Commitment to the City

“The arts breathe life into our humanity, they document, they communicate […] the arts build bridges and tear down walls; they animate life and represent history.” Those were the words with which Joy Young, the new executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (CCGJ), greeted the audience at a Dec. 20 press conference.

Hers is a tacit statement that art isn’t easy, but it should be accessible.

In the best-case scenario, art in the public realm can reflect a bigger vision of a place than perhaps the residents of that place can even acknowledge or articulate. This reflection can then be used to help build identity and the attendant economic stimulus that character provides (because it is OK to want more than just “easiness”). Yet, art can also exist for its own sake.

This dichotomy is one that is partially expressed in the mission of the Cultural Council, which states that its duty is to “enrich life in Northeast Florida by investing in arts and culture.” But what does “enrich” mean, and who determines which—or whose—arts and cultures are promoted?

It is worth noting (and paying close attention to) the new gift policy that regulates art donations to the city collection. While the CCGJ can advise on the acceptance or denial of a gift, the ultimate decision rests with the mayor’s office.

But gifts to the city collection are just one small part of the art scene that Young is set to tackle. Perhaps the largest hurdle she faces is the one that our largest of small towns places in front of so many newcomers: muttered resistance from the (art) community itself. These whispers might be explained in part by acknowledging that Jacksonville boasts one of the “goodest” of good-ol’-boy networks. Then there are the limited arts opportunities and some simple feelings
of entitlement.

However, unlike previous executive director Tony Allegretti, Young is an artist. A singer, she has supported herself as a Sunday soloist and by teaching music.

“I know what it means to pay your bills as an artist […] I know what it means to have to go home [after a full day’s work] and practice,” she said.

Young was an artist before she was an administrator, a singer before she was an executive director. She has a bachelor of arts in music, a master’s degree in art, and has attained candidacy for a doctorate in organizational leadership. Taking the helm of the CCGJ after seasons of uncertainty and dissonance, she’s relocating to Jacksonville from South Carolina, and brings with her more than a decade of experience at South Carolina Arts Commission. There, she built artist-focused programs, including ArtsGrow, a matched-savings plan for artists to help grow the creative economy.

Prior to the press conference, the members of the board had an opportunity to begin to get to know the new executive director. While the tone was restrained, it was hopeful, and a bit of a reality check, too. When asked by two board members what she’d heard about Jacksonville arts and artists outside of the city, Young replied that the only artists with whom she is familiar are the Johnson brothers, James Weldon and Rosamond, who wrote/composed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Then the new executive director asked how the Johnsons’ legacy is reflected here. One of the board members replied that there’s a plaque “somewhere.”

It is clear by observing the thoughtful manner Young used as she talked about Jacksonville that she’s thought quite a bit about how the city can move forward, even if she hasn’t yet gotten to know the individual players. If the city doesn’t have a huge arts reputation, the void creates an opportunity to build something based on NEFLa’s specific heritage.

“I am sensitive to the fact that a lot of communities have been working for a long time […] my first impression of the unique identifier: this city has such potential, but the story of Jacksonville isn’t an easy one to find.”

To find the story, Young talked in terms of having intentional conversations, and traveling “outside of our networks.” She talked in terms of “joining a team” and contributing to the vibrancy of our community through “the arts, leadership, teamwork, vision, advocacy and inclusion […] This is a real opportunity for change,” she said.

She also noted that she “believes in the power of arts […] and as far as challenges are concerned, I think of them as opportunities. I see many opportunities to get to know artists, to get to know organizations. And the strategy is to utilize the people here to help me gain entry into communities. I do not feel it is my role to go barging into someone’s community, but to use the connections that already exist as the invitation to go into and work in a community.”

Hers seems to be an approach that synthesizes artists and the arts within the community and, in so doing, creates a more level—and fertile—field. She seems ready to get right to work, too: “I commit to you that I will hear, I will listen and I will work very hard to contribute to the life of the arts in Jacksonville. I want to make sure that artists are supported as well as our cultural organizations.”