Black Women’s Club Movement: Avid Supporters of the Arts

Dr. Joyce Wilson Harley

From the inception of my work to engage diverse audience with the arts, I have had the fortune to have my efforts supported by the Black Women’s Club Movement. These clubs, which were first formed in the 1890s, provide a network for civic, economic, political, educational, social and cultural advancement of African-American women. By extending an invitation to them to support the arts, I’ve been able to cultivate an avid audience readily available to promote shows; purchase tickets, and participate in a vast array of cultural events. As a matter of fact, the contemporary Black Women’s Club Movement has generated an additional 200-300 tickets/show for the projects in which I’ve engaged their efforts. That’s why I think it’s essential that arts presenters and marketers increase their outreach to engage these wonderful organizations.

Dr. Joyce Wilson Harley is an attorney specializing in community development, economic development and public policy initiatives. She is the Vice President of Administration and Finance at Essex County College. Dr. Harley’s illustrious career also includes being appointed as the first female Essex County Administrator and two terms as mayor of South Orange New, Jersey. She is not only active in the Black Women’s Club Movement, she co-founded a group—Black Bibliophiles, Inc., the oldest, continuously incorporated Black Book Club in the United States. I have known Joyce since 2012 when I began my work at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). and she has utilized her club connections to proactively support the performing arts at NJPAC and on Broadway. I’ve learned a lot working with Joyce; she’s become a friend. And I’m honored to share those learnings through this interview.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you become involved with the Black Women’s Club Movement?

Joyce Wilson Harley: My mother was a club woman. Very early on, I could see the impact of the efforts of these groups of women who helped to support, nurture and develop the talents of neighborhood or community kids. The clubs were and still are social; most are civic. But every group is vested with a community and public interest, and they serve the community in a wide variety of ways. One thing that every group does, even those that are purely social, is reward scholarships because they recognize that education is the key to opportunity.

The membership of these organizations is women of the African Diaspora and the participants range in age from Millennials to Boomers. It’s a cross-section of professional, career women with the financial resources to support the organizations’ activities. Some of these groups are church-based; some of them are connected to college or university experiences, such as sororities. The common denominator is that they firmly believe they are the premiere black women’s organization in their community. More than a century after the formation of the first Black Women’s Club by Mary Church Terrell, they still adhere to the same motto: “Lifting as We Climb.”

I belong to several organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; Essex County Chapter of The LINKS; the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey; The Drifters; Black Bibliophiles, Inc.; The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc. and the Association of Black Women in Higher Education. There are other important organizations I don’t belong to because you become ineffective when you are too busy.

Donna: How does this connect to the arts?

 Joyce: All groups have an Arts Committee or an Arts and Letters Committee. They clearly recognize that the scholarships they provide are a foundation for community development. In the area of visual, performing, and literary arts that these organizations support, they are seeking to ensure that the community has access to culture and that the arts flourish because they see the positive impact of the arts on the communities they serve.

Donna: How have you seen the arts impact the communities in which you’re involved?

 Joyce: I have seen children who perform in something as simple as a community recital go on to have very significant careers in the arts or in arts administration. One colleague, with whom I performed in music recitals, went on to become a drummer in the band of the late Luther Vandross. Another classmate is now a successful arts administrator.

I participate in my groups to ensure youth who have artistic ability receive the funding and can study; take master classes, or receive scholarships to such prestigious arts institutions as Juilliard. We’ve offered scholarships to participate in festivals We also support the Newark Boys Chorus. Early on, the Essex County Chapter of the LINKS, of which I am a member, recognized the potential impact of NJPAC; we believed NJPAC would bring business, jobs, and provide diverse, cultural offerings. We individually participated in NJPAC’s brick fundraiser. We also held our first Cotillion Ball at NJPAC because we wanted to help highlight the beauty of the place.

Donna: How do you support Broadway shows?

Joyce:  Whenever there is a Broadway show that highlights our culture, in any way, we put together buses to make sure people get to see it. We go as a group or we underwrite tickets to make sure the shows are supported. We support the actors, staff, and crew. We make sure we attend in significant numbers to demonstrate to the producers and directors the importance of diverse cultural offerings. So, we seek to make an economic impact, while demonstrating that we’re also a viable economic resource. I can’t tell you how many plays I have seen more than once because I belong to groups that want to see a particular show.

Unfortunately, some of the shows didn’t last that long. For example, “Amazing Grace, The Musical” I saw that show twice and was disappointed that it didn’t last long. I saw the Off-Broadway musical, Sistas, three times! We recognize that we have to support the arts that represent us so they will have longevity. We also recognize that through acculturation, a deeper understanding between people can emerge, leading to harmony across both the political and social spectrums. We think it’s important that Broadway audiences hear our voices, as well as we hear other voices.

Donna: How do you garner support for the arts or Broadway shows?

Joyce: I hear about a show through different ways, I get invited to previews and we will distribute information to the membership. Then, as a group, we decide what our participation will be. The membership determines whether we will see the show as a group or make it possible for youth or children to see it. We also may reach out to schools and support their participation.

It’s more word of mouth. Donna, you are an important resource. If you say we should see something, we make sure we attend.

Donna: What have been some of the the challenges your groups faced and how were they addressed?

Joyce: There’s very little challenge in pulling a group together through our organizations. We even hire a bus for transportation because it’s more economical than driving from New Jersey to Broadway.

However, the real challenge is the Broadway show ticket prices; the cost has become pretty outrageous. One exception for us has been “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Denzel Washington. Even though the Sunday matinee tickets begin at more than $200 and the weeknight tickets are more than $100, a lot of people saw the show, who never would have seen that play, because Denzel is in it. Many people still plan to see that play.

Most of the time, I tend to focus on discount offers and a lot of Off-Broadway shows. There seems to be a growing richness in the Off Broadway offerings and performances.

Donna: What is your most memorable success story thus far?

“Sistas, The Musical” at St. Luke’s Theatre. Everyone I know who saw that show, saw it more than once. They related to the music, which ranged from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé. They related to the characters; everyone found themselves in that play. It was great! I take my hat off to the production crew, the music, and the actors who were in it. I have never seen that kind of enthusiasm from an audience. People loved “Color Purple,” and “Motown, The Musical.”  But there was something special about “Sistas.” I am getting the same response from “The Donna Summer Musical” on Broadway.” People love it and are planning to return to see it.

Donna: How does funding and access to funding impact your efforts and the future of your ability to access the arts or support youth’s access to the arts?

Joyce: Each organization is a not-for-profit, 501-C3. This allows us to partner with for-profit organizations and businesses seeking to be involved in community projects or engaged in community reinvestment activities. We also seek money from foundations and arts councils interested in supporting compelling projects. We are very aggressive fundraisers and utilize our events to help underwrite tickets for young people or adults who can’t afford to purchase a ticket. Each group recognizes the importance of our community having access and exposure to arts, culture and literature, and we will continue to make our participation a priority.

Donna: There are many more Black Women’s Clubs, as well as other Black social organizations, throughout the country. Many other communities of color have similar organizations. I highly encourage you to find them, develop a relationship, and engage them with your culturally-relevant arts offering. When we talk about engaging the community and building audiences, these organizations are an incredibly rich resources, with the financial means to purchase (or raise money to purchase) tickets. They also help cultivate future audiences by making sure that youth get the opportunity to participate in the arts. There’s an organization near you waiting for you to extend an invitation to the party.