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Northwestern University

Black Arts Initiative

A coordinated effort led by Professor E. Patrick Johnson celebrates the artistic ventures of African-Americans

African-American art ranging from theatre and music to film and literature now enjoys an energizing, coordinated presence at Northwestern University, thanks to the Black Arts Initiative.

Spearheaded by E. Patrick Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies at Northwestern, the three-year-old program celebrates the practice and history of black arts across diverse artistic genres, assembling scholars, researchers and students to research, produce and promote artistic ventures created by and for African-Americans.

“This initiative has brought folks together from diverse research areas across the university to celebrate black arts in a powerful way,” says Johnson, who calls himself the “convener” of the Black Arts Initiative, a nod to the broad 23-member faculty group he first assembled in May 2012 to launch and design the upstart program.

From brown-bag lunches in which professors showcase new work to a trio of conferences exploring black arts in Chicago, the U.S. and the world, including one at Northwestern this June, the Black Arts Initiative prioritizes collaboration, research and the relationship between theory and practice.

“As we have critics and art makers around campus, the Black Arts Initiative is a mechanism to create a more dynamic, connected environment around the black arts here at Northwestern,” Johnson says.

The Initiative also crafts academic lessons around the black arts and collaborates with arts organizations around Chicago, such as the historic South Side Community Art Center, to highlight compelling works. The Initiative’s “Black Arts in the City” program, meanwhile, takes faculty and students into the city to attend shows, exhibits and other artistic performances created by African-Americans, such as the Goodman Theatre’s spring production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

Though Northwestern has long been a major scholarly player in the black arts, Johnson says the Black Arts Initiative provides faculty and students a central gathering place to recognize, research and promote these wide-ranging, multi-genre efforts.

“The university has been recognizing black arts for years, but never in such a concerted and organized way,” Johnson says.

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