Separate and Unequal: An open letter to Baltimore's art scene

Sheila Gaskins pens an open letter to Baltimore's art scene

I am a longtime artist and advocate for the arts. I love Baltimore and everything about this city; that's why I know we can do better. I grew up in northwest Baltimore, in a wonderful part of the city called Windsor Hills, where everyone knew their neighbors and the neighborhood kids sat on the steps all day hanging out. The arts were alive and well in my elementary, middle, and senior high school. I spent my formative years making murals in the hall of #87, playing violin with Mr. Harris at Garrison Junior High School and, of course, mastering my acting skills with the best drama teacher in the world, Cheryl Pasteur at Walbrook Senior High School.

We had assemblies for every holiday and special occasion back then. The students and staff made costumes, built sets, decorated, baked homemade cookies and pies for fundraisers, and were ushers at every event. We dressed up, smelled good, and spoke nicely in public. The resources may have been slim but we had support, community buy-in, and a great imagination. The village was alive and thriving.

It was a different time; it was a time when the arts were as important as math or English.

I was surrounded by beautiful Baltimoreans of all races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures that understood the transformative nature of the arts. They knew the arts could make a difference and change the world—and they did. That's why I am telling Baltimore's arts scene we have got to do better.

I know the effect that music, art, acting, singing, and dancing have on a young person. You know, too.

That's why you have got to spread the wealth, resources, grant opportunities, building permits, sponsorship, collaborations, collectives, buildings, and creative space opportunities. And why you cannot block or impede our ideas, visions, or desires to create a show or place for us to express ourselves.

It is our differences that make us stronger, not our similarities. If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude. By 2020, more than half of the children in this country will be people of color, according to the U.S. Census. So we have to work harder now.

I am not calling you out, I am calling you in. This is a Baltimore art maker's love letter.

Dear Baltimore Art Scene,

There are an abundance of new theaters and creative spaces popping up around town, yet most of them are owned, operated, and occupied by white people. In a city that's more than 60 percent African-American, this is not fair. This is not equity. Privilege is based on what we have compared to what others have. Think of it in terms of public restrooms. There is always a long line for the women's restroom. And the men's room is usually empty. You build more women's restrooms to supply the needs of the women. We artists of color want to create, too. We want the opportunity to fill theaters with our own theatre, art, dance, music. Don't hate. Elevate, expand, and get out of your comfort zone and share the privilege. After all, that's the reason to make art, isn't it? To share your artistic vision with others. I am not calling you out. I am calling you in. We can do better.

Dear Baltimore Art Scene,

The new number of people of color on your board should be at least two—so they can have a buddy to eat lunch with. This is true for African-Americans arts organizations, too. Mix it up—if everyone looks like you, you always get the same old things. Spread the wealth. Include some other ethnicities or someone less than 25 years of age in your theatrical planning season. I am not calling you out, I am calling you in.

We gotta do better. Let's talk about it face to face. Heck, you can have a beer summit.

Dear Baltimore Art Scene,

If your audience looks exactly like you and the only time you have people of color in your gallery, concert hall, or theater is in February . . . well, I can't even finish my sentence because if that is true for you, you set Baltimore back by at least 20 years. Get with the times. The faces of this city are rapidly diversifying. You know there were always artists, organizers, and lovers of community here before you came, right? This is not your parents' Baltimore City. Diversity is not always valued initially by everyone. There is a thought that if you include others, excellence will not be a part of the equation. That archaic thought could not be further from the truth. Baskin-Robbins sells 31 flavors and they all taste good. Crayola keeps adding more and more colors to its crayon box. Everyone wants to belong. Remember, I am not calling you out. I am calling you in. Let's make a film or write a play about the Baltimore arts scene and because it's our story we can make it end any way we want it to. We must do better. Our children are watching and they are depending on us to get it right this time. The Baltimore arts scene should reflect equitable access to opportunities for all residents regardless of race, creed, economic background, sexual orientation, weight, hair texture, ZIP code, religious affiliation, or arts education or naw, you get the point. We will do better. We are artists and that's what we do: change the world!

Luv you here,

Sheila "Strawberry" Gaskins

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