10 things to know about Kalamazoo's Black Arts and Cultural Center

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — The Black Arts and Cultural Center is a local arts organization dedicated to cultivating Black artistry in Kalamazoo. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with the Director of Programming and Operations and prolific relief artist Dani Lewis about the upcoming 38th Annual Black Arts Festival from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 13 at Bronson Park — and the past, present, and future of the Black Arts and Cultural Center. During our conversation, many little-known facts came to the surface that may surprise the reader.
  1. The BACC was founded in 1986 and is currently over 38 years old.

Maya: A lot of people don’t know this about the Black Arts and Cultural Center. A lot of people think it’s a newer organization. 

Dani: Yeah, and that always stumps me too, because, let me be honest, before working there I had no idea about the BACC myself. It’s like half of people say, 'I always went to the festival since I was five years old,' and then some people are like: 'Wait… that exists? How long have you guys been doing that for?' And to know that we are celebrating our 38th year as an organization and some people still don’t know that — it’s kind of mind-boggling. 

  1. The Black Arts and Cultural Center started first in an old boxing gym.

Dani: The community received [the first Black Arts Festival] so well and it was like, 'We have to keep doing this!' So the organization actually started as our annual festival, and then, ya' know, they sought after people who they knew in the community and said, 'Like, where can we house this thing so that people don’t have to wait a year just to experience Black artistry, but come to a place where Black artistry is created and performed daily?' 

And so, (BACC was at first) on the Kalamazoo mall, I can’t remember the exact address, but the place used to be a boxing gym, and they had a basement that they weren’t using, and the organization was housed in that basement a few years.

  1. The BACC has been run with a staff of only two people for the last five-plus years.

Maya: …and how long have you been just, the only staff at the BACC? 

Dani: Yeah, so Janine Seals (Executive Director)  just started her position last year — yep — the beginning of last year is when she really stepped foot in it. But when I came on three years ago it was just Sydney Davis, only — and she needed to hire a Program Coordinator, is what I initially came in as, knowing that she needed more help and that the organization just needed more help. 

Portrait of Dani Lewis by Maya JamesMy role changed and my duties increased as I continued on, but — and I do think that Sydney, when she worked under Yolonda (Lavender), ‘cause she was the [Executive Director], it was, again, just her and Yolonda. So all that I know is it’s always only been two employee staff members.

Maya: So does the BACC have a board? 

Dani: We do have a board. 

Maya: What’s the role of the board in terms of everyday operations? 

Dani: I do know that there’s a packet of commitments that they need to sign prior to joining our board. . . They meet monthly to discuss financials and things like that, you know, just, being up to date with what it is that we are doing, but as far as the day-to-day, they’re stakeholders. 

  1. The organization of the BACC is a living breathing work of art shaped by the artists who lead it. 

Maya: Will you tell me some of the accomplishments that the Black Arts and Cultural Center has made with just one or two people on staff in the past six to eight years? 

Dani Lewis, Director of Programming and Operations at the Black Arts and Cultural CenterDani: So, I think being able to bring our festival to the community annually which is a task within itself. There is permits that need to be had, there’s artists that need to be paid and booked and again, places and locations, vendor organization forms that need to be made, that goes along with that, surveys, pre-surveys, post surveys, like all of the things you think of and some of the things you don't think of that we would need to think of has always fallen on just two people. 

Now we have Janine Seals [as Executive Director]. It’s crazy because, crazy in a good way, that each [Executive Director] was an artist in their own right, and they kind of brought what their passion was to the organization. (...) 

Sid Ellis was very much into theatre, so we have Face Off Theatre as one of our programs, and then, so was Buddy Hannah, and then Yolonda was more into music, and now she has Soul Artistry, so music and performances were focused on. 

