Kibibi Ajanku and the Urban Arts Leadership Program: Opening the Doors for Future Arts Administrators

In October, I was invited to give a keynote address and speak to participants of The Urban Arts Leadership Program (UALP) in Baltimore about my marketing and audience development business. The Urban Arts Leadership Program (UALP) is an example of change in action. A program of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA), UALP is a fellowship program designed to increase diversity in the management of cultural and artistic organizations by building a pipeline for high achieving emerging leaders, focusing on those of color. UALP offers professional development and network building opportunities to develop and empower tomorrow’s leaders. UALP Fellows engage in a rigorous training program and are matched with host organizations where they contribute to the organization’s culture and, additionally, manage projects that are core to the thrust of the organization. Equally important, UALP offers Fellowship host organizations the tools and training to support institutional changes that encourage and foster greater equity and inclusion.

I was so impressed with the emerging arts administrators of color I met. They expressed a clear vision and confidence about their career path. Consequently, I sought an opportunity to interview the program director, Kibibi Ajanku. Kibibi is quite a force. Her background as an accomplished dancer, griot, choreographer and drummer, along with her academic training in curatorial studies, helps Kibibi steer UALP with a firm and loving hand. Kibibi believes that when art is presented properly, it is the perfect vehicle for facilitating greater intercultural awareness for the global community. As a result, she is continuously involved with developing programming that expands awareness, builds insight, and connects people.

The Urban Arts Leadership Program is poised to fill a great void in the management of performing and visual arts, by opening the doors for professional training and mentoring to people of color seeking to become arts administrators, curators, or hold other cultural management positions. Kibibi and I discussed the impact of the program.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you join the Urban Arts Leadership Program?

 Kibibi Ajanku: The Urban Arts Leadership Program was founded and brought to GBCA five years ago by David Mitchell. He initially reached out to me because of my long presence and history in the Baltimore community. I founded Sankofa Dance Theater and had extensive experience connecting community with the arts, as well as training young people. David was concerned about the lack of diverse leadership in the arts and cultural management field.

Since it was a mustard seed of an idea, we met to discuss it. The establishment of the Urban Arts Leadership Program also was guided by community input and the participation of more than 30 administrators from partnering cultural organizations. Over time, I became the Community Engagement instructor. I would come in and discuss the importance of the arts’ or cultural institution’s connectivity to the community as a strong component of good leadership. After a while, David transitioned out of the program and he asked me to be interim director until a permanent replacement was found. I promised to do it for two weeks. GBCA Director Jeannie Howe saw my worth and two weeks has become two years.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How does the Urban Arts Leadership Program work?

 Kibibi: The Urban Arts Leadership Program is a cohort fellowship. The fellowship provides opportunities to do hands-on learning within cultural organizations that have agreed to be partners with the program. There are up to 10 participants each year. The application process is rigorous—there is a council that reviews the applicants and decides admission.

Those admitted are recent college graduates or graduating seniors, who have demonstrated an ability to work within a cohort; the ability to see a project through, from beginning to end, and strong writing skills. We’re looking for people who are motivated beyond willingness and connection to the arts sector—we’re looking for emerging leaders who can be placed with an organization and be an asset from the beginning. The program is an opportunity to utilize professional development as the vehicle to build upon existing skills.

Donna: What is the cultural climate like in Baltimore’s arts community?

 Kibibi: Baltimore has a vibrant artistic community. We are an historically marginalized city of neighborhoods. That living space, in and of itself, inadvertently fosters a segregated environment. However, at the same time, we have always had history of deep, rich passion and artistry; deep and rich creativity.

Sixty-percent of the population of Baltimore is people of color, while the leadership in the arts community is about three-percent people of color. That was true when I took the helm of the Urban Arts Leadership Program two years ago, and it remains true to this day. People of color are no strangers to any of this. Sometimes these are the circumstances under which we thrive. This is not an issue of the arts being more or less prevalent. Rather, the issue is that opportunities are not in place or cannot be taken advantage of by people who have been historically marginalized, or who feel invisible. That keeps the divide going strong.

