Culture Neighbors

A new space for a new generation of Black artists and supporters

Better Kalamazoo Mall visibility lets the 35-year-old Black Arts & Cultural Center call on the community to expand its mission.

Vibrant, eye-catching clothes from countries throughout the African content are on display in the bank of windows along the corner of East Lovell Street and the Kalamazoo Mall, drawing in visitors to the Black Arts & Cultural Center’s new location.

It’s just the second exhibit after the BACC repurposed the former Nature Connection space in the Epic Center building this fall, which is now open for regular office hours, classes, and rental.

But the big focus now is fundraising for the next phase of the organization in order to serve the next generation of Black artists and culture-makers.

Executive Director Sydney Davis says the goal is to have this location within prime public view “continually full with artists … painters, photographers, a place to practice, a place to start writing, a place to try out new food and get feedback.”

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There’s less than a month to go before the deadline for supporters to help the BACC earn a crucial $50,000 match from a Michigan Economic Development Corporation Public Spaces Community Places grant.

With those funds, the BACC will turn the current beautifully lit, wood-floor open space into “an active space,” says Davis, “to work and a place to actually visit. Spaces for people of color to gather and learn about their culture.”

When the vision comes to fruition, it will be open to all members as well as the general public. That will include 24-hour access for registered artists. Members will select Black-owned catering companies to run a café in the space, which will host more artist galleries and functional work spaces as well.

“We are fundraising to complete the rest of the area, which is the café area and the moveable walls for privacy spaces, our digital art lab, and then furnishing supplies for artists to come in,” Davis says. “Now we are still in our office hours when people can come in and work. We want to give artists exposure, and now with the window space we can put art in the windows so now people can come in and see.”

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The BACC launched nearly 36 years ago with the inaugural Black Arts Festival in 1986, an event that will resume in the coming year after a hiatus due to the pandemic. Gail Sydnor, James Palmore, and Lois Jackson wanted to maintain the momentum for local Black arts and culture throughout the year until the next festival, so they formalized a group that eventually became the non-profit. It was based in a less visible space at the Epic Center since 2001.

“The Black Arts & Cultural Center is a hub for Black artists and Black community members to develop their artistry to celebrate their culture to learn more and also for non-people of color community members learn how to become better allies,” says Davis.

The impetus for this new move was to serve a new generation of artists. 

“Things change, generations shift, and the generation that once started it didn’t have the same needs of the artists and community members,” says Davis. “A lot of people now are trying to work for themselves, so we want to help them be successful in that.”

With the expansion of technology in the art world, the BACC has been looking to expand its space to include digital arts, culinary arts, photography, and more. For the November “Art Hop” downtown, the new location launched with an exhibit of handmade quilts, often stitched to tell stories of culture and history.

“It has given a lot of visibility through the downtown traffic and given our people more exposure,” says Davis. “We are really excited for the type of art exhibits we will have at this space.” 

However, the ability to be open depends on the community’s involvement.

They have until Jan. 14 to get enough donations to earn the MEDC match through this dedicated, online crowd-funding platform.

“In order to furnish the rest of the build-out, hire the contractors, buy the equipment, all the supplies, we need to pay for that without affecting our operations,” Davis says. “We are building this space for the community, if the community wants it, wants to get behind it, then we are counting on them to make it happen.”

While the BACC needs donations to operate at full capacity, including the ability to be open 24 hours a day, it will continue to be open to foot traffic and artists during business hours.

“Our goals are really to enrich our programming, enrich our community, and improve our numbers,” says Davis. “We definitely want to maintain traditional programming. That’s theatre. That’s the Black Arts Festival. Those things will always remain a staple. What we want to do as we go forward is reengage youth a bit more, so stronger youth programming and diversifying the medium of art.”

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