I know Sydney was more of, like, tech, and 'How do we get into all the tech stuff that is associated with artistry?’ And it’s just really fun to hear about and see (all these programs). Coming into my position it was a lot of research of ‘what did we do in the past?’ You know? And you can visually see what those main focuses are, knowing that we still have our focus on our core focuses, a lot of the things that (past executive directors) were really passionate about were more highlighted.

  1. The BACC gallery honors its outspoken co-founder Gail Sydnor, and in recent history has been kept alive with the predominant leadership of Black Women Artists.

Maya: There must have been a lot of iterations of the BACC. My relationship with the Black Arts and Cultural Center is when y’all were like, in the back office area [of the Epic Center], so… can you tell me a little bit about who was staff during that period and how many people operated the BACC back then? 

Note: The BACC is now located in the front lower, windowed studio of the Epic Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall.

The Gail Syndor Gallery at the Black Arts and Cultural CenterDani: Yeah, so there’s been quite a few executive directors and I’m gonna' go back to how it was first started: 

So those four people [Gail Sydnor, James Palmore, Bertha McNeal, and Joe Louis Jackson] were of course, Black artists from here in Kalamazoo who felt there were not a lot of opportunities for Black artists — though I think we are on track for Black artists to have more opportunities just think about 38 years ago where we weren’t even accepted in a lot of places not only as artists but just as Black people. 
  1. The Black Arts and Cultural Center had its first Black Arts Fest in Bronson Park and returned to Bronson Park last year after several years of hosting elsewhere.

Dani: So (the four founders) wanted to do something in the form of 'because it’s not for us right now, let’s just make it; like, we’re just going to make our own table and sit at it.' So what they did was they invited other artists here in Kalamazoo that they knew of, Black artists, and they kind of did like a family reunion of artistry, where they invited all of the community to come to Bronson Park and see what artists are doing in Kalamazoo, and that wasn’t only visual arts, that was performance arts, people who cooked, you know, the aunties who were like: ‘I wish that I could have a catering business but no one wants to —

Maya: — who make plates for everybody…

Dani: Yes!! 

Maya: So tell us about the festival in the last couple of years and tell us about the festival this year, what has changed? 

Dani: Yes! So this year we’re bringing [the festival] back to Bronson Park. Last year we had it at Bronson Park, and I don’t know how long it was before then that we had it at Bronson Park but everyone was excited that it was there, because that’s where it started, ya' know. 
The Gail Syndor Gallery at the Black Arts and Cultural Center
When I first (joined BACC), it was at Arcadia Creek, and then the next year we had it along the mall, and then last year we had it at Bronson [again], so it would be nice to do it again there but it’s all about promoting and shining a light on Black artistry. 

So we have about sixteen performances that day, as of right now we have about fifty vendors. . .I think we have five food vendors, and then the rest are a combination of just informational vendors and artisans. 

  1. The Black Arts Fest has hosted famous headliners and has a youth arts festival the day before at Rockwell Park.

[At the Black Arts Festival], We’ll be having a space for children to play, and like, crafts and things like that, places to sit and dance. The day before the festival which is Friday, July 12th, we always have our annual Youth Day, to where it’s like a smaller version of the festival (and) focuses on artistry by youth. 

So all the performances during that day will be youth-based, all of the booths you see will be youth vendors making profits that day, and that will be at Rockwell Park on the Eastside. We normally have it at the Douglass but my intention for this year was, we can’t only service the North Side, we need to branch out and get this program and this event towards other kids that might not be able to travel over to the North Side for this. So we’re doing it on the Eastside this year. 

Maya: So what are the dates of the festival [this year]? 

Dani: So the festival starts with Youth Day which would be Friday, July 12, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., and then the Black Arts Fest will be Saturday, July 13 at Bronson Park from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Maya: You’ve had some kind of famous people at the festival in the past, do you want to talk about that a little bit? 

Dani: So, my very first year, um, we had Sammie, who is an R&B singer. . .and then last year we partnered with the State Theatre and the Kalamazoo Public Library and had Booker T. Washington.