Change does not occur overnight. However, I will say that UALP is putting people—participants and the cultural institution where they are assigned—in a position to understand the issues surrounding racial inequity and lack of inclusion. There is a different, nuanced lack of inclusion issue in the US that is a through-line—the workshopping and dissemination of information. That lens becomes the lens for leadership training.

The other through-line is the building of networking pipelines and mentorships. Part of this happens in our program due to my bringing in powerful people in the field to share their specific expertise with the Urban Arts Leadership Fellows. Since the Baltimore uprising, there also have been more opportunities, more intent to have dialogues rich with rigor, that include many faces from many neighborhoods. And opportunities have spun up as a result. The future remains to be seen. I think five years from now will be a good mark to review, and we will see, over time, what the changes are.

Donna: What impact did you envision you could have on the lives of future arts administrators of color?

Kibibi: I have seen some progress in two years. Over that period of time, my Fellows are beginning to be accepted as fully-formed, competent leaders in the field. There are people doing strong projects; people who are working in government, arts, and humanities. There are people working at the Baltimore Neighborhood Development, Arts Every Day, and Baltimore Community Foundation, Anne Arundel Arts Council, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts, Coppin State University, and more. Additionally, the Program Assistant for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance graduated from the Urban Arts Leadership Program. These are solid placements. Then we have people who are entrepreneurs, creating their own work. One Fellow is a very strong educator and is currently doing a lot of mural painting around the city, leading the way for new voices to come forward. Since the inception of the program, at least one person per year has been retained and hired by their host organization, and more than 50-percent of the Fellows are working in arts sector within six months of UALP graduation. The Fellowship program is doing what it was designed to do.

Donna: What are the challenges and how are they addressed?

 Kibibi: Financial—most fellowship programs in the arts sector are often developed for a population not necessarily in need of financial support; or at least not in the same way as marginalized populations often are. I need a cost of living stipend attached to the fellowship. This is a large barrier. Many times, people who are the perfect fit cannot put aside the time for the program because they need to earn a living. (The 10-month program offers a stipend of $7500, which is 20 hours per week for 10 months). The two biggest challenges—getting a solid, financial commitment from prospective cultural partners, and the very people who need to be in the program are often the ones who can’t make the time available because there is not enough financial support.

 Donna: What are you most proud of fulfilling the mission for diversity and inclusion?

 Kibibi: I am proud of each and every Fellow that I touch—proud of who they are as people; who they are as leaders, and proud that they can maintain their role in the program because it is rigorous. I am proud that they understand what it takes to envision, witness, research and study the difficulties of African people in America in real time within the arts sector. I push them hard. They must understand the inequity that exists in order to be able to lead. My pride deepens when they can do all these things and then see their way through without anger; see their way through by moving towards activities, behaviors and a presence that will move the social and cultural needle in a positive direction. I also am proud that I have been able to heighten the classroom-style learning experience by adding experiential learning projects as a requirement of the Urban Arts Leadership experience.

 Donna: What do you see is needed in the field to advance multiculturalism in the arts?

Kibibi: I think that people need to take a good, unbiased look at who we historically have been as a nation—without fear and judgement and guilt—and then consciously require themselves to behave equitably. How do you get there? One step at a time. Just being able to understand what’s going on around you and being able to have honest conversations—as a leader, remove the barriers to bring in other leaders. The arts sector functions as an “old boy’s” network in many ways. Change means that everyone may not be able to hire the children of their friends. Instead, look carefully and choose with fairness; choose with inclusion in mind. Open up the real opportunities to where the real talent is. Then, there can be an option for equity.

Donna: Thank you so much, Kibibi, for sharing the phenomenal work the Urban Arts Leadership Program is doing to train people of color to become future arts administrators, managers and curators. I encourage all readers who have positions to fill to please consider this cohort and offer employment opportunities. I often hear from Executive-level cultural leaders across the country, “We can’t find anyone.” Here is one excellent option for consideration. The Urban Arts Leadership Program demonstrates that change only occurs when we take concrete action and the future is created when we invest in the present.