Member Spotlight: Asiyah Kurtz

Located in Camden, New Jersey, Camden FireWorks is a Black-led, community-based arts organization that works to grow, gather, and invest in artists and artists-to-be in the Camden community. Executive Director Asiyah Kurtz is an applied anthropologist with 20 years of experience in leadership of private, nonprofit, and public sectors.You became executive director at Camden FireWorks in February 2021, almost a year into arts organizations having to close their doors to the public due to COVID-19. What drew you to the role and the organization, especially during COVID?
Asiyah Kurtz
After being in New Jersey for nearly five years—almost all of that time devoted to cultural sustainability research or my work as councilperson for the Borough of Haddon Heights—I was craving new opportunities. 
Like so many people, pandemic life gave me the space to reassess my career and contemplate the work I wanted to engage on the other side of COVID-19. With a career spanning more than two decades, I know that I thrive best when I am in an environment where I have diverse responsibilities and when there is alignment in the organization’s mission and my values. The reality is that while the pandemic made the world pause for a while, it also was a great time for me to join Camden FireWorks. FireWorks is community-based and began as a grassroots arts organization, so my interest was piqued because I saw an opportunity to effect positive change in the city. The fact that I would be personally working with Camden artists was the thing that convinced me that this was the right position, and I was the right person for it.
As only the second director of the organization, how are you making your mark? What changes have you made, or methods introduced?
One of my favorite organizations, Feminist Art Coalition, includes in their mission that they are “motivated by the ethical imperative to effect change and promote equality within their organization and work.” It is difficult to say how I have made my mark to this point, but what I hope is that the artists, community, and funders with whom we partner see me lead from a place of intentionality and a high ethical imperative. 
Because we are located in a majority Black and Brown city, it is important that our programming be reflective of the community. This year we have not only included bilingual programming in our schedule but also issued calls for artists in both English and Spanish. Representation matters, so we also began tracking the demographic data of our teaching artists to ensure that our patrons see themselves in our work. 
As a young arts organization, we had previously only relied on volunteers to teach our open studio workshops for our first five years of operations. With the support of our Board, one of the changes I made this year was to pay a meaningful wage to teaching artists for their time, labor, and talent. If I have anything to do with it, there will be no starving artists in Camden.
FireWorks’ mission is to use art to create social change. How can art bridge division or create connection within communities for greater social justice?
The portrait subject becomes the photographer at Erik James Montgomery’s Camden ReFramed exhibition on illegal dumping, photo by Asiyah Kurtz.
This is a great question! I believe that the answer is specific to the community of interest. For example, here in Camden illegal dumping, air pollution, and flooding are serious issues. The city spends $4 million each year just to manage the illegal dump sites. Camden FireWorks is part of the curatorial team for A New View—Camden, a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge project. The project uses art as an intervention by transforming six illegal dumping sites in Camden into dynamic art spaces. 
We have also used this year to interrogate environmental injustice through our workshops and exhibitions. Our two most recent shows were Erik James Montgomery’s Camden ReFramed, a photographic exhibition personalizing the impact of illegal dumping, and We Are Here, a multi-disciplinary group show that includes the work of mixed media collage artist Danielle Cartier, poet Loan Nguyen, and design artist Terina Nicole, to name a few.
I am proud that our work challenges the prevailing negative narrative about Camden but also that we can uplift and support emerging artists in our city.
What are you looking forward to for FireWorks in 2022? What’s on the horizon for you and the organization?
For FireWorks, 2022 will be a year of capacity-building not only for our organization but also for Camden artists. We are currently working to offer cohort training called FireWorks of Art that will provide business and marketing skills training to artists in our community. If this comes to fruition, I foresee this becoming a critical part of our program offerings because it addresses equity disparities in the arts while providing a solid foundation for artists to hone their careers. 
I am also looking forward to adding additional staff to the organization, particularly professionals with expertise in fundraising, donor development, social media engagement, and marketing strategy. Our goals are to recruit intentionally and hire well, so I am optimistic that we will bring the right people to Camden FireWorks to help continue building a culture of equity and inclusion. 
Participants at a FireWorks charcoal art workshop take their sketching practice outdoors, photo by Asiyah Kurtz.
You’re also a self-taught quilter. What attracts you to that art practice?
I have always been attracted to the things that seem most difficult to accomplish! I was the first woman in my family to graduate college, the first Black elected official in the history of my town, and no one else in my family for at least three generations before me was a quilter.
Quilting is the perfect art practice for me because it mirrors the work that I’ve done as a researcher and politician: weaving together seemingly disparate pieces to create solutions that address macro-issues. Like many quilters, I name the things that I make because I believe that names not only serve as a place marker in our evolution as artists, but also connect us to the people who enjoy our art. 
Many years from now when I become an ancestor, I hope that I have left behind a legacy that says that I cared deeply about the people in my family and the Camden community.

