with those six figures, only two pieces of permanent public art in Jacksonville’s collection represented minorities, and both were African American sports figures. We also think it’s telling a story, and we need to do better showcasing all of our perspectives here in our community that are the diverse perspectives of all of our minority populations. Do that through public art, do it through gallery space.
Talk a little bit about that: underrepresentation for minority artists, and some of the challenges minority artists have being funded and having their work exhibited.
Brooks: You’re bringing up my love language when we talk about and think about representation, especially for marginalized artists. Most of my work over the past five years in the community has been in servicing and trying to create these spaces for those particular artists to be able to be in the community. The institutions that we have here, which are amazing and doing great work, are focused more on international or regional artists. We don’t have a succinct gallery system across Jacksonville or Northeast Florida, and they’re not selling the artwork that these other artists are creating.
That’s maybe because they don’t feel comfortable, right? They don’t understand the artworks. They don’t know how to tell that story of what that artist is saying. Too often, Black artists or other BiPOC artists are made to feel like they need to change their work because if they don’t, it won’t get sold. I’m seeing some of the most prolific work being done by African Americans right now. You have Kerry James Marshall, Carol Walker, and the Sayer sisters and their mom, Betty. I could go on and on naming people, but most of the time when I get in conversations with these institutions, these are not artists that are on their radar.
Black artists are being shown at a monumental rate in institutions, but they’re not being collected. If you look in institutions’ collections, less than one percent of the work is by African Americans. And when you factor Black women into that equation, the percentage gets even lower. Why is that? Why, too often, when we look at art history, do we only hear about Basquiat or all of the wonderful artists that came out of the Harlem Renaissance?