Sometime in 2005, during my first year as the Director of the then Prince Theater Foundation (Now Garfield Center for the Arts), I’d invited a friend to volunteer to help me with preparing the theater for an evening event. Her job was to place a program for the event on every seat. When she finished the main level, she handed the rest to me and said, “I’m not going up there.”
For two-thirds of its 90 years, the New Lyceum / Prince Theater was segregated. There was a “Blacks Only” entrance, ticket box, staircase, and what’s more is that even the balcony was separated by a wall – Whites up front in chairs, Blacks behind, on benches. When we were doing research for the student-created “A Chestertown Attic” in Playmakers summer camp 2006, a life-long White resident of Kent County with 300+ years of lineage here shared this with us about sitting in the balcony in the 1950’s – “We knew better… we climbed over that stupid wall and we sat with our friends.” There is a history here, we must acknowledge it. We can do that with Public Art.
Public Art should exist to speak, unconstrained about problems, celebrations, injustices, memories, and so much more. It should exist to erase barriers to art, it should exist “among” the people. It must exists to stir emotion, to honor good work, and to challenge our understanding of, and sometimes the insufficiency of what we were taught. Sometimes its sole purpose is to make us see uncomfortable truths. Public art should not infringe on someone else’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; it should especially asserts those rights for people who have historically and societally been hindered from achieving them.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a statement of truth. It is not political. It does not challenge my life and its purpose. It does not take away from my humanity but it does assert the humanity of those whom this country once called three-fifths of a human being.
If painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on the streets of Historic Chestertown makes one Black person feel safe and valued in their own hometown, then it is worth it. If painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on the streets of this 18th Century Port town, known for its slave trade” creates a conversation that leads to the opening of one Black-owned business, then it is worth it. If painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on the streets of the home of Henry Highland Garnet, Isaac Mason, Albert Walker, Clarence Hawkins, and so many more, can affect policies and practices and values statements of local governments, nonprofits, churches and businesses, then it is worth it.
In my 30 years as an arts and nonprofit administrator and advocate, I have learned a great deal. But I know this: I don’t have all the answer, none of us do. So in my role as the director of the Kent Cultural Alliance, I will take up the mantle of my predecessor and mentor Leslie Prince Raimond, and I will show up, and listen, and I will actively support the use of the arts to engage our County in important conversations moving forward. This mural can start a new chapter.
John Schratwieser is the Director of the Kent Cultural Alliance (formerly the Kent County Arts Council). He spent seven years as the Director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts. John served as the Director of the Prince Theater Foundation (now Garfield Center for the Arts) from 2004 – 2010 and has worked for two Tony Award Winning Regional Theaters – Signature Theater in Arlington, VA and Lincoln Center Theater in New York, NY. John has a bachelor’s degree in Theology from Fairfield University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management from The George Washington University.