Maya: I remember that, that was really cool.
  1. The BACC now also has an accessible cafe space.

Maya: Tell us about the [West] Cafe space? 

Dani: Yes! So that’s another achievement — put that in the achievement section. So, um, we just had a ribbon cutting for our cafe space and it is not a cafe space that is ran by like, a barista or anything, and you make payments. It is a free space for people downtown to come and enjoy their lunch while being surrounded by Black art and listening to Black music. 

We do have, like, a donation area set up for people but we have coffee there if you want to come get a free cup of coffee, do some work — if you’re working from home and feel like I gotta' get out of my house. . .this is a place for you to come, and again, just be surrounded by art, like-minded individuals, and all that, 

Demarra West, who is a local here, gave a sizeable donation out of her own pocket to the BACC and it went towards renovating that cafe area. So she was able to name the cafe, which is the West Cafe, and that was just such a big, epic thing for the community and we’re just so grateful for her putting her resources towards the BACC, an organization that she grew up with and supporting Black artistry and Black people and Black voices, was just something that she really made sure she made known as to why we were the place that she was donating to. So yeah, that was a big event, that ribbon-cutting day and the opening of the Cafe and we are so pleased with it.
  1. Without community support, the Black Arts and Cultural Center would not be as inspiring, empowering, or impactful.

Dani: In the past, we have had committees which I would love [again] for our community involvement, at least towards the festival to increase. And then it also gives us a chance to gain the feedback that we might not necessarily get throughout the year of what the community would like to see, right, and then it brings their ideas, but… it’s a volunteer opportunity and as we all know with volunteer opportunities people don’t always consistently show up.  

So, again, being able to pull off the festival, and maintain our gallery — I curate all of our exhibitions and reach out to our artists that show and make sure I’m keeping up with the forms and everything that goes along with that and setting up dates for drop-off and pick-up and all those things — so to make sure that our galleries are always happening and our reception dates are always happening, I think it’s an accomplishment as well. 

We also offer our space as a venue. Since we’ve moved [downstairs at the Epic], we’ve definitely seen a rise in rentals which is great, but being able to manage the rentals and making sure that dates are blocked off and people that are renting a space have open communication in what to expect and things like that. 

And then, again, moving to the new space, as you mentioned, when I first started we were on the second floor way in the back, so the only people that visited the BACC and came to our galleries and saw what was on our walls were the people that knew about us. And now we have since then moved inside the Epic Center still but on the very first floor on the corner where two out of our four walls are windows. 

We get a lot of foot traffic now and it just comes from curiosity, which is great for our artists because then connections are made, sales are made, you know, and just overall, the presence of our organization, it feels more in the community now. 

Maya: So really, a big part is y’all just being on point, but also the community just, kind of being that little safety net, and that’s where you’re at. 

  1. The future of the BACC is bright.

Maya: What do you hope to see for the Black Arts and Cultural Center and the Black Arts Fest? 

Dani: So, for the center itself, I hope that we have our own standing building where we can accommodate more programs, more venue spaces for Black events, and then just larger galleries. I would like to be able to get more funding to where we’re not only just focusing on our local artists. . .we want to focus on the ones who are just starting, because how will they get opportunities if they never get opportunities? 

But I would like to bring, like, Bisa Butler and more mainstream Black artists into our space so that our community gets the chance to experience that art, ya know? So, again, like our own standing building where we have studios for our artists, affordable, can we emphasize affordable studio spaces for our artists here in Kalamazoo? Places for our programs to have a specific, 'This is that program’s room, only,' and again, like a venue space. So that’s what I see for our center, being like an actual center, stand-alone center — and then for the festival, just making sure that we remain centered around Black culture. 

Like, I don’t want us to get to a place where we feel like we have to dilute and be digestible and be inclusive, and, 'ya know, there’s spaces for inclusivity and then there’s spaces just for the culture, and I want us to remain for the culture. 

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