The 2022 Champions for Arts are: Nataki Garrett, Vy Higginsen, John Haworth, HARLEM WEEK, Asian American Arts Alliance (A4), and the “Diversity United” program of Congregation Ahavas Sholom of Newark. They have all managed to persevere despite the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic; the ongoing issues of racial and social injustice, and the political divides that have morphed into “Culture Wars.”
“Champions for the Arts are changemakers who create spaces or open their existing spaces to celebrate our diversity while recognizing our common humanity. They lead by example, supporting and advocating for EDI&A, making the resources available to leverage the arts to challenge all forms of inequality, especially racial, ethnic, gender, age, and differing abilities. They model excellence and celebrate local heroes and arts organizations, recognizing that the more they can forge partnerships, the more they are able to engage.”
As we close out another challenging year, I hope you will join me in celebrating these individuals and organizations whose gallant efforts personify the work of Champions for the Arts. The following profile of each awardee explains why they were selected for 2022:
I recently wrote about Nataki Garrett, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the two-part series, I urge you to do so (Part 1 and Part 2). Nataki has had many obstacles since becoming OSF’s sixth Artistic Director in 2019, including a donor rescinding a multi-million-dollar contribution because she disapproved of Nataki’s appointment. But even more egregious was the “the unconscionable harassment and death threats” she has received, despite raising millions of dollars for OSF during the pandemic. The threats were condemned in a joint statement by the Dramatists Guild, Theater Communications Group, and the Shakespeare Theatre Association.This was followed by statements of support issued by PEN America and OSF.
In the face of these challenges, Nataki has remained undeterred. In her interview with me, she said, “My mantle is saving OSF, stabilizing it and making it viable for the future. I will stay in leadership for as long as is necessary to achieve this goal.”
I am deeply impressed with and inspired by Nataki’s grit and determination to persevere in her efforts to expand EDI&A at OSF. Even at the expense of her personal safety and comfort, she has committed to ensuring that the programming, staffing, as well as the culture of inclusion are part of OSF’s foundation. I am paying tribute to Nataki Garrett as a 2022 Champion for the Arts for both her artistic excellence and outstanding commitment to expanding diversity and inclusion in the theater space.
Vy Higginsen is a visionary trailblazer who went from being New York City’s first black female radio personality to writing and producing the legendary musical and global sensation, Mama, I Want to Sing, with her producing partner, Ken Wydro. Mamma, I Want to Sing is one of the longest running musicals in the history of American theater.
Vy went on to establish the Mama Foundation for the Arts after her daughter’s school cut arts programming from its curriculum. Housed in the Harlem home where Vy grew up, the world-renowned program offers youth access, opportunities, training, and professional performance experience to pursue careers in music or theater. The program amplifies Black musical artforms—Gospel, Jazz, R&B—and the dynamic range of the Black voice as an essential component of the American cultural landscape. Vy also is committed to ensuring that these youth have access to opportunities on both sides of the curtain.
Vy Higgensen is a 2022 Champion for the Arts because she has always kept her eyes on the future—nurturing and training youth. In addition, she utilizes community engagement to ensure that not only youth are exposed to the arts, but also her productions are accessible to the Harlem community and beyond.
John Haworth, a member of the Cherokee Nation, has been a long-time fighter on the frontlines for diversity and inclusion in the arts on behalf of the Native American community. The Senior Executive Emeritus for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, John has managed public programs, exhibitions, and outreach efforts, and has collaborated with Native communities on a broad range of special projects to ensure that the museum addressed the needs of each of the diverse sovereign nations. His articles and presentations have not only articulated quality of life issues, but also the importance of ceremony and celebrations.
I have known and admired John for many years—he has spoken about his work to my classes at NYU. I am continuously inspired by the depth and breadth of his work, as well as all that he accomplished during his tenure at the NMAI. In addition to being at the forefront of promoting professional development, training archivists and preservationists, and supporting community engagement, John also has stressed the importance of ensuring that the programs accurately represent multi-generational, cultural traditions.
John Haworth is a 2022 Champion for the Arts because of his ongoing EDI&A work; for always seeking the representation of diverse voices in both the arts and culture. He continues to roll up his sleeves and persevere, determined to see that the work to build an inclusive society gets done.
HARLEM WEEK is an extraordinary example of business, civic, and cultural organizations joining together to promote and celebrate arts and culture—a collective effort that has been held annually for 48 years. Sponsored by the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce (GHCC), the festival draws millions of people from all over the world to engage with this showcase of the African diaspora—the cultures of Black America, the Caribbean, Central America, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
HARLEM WEEK began as a one-day event and is now a month-long festival, including hybrid programming. It features international, national, and local celebrities; opportunities to discuss critical social issues; educational forums to support youth and senior citizens; Broadway performances, family fun, and films in the park. This massive undertaking could not be possible without the GHCC Board of Directors, staff, as well as the legions of volunteers working behind the scenes.
HARLEM WEEK is a 2022 Champion for the Arts because of the growth of this community initiative into a global celebration that positively and proudly affirms the importance of EDI&A worldwide.. The 2022 event had more than one billion impressions across all digital platforms, sharing a “Taste of Harlem” worldwide. I continue to be astounded by and proud of HARLEM WEEK!
Asian American Arts Alliance (A4)
The Asian American Arts Alliance (A4) is a diverse alliance of artists, organizations, and arts supporters who believe that working together as a pan-ethnic, multidisciplinary community is essential to nurturing the development of artists and arts groups. It is the only service organization in the country dedicated to the professional development of Asian American artists, irrespective of their disciplines.
A4’s Executive Director Lisa Gold has consistently, thoughtfully, and creatively worked to provide opportunities for resource sharing; technical assistance; promotion, and community-building. She also has been a fierce advocate—demanding increased funding to offer workshops and fellowships that open pathways of access for artists to connect with cultural gatekeepers. In addition, A4 has advanced opportunities for Asian American artists and arts administrators, along with providing tools to develop Asian American leaders within the community.
A4 is a 2022 Champion for the Arts for its community-responsive support that directly addresses what Asian American artists say they need to help develop their craft, connect with other arts professionals, audiences, and potential mentors to achieve successful and sustainable careers. Through its efforts, A4 is ensuring that the rich diversity of Asian American voices are represented and heard throughout broader arts community.
“Diversity United,” Congregation Ahavas Sholom of Newark
Last year, in partnership with the City of Newark, N.J., Congregation Ahavas Sholom launched a monthly public forum to bring together the city’s diverse faith, ethnic and racial communities to work together for a just, anti-racist society. The year-long program—“Diversity United”—was the idea of Eric Freedman, President and CEO of Congregation Ahavas Sholom, the city’s oldest and only remaining synagogue in Newark.
Eric felt compelled to learn about systemic racism following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. He believed Congregation Ahavas Sholom “had to do something concrete to contribute to change in the community; something concrete to show that we cared.” He reached out to public officials, civic leaders and religious leaders for input. “Diversity United” became a “safe space” for participants to learn about and explore a variety of topics, including slavery, reparations, mass incarceration, inequality in the arts, environmental justice, poverty, and the debates over public monuments.
“Diversity United”, Congregation Ahavas Sholom is a 2022 Champion for the Arts for its determination to be an ally and changemaker in the fight against systemic racism and support of efforts to expand EDI&A. “Diversity United” also utilized the arts—books, documentaries, articles, etc.—to foster dialogue or help participants engage with panelists. This year-long effort has been working to expand understanding, build bridges and foster collective action.
I wish you and your loved ones a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season!