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‘Art through our lens’: A Q&A with incoming 651 ARTS leader David Roberts

July 26, 2019 Alex Williamson
David Roberts, the new leader of 651 ARTS. Photo by Lelund Durond Thompson

Big changes are afoot at 651 ARTS, Brooklyn’s home for the African Diasporic performing arts since 1988.

A few months after Raelle Myrick-Hodges was appointed 651’s new creative director and just before the organization’s big move into its first permanent home at 10 Lafayette Ave., 651 has yet another announcement: David Roberts will be taking the helm as executive director beginning in August.

Roberts comes to 651 from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, where he served as executive director. He’s on the faculty at the Yale School of Drama’s theater management department and is the co-founder of the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition, which works to dismantle racism in the Off-Broadway theater world.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Roberts about his vision for the future of 651 ARTS, the issues facing artists of color today and how the institution plans to address them.

The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

651 Arts presented "Boxed: Works in Progress" from AntonioBrownDance in May. Photo via Facebook.
651 ARTS presented “Boxed: Works in Progress” from AntonioBrownDance in May. Photo via Facebook.

Eagle: What drew you to working with 651 ARTS?

Roberts: The organization is a presenter of the performing arts but exclusively for the African Diaspora. I’ve worked at black institutions and predominantly white institutions, and the sense of pride and belonging that comes from working with an identity-specific organization was super exciting to me.

651 is at a critical moment of change and growth, and I have that in my background. I sort of thrive off of that as a professional challenge.

The third thing that interested me is most of my work has been in theater. Here there will also be music and concerts, dance and other forms of performance, and that’s a very exciting growth area for me.

I’m intrigued by their mission to reach a wide variety of artists across genres and experience levels. I’m really psyched about that.

Eagle: You said 651 ARTS is going through a period of change and growth. What does that look like?

Roberts: The organization is preparing to occupy its permanent home at 10 Lafayette in Brooklyn’s Culture District. It’s a significant shift from being an itinerant presenter, so that’s the most major change.

Of course, 651 will continue to partner with other organizations around Brooklyn and New York, but it really is a game-changer operationally and substantively to have a home base.

Eagle: What issues do artists of color face today, and how is 651 addressing them?

Roberts: There are several issues facing artists of color in terms of recognition, pay equity and opportunity to resources.

Opportunities for emerging artists and the risk that an organization or a funder is willing to take don’t often come to artists of color. I know that both anecdotally and just by scanning the field. So that’s why it’s important to have identity-specific organizations like 651, because we’re in a position to raise the profile of those artists. We have a platform for both them expressing themselves and growing. Often, artists of color don’t have a chance to fail and experiment.

651 is a place that’s for, by and about people from the diaspora. I say that while also underscoring the fact that it’s super welcoming. We all benefit from cultural exchange and diversity.

Under my leadership, the aim will really be to have it be through our lens. It won’t be a sideline program. The artists and the community will be front and center.

So that’s one of the reasons I think it’s vital for organizations like 651 to exist. And those are some of the challenges that all artists face, but especially artists of color.

Eagle: When you say, “through our lens,” what is art that’s not through the lens of people of color? What is the difference to you?

Roberts: There are multiple conversations in creative communities about, what is appropriation, versus what is inclusivity? What is exploitation, or opportunism?

I’ll point to one that’s in the media right now. In Los Angeles there was recently the play “Pass Over” that was done. The play has a black woman playwright, black woman director, primarily African American cast, and at this small theater, the artistic director fired the director.

That’s fraught with issues in terms of whose viewpoint and whose aesthetics are in play. Because the primary institutional artist and the primary institutional leadership had significantly different motivations.

Eagle: What changes do you plan to enact in your new role?

Roberts: 651 has such a rich history I’m still learning about. It’s always incumbent on a new leader to go in and listen a lot. Because change is really not about me, but, what does this institution want to be for its community? There’s a deep trove of research and listening that I have to engage with.

Historically, 651 has had an executive director dealing with both responsibilities for the operations and management of the company, as well as artistic output. I’m really excited to be working with Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who was recently named creative director. While I’ll still be involved creatively on matters of the art, because that is our raison d’être, to have someone so well respected as a curator and director, with long relationships in the community, is going to be a huge help while I focus on partnerships, donor constituencies, audience constituencies and moving into a space. It’s going to be fantastic to have as our neighbors BAM, New York Public Library and MoCADA.

I want to be sure that programmatically we’re engaging in iterative dialogue with our audiences, that it’s not a one-way conversation. Maybe some of this will take the form of expanded, rich content, so conversations and talks, podcasts, perhaps participatory town hall meetings or festivals.

And I want to be sure that we engage in intersectionality. Blackness is not one thing. The diaspora contains many cultures, ethnicities and national origins, and artists from all those places deserve a platform. I also want to be sure we’re thinking about intersectionality in terms of women artists, LGBTQ+ artists, artists from the disability community.

As we’re putting our stake in the ground in Brooklyn’s Cultural Center, I also want to be sure this is not art for the elite. We should have socio-economic diversity to our audience.

Eagle: Are there any upcoming events you’re particularly excited for and that you want audiences to know about?

Roberts: I’m not in a position to give a scoop right now. We will have a big season announcement in the fall, but what Raelle has given me a taste of makes me super excited.

There are good things in store and I hope your readers will stay tuned, because a lot will be announced in the coming months!

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