Americans for the Arts Membership
This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to membership@artsusa.org, or calling 202.371.2830.

Weekly Web Roundup: Oct. 22, 2021

A person tilts their head back and shouts at the sky. They wear Indigenous clothes and face paint.
Friday, October 22, 2021

This week: A new arts education bill needs your support, the power of local arts agencies, exploring the importance of Indigenous stories and media, managing transitions at arts organizations, elevating the work of our members, and a day for conservators to shine on social media.

Arts Education for All Act Introduced

On Oct. 15, 2021, the Arts Education for All Act (H.R. 5581) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). Additional original sponsors include Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM), both ardent arts and culture champions. This legislation is endorsed by Grantmakers in the Arts, National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), Americans for the Arts, the Arts Action Fund, and nearly 300 other organizations. Read the press release from Rep. Bonamici as well as a bill summary and the full text of the legislation.The Arts Education for All Act, the broadest arts education policy bill ever introduced in Congress, includes key provisions that will support and encourage the offering of arts education and programming experiences to Americans including our youngest learners, K-12 students, and youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. Crucially, the bill also will include provisions that would allow for rigorous arts and arts education research to be carried out to further inform how elementary and secondary education in our country is improved. 
Rep. Bonamici hosted a virtual reception introducing this legislation, which can be viewed on her YouTube page. Josh Groban, a member of Americans for the Arts’ Artists Committee, participated in the reception offering his support for the Arts Education for All Act.
Organizations can sign on to endorse this legislation using this form. Individuals can take action and ask their members of Congress to become cosponsors of the Arts Education for All Act.

Shining a Spotlight on Native American Media and Mediamakers

Vision Maker Media (VMM) is a national Native American arts service organization which supports the creation and distribution of Native American films and other media for public television, radio, the internet, and screening venues, including cultural centers and museums. The work VMM does is, as their name suggests, visionary. In giving voice to and advocating on behalf of Native media artists, they are an important player in the broader cultural sector. Micaela Tobin as Coyote in “Sweet Land,” from KCET’s “Southland Sessions” series. Photo by Casey Kringlen for The Industry.
This organization is the primary source of media by and about Native Americans. Through its work with producers, Vision Maker Media develops, produces, and distributes programs for all public media—television, radio, podcasts, and streaming programs—and supports training to strengthen the Native American media field. Their work is both informed and strengthened through partnerships with Tribal nations, Indian organizations, and Native communities. This Native perspective is core to VMM’s success in disseminating Native media with a broad national audience and a global marketplace. 
VMM’s deepest commitments are to helping create authentic voices and stories from an American Indian perspective and focusing on how Native people are portrayed in the media. Their support of Native media programming translates into having Native perspectives, tribal voices, and images seen and heard by an audience of millions of viewers and listeners. VMM also expands opportunities for filmmakers, writers, and other individual artists by supporting mentorships, centering Native American media makers telling their own stories at the heart of this important work. Native content and images enrich all of us by providing a deeper understanding of Native culture and their cultural contributions. In a world filled with stereotypes (including racist mascots, over-sexualized portrayals of women, and inaccurate stereotypes in commercial movies), VMM vitally addresses important social and cultural issues.
With sponsorship support from the Cherokee Nation Film Office, Vision Maker Media is currently celebrating its 45th anniversary with an active yearlong schedule of free “commUNITY” events, including thematic online film screenings, virtual programs, and much more. In marking this anniversary, VMM will honor its longstanding partnership with Nebraska Public Media, and later this year, will present the Frank Blythe Award (named after their founding director) in a special ceremony in Lincoln.
Following with great pride in the footsteps of her father, Francene J. Blythe-Lewis (Diné, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Eastern Band Cherokee) was named Executive Director of VMM in summer 2020. In describing the challenges of the last year and a half, Francene uses the Navajo word “Hózhó” which refers to the Navajo life practice that encompasses harmony and balance within and surrounding us. For Francene, taking on this new national leadership role and moving back to Nebraska makes her move a special homecoming. She is a gifted leader with extensive experience working with grass-roots tribal organizations, individual artists, and key arts and philanthropic leaders.

