BAIA: Your Spot for Black Arts Community
By Shantay Robinson
I want BAIA to be open, where people can come in and feel comfortable, where people can find something they can connect with. I know it’s not going to reach everybody because some people only want certain things and we’ll have some of that, but I want it to be a healthy balance where people can learn, people can shop, people can see themselves, people can be engaged on an ongoing basis 24/7 365. – Najee Dorsey
Black Art in America grew out of an organic need for there to be a space where black artists can be highlighted. Sitting down to dinner with a group of artists and collectors in Chicago 10 years ago, Najee Dorsey and his peers felt the need for there to be a spot where you can learn and know about black artists notwithstanding the “usual suspects” like Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley who are typically found in popular contemporary art publications. The lack of representation was felt by all around the dinner table. “I felt like there needed to be an essential place that was like basically promoting the industry as a whole as opposed to how we promote ourselves with our own individual websites. And something a little bit more independent is what came to mind. And I had that what I call the Obama moment, just thinking about how you can be the change that you are looking for,” Dorsey states. Though it’s been in existence for a decade now, it’s gone through many changes and plans to be undergoing some more. Starting out as a social media site where anyone could post about their artistry, BAIA was effective in building community around visual art.
Today, Black Art in America founder, Najee Dorsey wants it to be the prime location where news and views on black arts are found. “I want BAIA to be the spot,” says Dorsey. “I really want to go harder with the content. I want more contributing writers I want more media housing more content from various voices. Whether it’s a podcast. Whether it’s videocast. Whether it’s writing. And I’m willing to fund that with resources.” Coming from Blytheville a small town in Arkansas, Dorsey is no stranger to hard work. During the summers of his childhood, he would chop cotton for extra money. Experiences like this are character making. Though he dropped out of art school, he found his way back to art, and has become a successful mixed-media collage artist. While becoming a celebrated artist whose work has exhibited at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and The Columbus Museum among several other notable sites, Dorsey maintains an art gallery along with the Black Art in America website and other businesses including Garden Art for the Soul.
“The mission from the beginning has been to document, preserve, promote the contributions of African American art communities,” Dorsey says. “We do that by posting artwork, by offering work, we do that by artist studio visits, collector home tours. And then we kind of expanded into developing our own events to promote the arts. And so that’s the mission. At this point basically to amplify black visual culture.” Black Art in America is a virtual space where artists and art lovers can learn about a subject their passionate about – visual art and culture. BAIA currently has more than 120,000 followers on Facebook and 90,000 followers on Instagram. These numbers show that there is an audience interested in what BAIA has to offer. “Basically, I want it to be a resource where you can get quality information by people who know and understand the power of writing. It’s one thing to post a video or do a podcast but the power of the written word is special. And I understand the value of contributing writers. BAIA is a place where we can educate and document. It has to come from our historians. It has to come from our writers to build an archive.”
Whereas some other arts organizations rely on outside funding from grants and government monies, BAIA is self-sustaining. Dorsey states, “I always say that BAIA exists because I’ve been a successful artist, but I use those resources to put in the areas that are not always revenue generating. And we’re not an organization, we’re a company.” Unlike other publications that rely on advertising to sustain their editorial missions, BAIA’s mission is somewhat different. So, much of what makes it successful must come from varied avenues like the sale of art or maintaining other art-based businesses. BAIA wants to do more than simply inform readers about what is going on in the black art community. “So much of what we do in my mind is community building, nation building, as well as finding ways to be sustainable” Dorsey says. Not having to rely on outside financing, BAIA ensures that it speaks from the perspective of and to the artists and art lovers it represents without apology or excuse. “It’s important for us to own our own. To have control over the narrative of average black people, in a sense. And when I say average, I’m saying the common denominator of art collectors and of people in the field.” BAIA speaks to and for the black art community the dominant artworld overlooks. “I think we’re more of a popular site. We’re not high art. We’re not elitist. We’ll cover the gamut of black visual culture. In my mind certain other publications or the industry as a whole only want to show one area. And I don’t think that’s organic or feeds the ecosystem of the arts in general.”
Although it’s still early in the story Black Art in America will tell, there have been some moments in its history that have certified its necessity. BAIA was a space where Dorsey was able to rally support for a 10-year-old artist Darius he met at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. Young Darius was alone in the museum selling artworks and when Dorsey asked a museum shop store clerk for a marker so Darius could sign the work that was being purchased from the young artists, the store clerk scolded Darius for being in the museum. In reaction to that instance, Dorsey wrote an article for BAIA that went viral. The “We Speak for Darius” movement resulted in people calling the radio station, people calling the board of the museum from all around the country, and it being on the news station. As a result of this movement, the store clerk was reassigned, Darius received a scholarship to a summer program, and the museum changed its policy for children in the museum. This story is testament to the power BAIA can evoke in the community. When we all gather around an issue, we can provoke changes. “That’s the power of influence in media,” Dorsey says. “And that’s our power when we decide to take a stand individually for someone who can’t speak for themselves. That’s responsibility. And that’s one of my proudest moments.”
BAIA’s success is not measured solely by the number of followers or the number of times an article is shared but how it has touched people’s lives. Dorsey remembers one of his early comments by a reader in response to a post who said, “I grew up not knowing I was beautiful, being told I was ugly, so when I look at images like this it reminds me of who I am and the fact that I am beautiful.” He also relishes in the opportunity to see people use this resource to their advantage and he recalls posting the news of the Romare Bearden Saint Louis Art Museum Minority Fellowship. Someone found the information on Black Art in America, applied, and got it. Now that person is a curator traveling the world and creating exhibitions. But the measure of success doesn’t need to be that dynamic for Dorsey. He says, “I think when I hear from the collectors that I work with who were only familiar with the artists in their area and I expanded and presented a new artist that we’re working with or came across on Black Art in America, I see that as success.” Though there are many ways to measure success Dorsey is particularly proud that BAIA’s numbers continue to grow every day.
From the outset, BAIA has been dedicated to the black artworld, especially the visual arts. But BAIA is growing in many directions. Aside from editorials on visual art, the company is interested in growing into other areas of the arts as well. “I want BAIA to be the place when people think of black culture.” Dorsey says, “Not only for the visual arts. We’re trying to make it more interdisciplinary with the Readers and Reel Folk. But just where we can see ourselves and be uplifted. To have an archive that’s there that speaks to the past and the present. And to be something we can be proud of.” There’s a long road ahead. And Dorsey doesn’t plan on resting any time soon. He’s thinking way into the future, already contemplating how to give Black Art in America to the next generation.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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