The Legacy Arts Project

Q&A with Erin Perry

By Courtney Tolmer
Endowments Communications Assistant

Since 2005, the cultural and performing arts organization Legacy Arts Project has been working to preserve African arts and culture through education and interaction within communities. Executive Director Erin Perry explains how LAP keeps the legacy alive and encourages future generations to continue to share their experiences with art and to remember and celebrate the art and artists of the past.

Q: What was your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
A:  The biggest triumph during the past year was hosting the 8th Annual Keepers of the Flame Awards Production, where we honored seven outstanding elder and seasoned African American artists for their lasting contributions to the arts. The significance of the event included the level of collaboration that took place in order to develop the production. The cast of more than 30 artists, ranging in age from 6 to mid-70s, was led by a creative team that researched, planned and organized an event that took the audience on a journey to a 1940s “juke joint.” The production featured audience/performer interaction, encouraging all in attendance to participate in the celebration. A tribute was made to each honoree by way of a skit that incorporated music, dance or spoken word based upon their personal histories. The success of the event was due, in part, to the incorporation of the idea that art is a tool for transformation. We did not consider the event a performance, but rather a “transformance” that enabled all in attendance to experience themselves in a different time and place and that allowed everyone to leave with a feeling of gratitude for themselves, the honorees and life in general.

Q:  What was the biggest trial?
A:  The biggest trial of the past year was hosting the 3rd Annual Dance Africa Pittsburgh. We had a difficult time securing a venue, developing the performance concept and creating a synergy between artists. The experience became an excellent teaching tool as it demonstrated our need to plan further in advance and to be extremely mindful of the importance of facilitating positive energy during the creative process. Additionally, we subsequently hosted our event at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and had to contribute further marketing energy to inform people that the center was in fact open and that the event was indeed going to take place.

Q:  What issue/event has had the most impact and how have you responded?
A:  Most recently, it would have to be the situation surrounding the foreclosure of the August Wilson Center. In 2013, the LAP received funding support to host our annual Dance Africa event at the AWC. Due to logistical setbacks, the time frame was pushed back to April 2014. By that time, it was known throughout Pittsburgh because of extensive media coverage that the center was in a dire situation. To add to the uncertainty, it was not known who would maintain ownership of the facility. In an attempt to support the AWC, which has a purpose to serve as a premier location for arts of the African diaspora, the LAP decided to host Dance Africa at that venue. Amid the speculation that the center was not open and the controversy raging around its first five years of operation, we hosted a monumental event that brought together more than 500 people to share in the vibrancies and fortitude of African diasporic culture.

Q:  What new initiatives have been started?
A:  The LAP has recently undertaken a few new initiatives. In the 2014 school year, the LAP began offering after-school programming in the Woodland Hills School District. Twice a week, renowned visual artist Saihou Njie teaches middle school students and empowers them to explore and express their creativity through discussion and hands-on projects.

Additionally, the LAP has launched a new season of dance classes rooted in Afro-Caribbean dance. Taught by seasoned instructors, both Haitian and Salsa dance blend the histories and origins of the dance forms with a current context for the movements. With percussion performed by drummers ranging in age from 20s to 70s, the classes rise and fall with the intensity of the drum. Both classes are based upon the theme of art as a tool for transformation.

Also, we have recently launched a new, online newsletter. Previously, our newsletter went out to members of the LAP. Since that time, we have been able to add to our growing database of supporters and distribute bi-weekly information pertaining to the programming of LAP and our partners, as well as including information related to the cultural arts being explored by the organization.

Q:  What goals do you have for the organization next year?
A:  For next year, I am interested in having a firmly reestablished community ensemble that is able to reflect the possibilities of community participation in cultural exposure. The idea is that the ensemble members serve as ambassadors for the importance of cultural exploration for self and community development. The ensemble also reflects the potential for unity, creativity and collective work and responsibilities, all principles practiced by the LAP.

Another goal for the next year is to generate more revenue sources that will enable the LAP to increase its workforce. This entails developing a clear fundraising strategy based upon the desired programming goals for the upcoming year, inclusive of the personnel necessary in order to achieve them.

Additionally, the LAP has plans to enter into a partnership with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to offer arts enrichment programming. Through this programming, the LAP will likewise be able to achieve the goal of generating a new revenue stream and employing additional staff.

Q:  If your organization were a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A:  The personality of the LAP is friendly, open-minded and generous. It has a big heart and wishes to embrace individuals and the community in order to manifest unity and prosperity.

Q:  What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A:  In the recent past, it was thought that the LAP was a West African dance ensemble. Because the mission of the organization is to preserve traditions of art from throughout the African diaspora, we spent a few years’ time focused primarily on West African drum and dance. These days, we are exploring artistic traditions of the Caribbean, namely Haitian and Salsa dance. We are currently working with a Haitian woman and a Salsa dancer, exploring the intersection of cultures and how they relate to our experiences locally.

Q:  Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
A:  As a community arts organization, our work serves to have an impact on the community by engaging it since we are both members of the community and artists in the process of exploring history and traditions of the African diaspora. This is done through our programming, but a specific event that illustrates the impact is our recent event, the 8th Annual Keepers of the Flame Awards Production, “Freedom Time.” The event/project/community gathering brought together more than 200 people of various socioeconomic, educational and faith backgrounds. Both the presentation of the actual production and the behind-the-scenes work that went into it incorporated the community.

Community members were responsible for providing a space, the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum, constructing props, providing make-up and costuming, managing a kitchen and eight youth servers, collecting fees and escorting audience members into the space. And all that was behind the scenes. The community was likewise responsible for conducting research, facilitating creative brainstorming sessions, developing a script, writing poetry, performing live instrumentation, singing, dancing and paying honor to seasoned artists from the community. The event was attended by the community, and their responses were recorded for posterity and were testament to the impact of the work of the LAP on the community.

Q:  Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A:  Held at the August Wilson Center, the LAP hosted the 3rd Dance Africa: Pittsburgh 2014, which featured performances by not only the LAP, but also a renowned hip-hop dance ensemble from Philadelphia and a folkloric Afro-Cuban dance ensemble named Oyo Oru. In order to make the most of the space and amenities of the AWC, the LAP partnered with the organizations Sankofa Village for the Arts and Fashion Africana to have youth drummers and ethnic models in the lobby of the building. During intermission, a fashion show that featured models wearing the designs of local artists and clothing from local boutiques took place in another section of the building. A cast of 45 artists engaged the audience of 400 people by presenting culturally enriched art forms through song and dance.

We were able to capture the responses of attendees through an audience survey immediately following the performance, and the common refrain was that the presentation of cultural art was extraordinary and much needed. One respondent in particular spoke of how he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, and the performance that he witnessed was the first time he had seen anything like that in the city. He went on to explain the importance of sharing cultural art forms, that they have the ability to transform the way that people see themselves because they are able to witness the richness and creativity of the African diaspora. His excitement was encouraging as it confirmed the value of the work that we continually strive to create and produce. His words spoke not only to the need for culturally uplifting work, but also the benefits to individuals as well as the region.


Author: Erin Perry    Posted: 2/12/2015

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