The Signal Tribune newspaper

Filed under News

Long Beach considers new African-American cultural center

Arts Council and city council member hold ‘open conversation’ on center’s purpose and scope

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Photos by Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
Long Beach City Councilmember Al Austin (at podium) speaks at an Arts Council “open conversation” on a proposed African-American cultural center at Rancho Los Cerritos on May 30.

Long Beach may become home to a new African-American cultural center in the near future, pending location of a viable site and funding.

The project, spearheaded by Long Beach 8th District Councilmember Al Austin, along with Vice Mayor Rex Richardson and 6th District Councilmember Dee Andrews, took its first public step in February, which is nationally recognized as Black History Month.

In a memorandum to the Long Beach City Council presented at its Feb. 20 meeting, the three council members requested that the city manager work to identify potential sites for the center to serve as a hub for cultural and artistic exhibits.

They noted that Long Beach is already home to the Museum of Latin American Art, the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, the Homeland Cultural Center and the Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center, among other institutions.

With more than 60,000 African-Americans in Long Beach, or approximately 13 percent of the population, they noted that residents have several noteworthy collections of African-American culture and art, such as the Forgotten Images exhibit, assembled by David and Sharon McLucas and displayed at the Expo Arts Center in February, consisting of more than 20,000 authenticated items reflecting more than 200 years of the African-American experience.

However, these collections do not have a permanent location to educate the community and to help celebrate the culture, the council members noted.

At the council meeting, Austin affirmed the importance of such a center for the community.

“People of all backgrounds have told me they support this because this is one more way to tell the stories of Long Beach,” he said. “It’s who we are as a city. As we celebrate Black History Month, this is a great opportunity to start the work toward identifying an African-American cultural center that can educate and inspire and gather our community throughout the year. The City is also rich with some outstanding collections of artifacts– photos and other cultural treasures– that don’t have space or place to exhibit these collections or educate future generations.”

More than a dozen residents also expressed support for the center during the meeting, some very passionately, many expressing its value to younger people and the community as a whole.

“Many of our young people right now have no clue about who they came from, where they came from or any of the positive things that have happened in the people that they are part of,” said Reverend Leon Wood of Long Beach.

In terms of funding such a project, Austin said at the council meeting that he would like the community to think big.

“To get this off the ground, to sustain it, I think we need to be talking at least seed money of about $1.5 million in private donations, as well as community support,” he said.
Dee Andrews, 6th District councilmember, pledged a matching fund of support at the meeting.

“I am prepared to commit $100,000 in infrastructure funds to serve as a matching fund for any of my colleagues who claim to be similarly interested in promoting […] diverse Long Beach culture,” he said.

Mayor Robert Garcia also pledged the City’s support at the meeting.

“I am 100-percent in, and I look forward to working to do whatever we can– raising money, finding the facilities, supporting the community– as we build this important new part of our city,” he said.

Tasha Hunter, board president of the Arts Council for Long Beach, which is partnering with the City on the initiative, said in an interview with the Signal Tribune this week that the arts council will work with other cultural centers, including the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles, to understand the best ways to operate such a center as well as fundraising methods.

“We will be taking private donations,” Hunter said. “Arts Council is helping to secure grants. […] A nice amount of people have also talked about helping us with our fundraising efforts.”

Three months after that council meeting, at the first community discussion about the initiative on May 30, Austin said that not only has the city manager dedicated staff to the project, the City has received outside funding pledges.

“There are significant resources being pledged and committed to make this happen,” he said. “It’s already seven figures.”

Pursuant to the councilmembers’ initial Feb. 20 request, the City has identified 10 potential sites for the project, as specified in a May 15 memo from Economic Development Director John Keisler.

The sites include properties that had been initially broached as potential locations, such as the old North Neighborhood Library at 5571 Atlantic Ave., the Expo Arts Center at 4321 Atlantic Ave. and a former fire station at 6509 Gundry Ave.

Other potential sites include shared space with the Michelle Obama Library at 5870 Atlantic Ave., an armory and four currently vacant-land properties.

Keisler clarified in the memo that some of the properties are under lease with private organizations that the City would have to renegotiate. He also estimates that the City would need $25,000 to coordinate community engagement regarding the site’s location.

“With significant fundraising by a private organization, the city council may sell a vacant property for the construction of a new building,” Keisler states in the memo. “A private organization may take ownership of the property through a long-term lease agreement and then improve existing buildings if they agree to certain restrictions and covenants that ensure a benefit to the public.”

Griselda Suarez (right at podium), executive director of Arts Council for Long Beach and Tasha Hunter (left at podium), board president of the Arts Council for Long Beach, speak at an “open conversation” on a proposed African-American cultural center at Rancho Los Cerritos on May 30.

Arts Council
The Arts Council for Long Beach has been integrally involved in the cultural center project in partnership with the city council’s efforts.

