Driving forward with racial equity in the changing field of fine artsSeptember 6, 2019 Category: Featured, Medium, Purpose
You might say the Edmunds are the power couple of Philly’s nonprofit arts-and-culture scene.
Anne’s overseen projects for the National Endowment for the Arts, managed the city’s cultural fund, and sat on the state arts council; Allan’s directed art organizations, consulted for local nonprofits specializing in culture and community, and worked in college art programs in Philly and abroad.
“My wife and I, we’ve been in this about 50 years each,” says Allan Edmunds, founder and president of Brandywine Workshop and Archives. “There’s not a couple in the city with more combined experience.”
That’s a particularly powerful combination when it comes to Brandywine. The organization began as a neighborhood collective of artists and educators called Brandywine Graphic Workshop, founded in Spring Garden in 1972; its work was based in community development and supporting creators of color.
Since then, it’s expanded the scope of its artist programs and workshops, created satellite collections across the country, and gained global recognition. Today, BWA is firmly established as a fine arts and art education organization doing national and international work to increase diversity, access, and equity in the field.
For Edmunds, that shift was natural — a deliberate move away from community arts center work and towards more far-reaching forms of engagement. “We’ve hosted top artists, been to 30 different countries, proven that we’re engaging on a national and international level,” he explains.
Those who describe Brandywine Workshop’s focus as “community art” reduce or underestimate its impact, he adds. BWA grants artists of color the space, support, and global recognition they deserve. “Equity comes about when you value what people do, at the level that they do it.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s any less invested in local arts work. As a native Philadelphian (he received two degrees from Tyler School of Art), Edmunds has served on boards, taught classes, and invested heavily in the city’s art scene.
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As a Black artist and teacher, he’s also seen issues of racial equity in the arts shift over time. “The problem we have now is that despite all the progress that has been made for groups of color, things have changed,” he says. “The dynamics have changed, the resources have changed, the politics have changed.” More resourced, majority-white institutions are aggressively recruiting artists of color in order to diversify their offerings and appeal to a wider audience.
But even so, Edmunds says, issues of institutional equity aren’t over. Simply talking about racial equity, or even diversifying exhibitions, isn’t enough — it’s important that people of color are included in an organization’s decision-making on every level. “If you want to move forward and you want to change [your] thinking, you look at it in terms of access,” he says.
In keeping with that idea, there’s a lot on the horizon for BWA.
Recently, the organization announced plans to build an online database of images, digital media, and educational material called the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Education and the Arts. That database, which will connect all current satellite collections, is set to launch this winter.
And by the organization’s 50th anniversary in 2022, BWA hopes to have established a collection in every major geographic area of the United States — plus one in Africa.
But Edmunds isn’t daunted by the work ahead.
“We are on the road,” he says confidently. “We don’t need nobody to give us directions, to give us a vehicle, to give us power. We’re right where we need to be, and we’re continuing to make progress.”