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.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling 202.371.2830.