On the week of Martin Luther King Jr. day, Tracie D. Hall, Director of the Joyce Foundation’s Culture Program, reflects on her personal and professional connections to Dr. King's activism.
"Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better."
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. would have been ninety this year. It is hard to believe that the pensive and seemingly ageless face of the man who graced handheld fans at every church I ever attended would, had he lived, now be marked by time. Dr. King was a seer who dreamed what he saw into action. I know he would have had an important message for those of us called to art and cultural work today. This man that believed that silence and indifference to wrongdoing was equal to causing the injury, this young preacher who asserted that social justice was not ancillary to his ministry, but at its core—would have refuted the unfortunate and enduring idea that representation of a thing or an experience or a people is the same thing as empathy. King would have challenged creative (or any other) practice that fosters and maintains distance. He would say that it’s time to come closer.
The young King thought like a poet and often used art to illustrate his point: “If a man is called a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”
I almost know that quote by heart. My mother had heard and internalized it. And once, after waking my brother and I at 5 am to stand at the window to watch garbagemen fastidiously emptying can after can without one errant piece of trash escaping, she announced, “I don’t care what job you do, just do it that good.” That morning has stayed with me because it was the first time I internalized the construct of integrity and its generativity. I observed firsthand that a community’s benefit could be tied to one person’s decision to chase down a piece of paper or another’s willingness to pick up, by hand, refuse scattered from an upturned can.
To be called above all else to do right by others is a persistent theme in King’s activist theology. “An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity,” the 28-year-old pastor preached to his Dexter Avenue congregation. “Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?’” Given his ardent belief in the power inherent to what he termed “creative altruism” and the council of artists he kept as confidantes (and as a life partner), it’s clear that King had especially high expectations of the cultural community.
It is this deep conviction that justice is a prerequisite for beauty and art that shapes my work. When I was still deputy commissioner at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, I opened Rootwork Gallery, a small community-art space where I purposed to examine the capacity of art as a vehicle for community healing and restoration. Now, nearly three years and eleven exhibitions later, Rootwork has been fortunate to showcase artists and makers whose work rests at the intersection of beauty and justice that King envisioned.
Last January the gallery mounted Monuments, an exhibition featuring photographs by 79-year-old Karega Kofi Moyo, then a young art teacher who, after hearing about confrontations with the National Guard during post-King assassination unrest, rushed over to Chicago’s West Side to check on the welfare of students in the neighborhood surrounding the high school where he taught. An amateur—but already tremendously talented—photographer, Moyo took eight shots before being stopped by tear gas. Rootwork printed and showed those photographs for the first time ever, giving Moyo a long-overdue first exhibition. Four of those images are shown here.
As director of The Joyce Foundation’s Culture Program, I have the opportunity to support an entire sector of artists and cultural organizations dedicated to fostering inclusion and strengthening community. Administered by the Chicago Artists Coalition, the Joyce Foundation provides funding for the SPARK Microgrant program, an annual, unrestricted award open to Chicago-based visual artists who identify as ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American), an artist with a disability, a self-taught/informally trained artist, or an artist with acute financial need.
For artists, arts administrators, and cultural organizers inspired by King’s clarion call to action, the Joyce Foundation has teamed with Arts Alliance Illinois and Fractured Atlas to provide free tuition for selected applicants to the Artist Campaign School to be held in Chicago late spring. Participants will gain practical skills to support them in becoming more actively engaged in civic policy and leadership. Applications are due by January 30.
Next month the foundation opens up letters of inquiry for the sixteenth cycle of the Joyce Awards, the only program of its kind focusing on artists of color across six major Great Lakes cities. To date, the program has awarded nearly $3.5 million to commission 65 new community-based works. Together awardees and host organizations have taken on issues of food access, environmental and spatial justice, neighborhood disinvestment, racial and economic segregation, and used commissions to center immigrant narratives and foster cross-generational dialogue.
These are just some of the opportunities to use creativity in the service of justice. There are so many more places right here in Chicago where a creative, dedicated minority is all that is needed to change history.
If you are reading this, Dr. King is talking to you and me. It’s time to come closer.