Taking a Chance on the Wheels of Steel: New Programming at the Harvey B. Gantt Center

A longstanding relationship exists between musicians and visual artists. From Bob Thompson’s brightly colored, jazz-inspired visual remakes of classical scenes to Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions, 2012 performed at SFMoMA, the creative dynamics of sound and visual expression create a space for rich art-historical and cultural dialogue.

Beyond this dialogue and the creation of art that draws from it, the exchange between artists can also operate in spaces of art presentation and interpretation. Many of us have attended classical or jazz performances hosted in the galleries of our local museum. These experiences offer an alternate view of the artwork, “seeing” the meaning through the strings or songs of musicians and their sonic craft. But what if you can’t make it to the galleries for that performance? And what if classical music isn’t your thing? 

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 At the Harvey B. Gantt Center, we are aiming to address these questions by providing new platforms for interdisciplinary dialogue and cultural experience. Visual to Vinyl is a new interpretive program launched this year that both incorporates music-visual art dialogue and takes on the specific challenges that this institution has identified as critical needs: re-engaging our local community in the consideration of art and culture; forging long-term, strategic, and meaningful partnerships that support artists of multiple disciplines with limited funding; and using digital media strategically as a tool for expanding our reach beyond a Charlotte demographic.

Designed in partnership with With These Handz DJ Academy presented by Sprite (WTH), Visual to Vinyl invites DJ Ambassadors from the WTH program to explore the galleries and form their own understandings of the work. They then go back to their creative spaces and craft a platform of mixtapes (or music compilations) to further connect the audience with the Gantt’s exhibitions through the eyes--or hands--of another artist. Visual to Vinyl has brought new energy to the interpretation of the works on view, allowing artists, students, scholars, and music lovers to explore larger cultural connections to the artwork through a range of curated music.

Question Bridge: Black Males, a nationally touring exhibit created by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas (et. al) is currently on display at the Gantt Center and is the inspiration for the first Visual to Vinyl installments. Transcending - Installment One was mixed by DJ ButtaFingaZ, one of With These Handz DJ Academy’s ambassadors and a widely respected DJ here in the Charlotte region. The second installment, The Future is Now, was mastered by DJ Skillz, another critically acclaimed artist who also serves as an ambassador of the With These Handz DJ Academy. 

The process of creating these mixed tapes is a critical first step in expanding the visual arts audience. Both ButtaFingaz and Skillz spent hours in the galleries, experiencing the Question Bridge exhibition, and developing their own personal interpretation of the artwork. They then went back to their studios and curated their own sonic response to the exhibition. The resulting compilations fuse a range of genres, rarely heard recordings, and positive lyrics that explore concepts of black male identity, community empowerment, cultural legacy, and the power of the voice. Each mixed tape is also a unique work of art, constructed in order to engage the public in a fuller dialogue on the arts, and to demonstrate the rich context that visual artists frequently explore in their work. 

But how does a DJ Academy become connected with a museum? It begins with a common mission. 

The Harvey B. Gantt Center began 40 years ago this year as the African American Cultural Center. Affectionately referred to as the Afro-Am, the center was created in the 1970s by UNCC faculty members Bertha Maxwell and Mary Harper to preserve Charlotte’s black historical legacy, which was being destroyed by “urban renewal” projects designed to reconsider large-scale urban land use in Charlotte. This was a common phenomenon in post-WWII American cities, as black neighborhoods in major cities (including New York, Chicago and Washington, DC) were being razed for the sake of “infrastructure” and the rapidly expanding highway systems. Much of the history and legacy of these communities would have been lost had it not been for the development of African-American cultural institutions who were invested in preserving the memory of these communities. New York’s The Studio Museum in Harlem, The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and The Anacostia Museum, DC, represent other examples of institutions developed out of Civil Rights sensibilities and a sense of community activism, cultural awareness, and the need for self-preservation.

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In comparison, With These Handz DJ Academy was created as an institution for creative music education for students of all ages and skill levels. Claude Whitfield, the founder of the DJ Academy, states that his organization “creates another voice that expresses our DJ community’s commitment to activism, social awareness, our responsibility to give back to our youth” – the same energy that led to the founding of the Gantt and continues to inspire our mission of exploring the arts, history and culture of African-American artists and those of the African Diaspora.

WTH CEO Kevin Hyrams takes another look at the connection, and the reason to work collaboratively. Hyrams comments:

"Museums play a significant role in our communities because each exhibition portrays a slice of our diverse cultural experiences.  What makes the Gantt Center so special to With These Handz is that we are making the learning venture dynamic and relevant - especially with a younger demographic.  The Gantt Center serves all of our community- not just pockets of the Charlotte area.  I commend the Gantt Center for taking non-traditional approaches to practicing “inclusion” and making the museum experience attractive to everyone."

Non-traditional and inclusionary experiences continue to be important to arts institutions invested in increasing their viability in an interconnected world. As teaching and learning continues to be collaborative, museums must embrace this practice as well. Meaningful and mission-driven work must be at the forefront of what we do, and finding new formats for this work is crucial to efforts to increase access and relevance for the communities we hope to engage. While this program represents a new step for the Gantt Center, it is grounded in a history of community activism, engagement, and cultural empowerment—a history that has made us who we are today.

You can learn more about the Harvey B. Gantt Center or With These Handz, LLC by visiting our respective websites at www.ganttcenter.org or www.withthesehandz.com. You can also e-Mail us at jonell@ganttcenter.org or at info@withthesehandz.com.  Also, use our handles ganttcentered; HBGanttCenter or  wthandz to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or follow us on Facebook.

By Jonell Logan, Director of Education and Public Programs, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture