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Race, class and the question of who represents authentic New Orleans bubbled up Thursday (May 21) during a hearing about the management of the city's parks system, with those who see themselves as the city's true culture bearers accusing officials of discrimination in access to facilities and contracts.
The aggrieved performing arts groups denounced the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission's cozy relationship with the New Orleans Ballet Association, which they said received favorable treatment when it comes to access to facilities and contracts for cultural programming. They described what they called the ballet special treatment as a kind of cultural imperialism.
The accusations flew during a special committee meeting called by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell to investigate allegations of mismanagement and poor communication by NORDC.
Ausettua Amor Amenkum, a dance instructor at Tulane University, questioned why the Ballet Association was the only dance group with exclusive access to a city facility, the Lyons NORDC Center on Louisiana Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. The center was built specifically for dancing and features a professional-quality dance floor.
Amor Amenkum identified herself as a member of the New Orleans Black Artists Collective, Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective, and the Washitaw Nation, a Mardi Gras Indian group. "It appears to me that we are being systematically denied access," she said. "This is a systematic shutout of cultural organizations that have the cultural expertise that (the Ballet Association) and NORD do not have."
It's important to have ballet and symphony, Amor Amenkum said, but "the reality is this: When people come to New Orleans, they don't come for the ballet. They come for the Mardi Gras Indians, the second line groups, the African dance, the social aid and pleasure clubs." If the city wants that culture to persevere, it should provide a facility dedicated to "indigenous art culture," she said.
Amor Amenkum's comments were echoed by Greer Goff Mendy, head of Tekrema, an organization dedicated to the art of Africa and the African diaspora. Without access to quality facilities, Goff Mendy said, Tekrema can't compete effectively for grants. Certain groups, she said, exploit their favored position with the city and use "our children" to get grant funding.
Vic Richard, NORDC's director, said their criticisms were misplaced. The Ballet Association's relationship with with the city's parks system dates back to the early 1990s when it was created by a group of influential New Orleanians, including former councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, he said.
The idea was to create an organization that would give underprivileged girls access to the world of ballet, until then a cultural milieu reserved for the well to do, Richard said. The creation of a dedicated space for the association was the plan from the beginning, he said. Just such a facility was in the works a decade ago, but the project was wiped out in Hurricane Katrina, Richard said.
Today, the association offers programing at Lyons and five other NORDC sites, serving an average of 1,000 residents of all "all ages ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds," Jenny Hamilton, the organization's director, said in a statement.
The group's offerings extend well beyond ballet, she said, offering tai chi and classes for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Hamilton did not address the accusations of cultural hegemony, saying only that the Ballet Association was "honored to be one of many community organizations who work with NORDC to provide programming."
Richard declined to comment on the accusations that the park system was favoring ballet, often considered to be a European art, over African American cultural forms.
The groups at Thursday's meeting, though, said the favoritism was obvious. Not only did the Ballet Association have its own facility, but it takes prime after-school programing slots elsewhere. When decisions have to be made that displace or inconvenience someone, the Ballet Association always seemed to escape unscathed, they said.
Casa Samba, a popular dance group with a city contract, had to move out of its longtime home in the Garden District when NORDC took over the building for operations staff. Citing cost concerns, officials also shut down the system's theater in Gallier Hall, forcing the Crescent City Lights Youth Theater to downsize drastically.
Jahanna Cannon-Brightman, who helps processes program applications for NORDC, acknowledged that the agency is "apprehensive" about signing groups whose focus conflicts with the Ballet Association. She said that she was impressed with Goff Mendy's qualifications and plan, but, in discussing with others, "it appeared that there was a conflict of interest."
A previous applicant, who wanted to run a tap dance program, was denied on Richard's instruction out of "sensitivity" to NORDC's relationship with the Ballet Association.
Richard said NORDC has plans to accommodate most of the groups complaining.
Tekrema is set to enter the Pete Sanchez community center in the Lower 9th Ward when it opens in the coming weeks. That facility will feature the same professional-quality dance floor as the one the Ballet Association uses at Lyons, Richard said.
Meanwhile, Amor Amenkum's group is in the process of inking an agreement that will allow it to use the Stallings St. Claude center set to open this summer, he said.
Casa Samba will also get its wish to return to its Garden District home, Richard said. The city has agreed to finance $100,000 in renovations and sound proofing to the building, he said.
Near the end of the meeting, a pair of young dancers spoke in defense of the Ballet Association, which they said gave them opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have had. The group "showed me that my wildest dreams could come true, that I could be a dancer and I could do what I love," said Curtis Thomas.
Updated at 4:19 p.m. to include comments from Jahanna Cannon-Brightman.