Griselda Suarez, executive director of the Arts Council for Long Beach, stated in an email to the Signal Tribune this week that the center fits with the council’s mission.
“The fact that we are at this stage [reflects] a lot of hard work by community members who are dedicated to celebrating African-American arts and culture, including artists of the black diaspora,” she said. “The center aligns with [the] Arts Council mission and vision because this center would foster creativity and culture and would add to the many culturally rich destinations in Long Beach.”

Hunter said in an interview with the Signal Tribune that, since she lives in the 8th District, she had expressed to Austin her interest and willingness to support such a center.
“I let him know that this is something I would definitely like to do,” she said. “I want to put my efforts toward creating a legacy for the culture of African-Americans, black folks in the city of Long Beach. He said this is something that has been spoken about for decades.”

Hunter said she has brought her experience of promoting cultural endeavors in Leimart Park for the past 25 years, including with multimedia arts center KAOS Network, producing open-mic workshops called Project Blowed, an arts walk and an annual mask festival.

“The story of blacks in Long Beach is all of our story, because we’re part of the fabric,” she said. “I have membership to MOLAA just so my children can see such a rich culture and history. We want to do the same thing [with the center], to bridge any type of divide that may be there, as well as educate, inform and celebrate the arts.”

She said that she personally envisions the center to be multicultural and include lectures and classes on dance, drumming and literature, including book signings, but said its scope is open to discussion.

“That’s just my voice,” she said. “And since it involves us as a community– all people in our community– we want to make sure we get that feedback.”

Another aspect Hunter said the council wants feedback on is what kind of center it would be since the African diaspora extends beyond the American experience. She said her own studies in filmmaking have taken her to Cuba, Brazil and parts of Africa to understand the black experience in a larger context.

“I’ve studied the languages of the diaspora where we were dropped as slaves. I speak Portuguese, I speak Spanish, of course English, and next on my list are definitely going to be Italian and French,” she said. “[So] is it African-American art and cultural center? Is it a black cultural center? What will it be? We want to hear community feedback on that.”

The process of getting feedback, she said, will take time.

“We’re going to have an ongoing discussion about this throughout […] the next year, the next couple of years,” she said. “It’s not an overnight process. All great things that have a strong foundation take time.”

Austin affirmed that longer time frame this week in an interview with the Signal Tribune.

“I want to be very deliberate. I want to be methodical,” he said. “I want to make sure the right people are engaged and that this is something the African-American community and the entire city of Long Beach can be proud of.”

Panelists speak at an Arts Council of Long Beach “open conversation” on a proposed African American Cultural Center at Rancho Los Cerritos on May 30. From left: Ryan Ballard, Nicole Ballard, Olufemi Viltz, Maxine Viltz, David McLucas, Sharon McLucas, Michael Datcher (standing) and Tasha Hunter (far right, standing)

Open conversation
As a first step in soliciting community input as to the center’s purpose and scope, the Arts Council conducted one of its public “open conversations” on the potential cultural center on May 30, hosted by the Rancho Los Cerritos historic site and attended by about 75 community members.

In addition to Austin, Hunter and Suarez, the conversation featured six panelists, including the McLucases; Olufemi and Maxine Viltz of Village Treasures, a boutique and gallery in Long Beach; and Ryan and Nicole Ballard of the African-American Historical Society.

Asked by moderator Dr. Michael Datcher about the importance of art, most of the panelists connected it to identity and success.

“The arts are important because of what it teaches,” Olufemi Wiltz said. “What you do for yourself depends on what you think of yourself. What you think of yourself depends on what you know about yourself. What you know about yourself depends on what you’ve been told.”

Some community members who commented during the event compared the potential center to their affirming experience at the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Panelist Nicole Ballard affirmed this connection between culture and identity.

“Our past is always our present,” she said. “If we don’t know our past, then we don’t know where we’re going and there’s no sense of identity, there’s no esteem, and you just feel like you’re lost in this world.”

Ryan Ballard added that art is a necessity even as technology use increases and drives the economy.

“What can a computer not replicate? Your creativity, your art, your story,” he said.

In terms of what the center would offer, a number of residents expressed interest in classes and programs beyond art, such as nutrition, exercise and wellness.

At the end of the discussion, Austin said that the project has gained support from various institutions in the city, including universities and the Port of Long Beach.

“This is bigger than any one of us,” he said. “This is not about me, this is about we. […] This is something that is going to be here long after any of us are here.”

1 Comment

One Response to “Long Beach considers new African-American cultural center”

  1. Clementine Wilson/Hadiah on June 6th, 2018 7:02 pm

    This is wonderful, I think it is one of the greatest things that I have read about in Long Beach. We need it desperately for our young people who have no clue about their own culture. It is good for all people in the city of Long Beach to learn about our rich culture. For African American children, it will help them have higher self esteem about who they are and where they came from. I am really over joyed to hear about this and would like to know more about it. My support goes to all of those who are working to make this wonderful project become a reality. Long Beach needs this!!

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
Serving Bixby Knolls, California Heights, Los Cerritos, Wrigley and Signal Hill
Long Beach considers new African-American cultural center