It's Time To Listen - Northern Illinois Art Communities Stand Against Racism

Jun 25, 2020

Corporations like Netflix, Amazon and HBO have all taken a stand against racism. Some northern Illinois arts organizations are doing the same. This comes after countless protests against racism in America. 

The Rockford Area Arts Council released a statement June 5 saying that they are standing in solidarity with Black and Brown communities.

Rockford Area Arts Museum Logo.
Credit Rockford Area Arts Council

Mary McNamara Bernsten is the executive director of the Arts Council. She said it's important to speak out.

“And I think it's just, we are leaders as artists to say this is intolerable,” she said. “These actions are unacceptable. The way society is run right now is not equitable.”

McNamara Bernsten said the arts community should lead the way.

“But that may be by listening. It may not be by you know, leading the way, which I think is maybe the typical, maybe white reaction to say, ‘I think I know what we can do here,’” she explained.

Christian Hubbard is the audience services manager at the Paramount Theater in Aurora.

He said the theater has diversity in its shows but before now, there was not much talk about standing up against racism.

Hubbard said the staff at the Paramount is predominantly white. He said the focus of the theater has been on the production value of its shows.

Protesters at the Aurora Police Department May 31.
Credit Yvonne Boose

“And I think that, you know, due to the nature of the unrest of protests happening in our very own city,” he said. “We were kind of forced to face the role that we have played in this. Because it's easy for people to fall back on their laurels and just work with what brought them to the dance.”

Carrie Johnson is the executive director and curator of the Rockford Art Museum.

She said there wasn’t much talk about racism at the organization before the protests.

“I think it's a failure from our institution,” she said.

She said the museum isn’t alone.

“I guess it's kind of a failure in our history of institutions as well. Where for so long, we can say we're as inclusive as possible,” she said.

Johnson said the staff at the museum needs more education.

Rockford Art Museum logo.
Credit https://www.rockfordartmuseum.org/

“We don't know everything, but we are willing to listen and we are willing to now move forward and act on this,” she said. “So, this was a good kick to us just saying ‘We need to get in gear, how can we be an active institution?’”

McNamara Bernsten said the Council has had ongoing conversations to ensure that everyone is included.

“And we looked around a couple of months ago, actually three at the beginning of COVID, and said, ‘Hey, we don't have a diversity and inclusion policy in our handbook.' So, we added that," she said. "And that was before the most current events.”

McNamara Bernsten said art has a transformative power. She said she hopes that those who aren’t happy with the Council’s stance take a look at themselves.

“So, I'd say to those people that if it's making you uncomfortable, you're in the right spot. Don't run away, run toward that discomfort,” she urged. “And I think you'll find transformation in that.”

Johnson said that the art museum is a space for everyone and those who don’t agree with their stance should be open.

“So maybe somebody that doesn't believe in Black Lives Matters could feel welcome to come into our space," she said. "But have that conversation and an open mind about those conversations. And they're hard conversations to have, but, we have to have them.”

Hubbard said that’s a tricky subject.

“The people that come in, to see our shows, [are] older, white wealthy people,” he shared. “And we know the people that are usually upset about Black people getting a voice are, you know, older, wealthy white people.”

He said it really comes down to one thing.

“And I think that the people in power, not just the Paramount, but all over the world and all over the country are starting to see that there's a clear line and it's not a color line,” he explained. “It's a moral line. It's what's right and what's wrong.”

Hubbard's mother is Black but his perspective is very different.

“I'm half Black, half white. Obviously, I have very fair skin due to my mom being extremely light skinned. So, I'm white passing. So, I have a fair amount of privilege.”

He said people who look like him can’t be the only ones who are making decisions.

Hubbard said the theater is going to send out a survey to African American people who have worked for the Paramount before.

“A lot of people that I've talked to say they want a seat at the table,” he said. “‘All right, the table is yours. Tell us about your experiences, what we did wrong.’”

And he said "sorry" won’t fix it.

“So, we want these ideas to come from the people that are being affected by it,” he suggested.

He said the Paramount has already had its first meeting.

“You know, we're talking about new work initiatives, we're talking about festivals,” he said. “We're talking about hiring, you know, a creative team of all people of color, equity-based management and staff hiring and employment practices.”

Hubbard’s message is similar to McNamara Bernsten's and Johnson’s. And that is -- it’s time for the white community to listen.

Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.