“I have longed to return to Indigenous storytelling through film and media. Our stories are so crucial—always have been—to the vast history of world knowledge, as well as to posterity.” —Francene Blythe-Lewis

It is important for cultural leaders and individual artists to know the work of organizations like Vision Maker Media. This is of special urgency given the current challenges faced by local and regional arts agencies: Leaders in the cultural sector simply must have a broader understanding of social and economic justice issues. As our field does more to support civic engagement and informed public dialogue about these key issues, local arts leaders have the opportunity to assume leadership roles on the complex challenges in our communities—promoting equity, addressing the climate and other issues, and promoting civic literacy about the issues we face. As arts administrators and managers, it is not enough to be informed about the issues—we need to know how to communicate effectively with broader, more diverse publics that we serve. Local arts agency leaders must understand these issues on ever deeper levels as they develop meaningful competitive grant review processes and find effective ways for arts organizations to take central roles in public discourse. 
In support of the performing and visual arts, and arts education programs related to these artistic disciplines, many local arts agencies miss the boat in terms of advocating for and supporting media artists and organizations. Indeed, many museums and arts centers have active film screening programs; however, there are tremendous opportunities for local arts agencies to become more familiar with the discourse related to media. The media arts are especially important tools for addressing many complex civic and global issues, and VMM takes a proactive role assuring that a broad range of works reach ever wider, more diverse audiences. A timely example is the documentary film When They Were Here, made by the Blackfeet/Shoshone filmmakers Ivan and Ivy MacDonald (who are brother and sister), which examines the horrific issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the devastating results upon Native families and communities. 
Still from “When They Were Here” showing MMIW (missing and murdered Indigenous women) activists during a parade in Browning, Montana in 2019. Photo courtesy of Ivy MacDonald.
Many of the works supported by VMM put complex issues into sharp focus, while others use moving images to tell stories about Native people and their communities. The feature documentary Sisters Rising (Tantoo Cardinal is the Executive Producer) tells the story of six Native woman dealing with violence and addressing legislative protections. Paul Csicsery’s film Navajo Math Circles reveals the challenges of education in a largely rural, tribal educational system. Anne Makepeace’s film Tribal Justice teaches viewers about the tribal courts around the country, and touches on serious challenges including the school-to-prison pipeline. These are just a few examples of works that encourage deeper discussion and thoughtful community engagement.
Because diversity and equity work has become such a key issue for local, regional, and state arts agencies and philanthropic organizations, there are tremendous opportunities for developing greater staff capacities and competencies in this area via institutions that bring diverse points of view to the national discourse. Along with Vision Maker Media, the field organizations in the National Multicultural Alliance—Center for Asian American Media, Latino Public Broadcasting, Black Public Media, and Pacific Islanders in Communications—bring diverse perspectives and authentic stories to public media. In Native American media, the Sundance Institute’s commitment to supporting Indigenous artists strengthens the field and the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase is an annual celebration of the best in Native film. Activism lies at the heart of all the stories.
On a more personal note: In the early 1970s I worked as Associate Director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts; this state arts agency made grants, but also organized statewide touring performing and visual arts programs. I was assigned to help produce a summer arts festival in metropolitan Phoenix primarily focused on presenting performing arts programs. For me, the best part of the assignment was helping develop a film festival that included not only classic feature films, but independent documentaries and animation films. In the early stage of my career in the arts, what a great experience it was work with a lively group of community volunteers who were both informed and opinionated about world of film and filmmakers. In the years since, I have come to appreciate on a deeper level the significant cultural contributions independent films and filmmakers have made. Especially during this time of major social upheaval, with the fierce challenges of climate change, race relations, and global political conflicts galore, the arts play a central role in bringing these issues to light. The work of organizations like Vision Maker Media lends depth and understanding to the challenges surrounding us.

Member Spotlight: Morgan Ritter

Public Art Exhibitions & Collections Coordinator Morgan Ritter is an artist, poet, and arts worker, and has been responsible for the care of art and arts spaces for 14 years within many of Portland, Oregon’s nonprofit arts institutions. Morgan joined the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) in 2019 and her personal art practice includes sculpture, installation, books, video, poetry, and performance.Where do you find inspiration for your work as an artist?
Morgan Ritter, photo courtesy RACC.
Often, I feel playful, relating with the world around me in a flexible way where things like mud puddles, soda cans, and potatoes become compelling material to work with. Much of my artwork is sourced from these various fragments and consists not only of found objects, but found language from dreams, conversations, and texts. I find most interest in making meaning with matter that is not classified as precious or valuable. And now in these times, I am finding all the more reason to be resourceful and utilize the available domestic systems and dusty, garage detritus for their extrasensory, healing potential. Lately, I find inspiration through observing interspecies relationships, learning about marginalized spiritual and cultural systems, and in being pregnant! 
Part of RACC’s role in the Portland community is managing and growing a diverse, nationally acclaimed public art program. What does that involve?
RACC’s services are myriad, so our impact and reach is broad and deep. RACC provides various forms of support to the arts and culture sector for many unique communities and individuals. We typically focus within the Pacific Northwest, but sometimes public art purchases, grants, and commissions are open to artists nationally and internationally.
Through public-private partnerships, RACC helps acquire and maintain community-owned artworks in public places. We manage the Percent for Art programs for the City of Portland and Multnomah County and are the stewards for their respective public art collections, including murals, permanent works, portable 2-D works, fountains, and temporary artworks (which are often artworks made with unusual media installed in unexpected places).
We manage Portland’s Public Art Collection, which entails acquiring, routine monitoring, framing/reframing, conservation, vandalism removal, maintenance reporting, digital and database inventorying, and beyond. Lots of care-centered work. Within our overall Public Art programming, we have a residency program, Intersections, which explores the “art of work” and the “work of art.” The program encourages artists in all disciplines to explore new working methods and develop socially engaging, interactive art experiences in community settings. 
Our programs and services are constantly assessed and reimagined, depending on community feedback and changing needs, which I especially value.
How did you get into working in public art?
I have about 14 years’ experience working directly with artists, curators, and registrars on implementing exhibitions and programming in contemporary artist-led spaces and classical art institutions and galleries. As a young woman working in the arts, I wanted to be in spaces that felt inclusive and alive, where there were certain formal protections for workers and internal processes were transparent and equitably structured. In public art, you are not fixed within a quiet building; you are rogue, open, and out there. Safety protocols such as high visibility vests and pink hard hats were physical protections I took great comfort in! 
The public art field is surprising, it can be messy, but it also feels like art can be more easily accessed and interacted with in an entirely different, more open way than what I had previously experienced within galleries and institutions. I enjoy seeing the residue of public interaction with outdoor artwork. I also enjoy seeing how public art’s functions are manifold, for instance, a sculpture existing as a shelter for some, a placemaking landmark for others. There is often a lack of direct engagement with the audience served by those spaces, and in this field, we find ourselves in almost constant, casual dialogue about what art is and what it can be with pedestrians and passersby from many backgrounds. 
What does your work at RACC involve?
“Mother of Judah” by Sade DuBoise, part of the City of Portland’s public art collection, photo courtesy RACC.
At RACC, I began as an Installation & Conservation Technician, caring for work by removing vandalism, polishing sculptures, tending to fountains, and installing 2-D and 3-D artwork throughout the city. By way of a herniated disc, and a simultaneous interest to grow more into project and exhibitions management, this role transitioned into working directly with artists on managing new purchase projects, curating artwork within large buildings like the Health Center or City Hall, and working to develop new, more responsive systems for supporting artists. 
Part of my current role at RACC is curating and overseeing the installations of exhibitions of 2-D work from the Public Art Collection into City and County buildings. The spaces vary drastically, as do the clients who request artwork. The ongoing dialogue with so many public employees about what art is for them, the impacts they want their selected artwork to have on their personal work experience, their communities, and what they want the art to communicate to the public about their area of work is endlessly fascinating. I find a lot of meaning in connecting with and curating work for municipal workers. 
Inspired by the depression-era Federal Art Project, RACC launched a new initiative, Support Beam, as a way to support artists’ long-term creative practice and livelihood. How did this initiative come about? 
Support Beam was developed to meet this moment as COVID-19 cases rose in early 2020, as there were state-ordered lockdowns and immense uncertainty. The name recalls an image of a wooden beam extending beyond the room it upholds. Our goal was to think about how the Percent for Art model needed to bend to meet this moment. 
In this pandemic era of great collective despair, loss, and anxiety, our goal was to provide a salary for artists to live and explore within their creative practice, rather than a simple purchase transaction. Each Support Beam artist receives between $3,000 and $5,000, with one piece from each artist acquired into the Public Art Collection at the end of their work period.
We included virtual updates of work-in-progress as a way of reimagining what public space could be, when we were all mandated to stay at home as much as possible. Virtual space is a ripe area, both for artists and public engagement, that we are continuing to explore. The posts were self-directed and up to the artists, however they felt it made sense within their artistic practices. 
Of course, not everyone has access to the internet/certain technologies, so the prompts were broad, and could be a phone-recorded video of a studio visit, a blog post, a series of work-in-progress images, a live Instagram discussion, an animation or video clip, and beyond. The virtual contributions can be explored on RACC’s website or at #RACCSupportBeam.

Americans for the Arts Membership
This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to membership@artsusa.org, or calling 202.371.2830.