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  • Sarah Rhen

Supporting Artists as Community Catalysts

Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash.

On November 29, 2023, Americans for the Arts honored G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan, Seneca Nation) as the 2023 recipient of the Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities. The event featured a conversation with Jemison and Americans for the Arts board member, John Haworth (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), and a recording of their conversation can be viewed here.

Jemison served as long-time Site Manager at Ganondagan Seneca Art and Culture Center in Victor, NY, which I've had the absolute pleasure of visiting and learning about Huadenosaunee history, art, and culture. I love the site, with both its modern gallery space and historic long house, which effectively draw on the Seneca people's deep roots in the region and present a contemporary narrative of their ways of life then and now.

I was not familiar with Jemison's work as an artist prior to viewing the Americans for the Arts event, but Ganondagan itself is evidence of his role as catalyst in his community.

Below, I've weaved quotes and paraphrases from the talk into an original poetic reflection on Jemison's message. Then, I've offered further thoughts on applying his perspectives to our professional practice.


Haworth (Cherokee) speaks with Jemison (Seneca)

who narrates a history in "we's,"

drawing upon a line of ancestors:

"We, the Huadenosuanee People were there in Albany when the Continental Congress was getting together...

The seeds of forming a union out of 13 struggling colonies were planted by us."

And: "We weren't concerned with feeding the English,

we were concerned with feeding ourselves."

And: "You may have destroyed corn, beans, and squash, but you didn't kill us."

And: "And in 1795, we signed a treaty, recognizing our sovereignty as a nation,

recognizing the land that we occupied."

And: "We were there in Buffalo. That was our homeland

when people decided it would become a seaport for the inland Great Lakes,

and that meant that, again, we were going to lose our land."

And measuring that loss in bushels of corn:

One million two hundred thousand, when the French army came after us.

Another two hundred fifty thousand when the Sullivan-Clinton campaign destroyed our communities.

"Corn was essential to our way of life."

And now, rebuilding community by husking corn together,

recultivating a "traditional diet" of "heirloom foods,"

with folks who want to "learn how to husk corn,

how to braid corn,

how to hang up ears of corn."

Jemison (Seneca) speaks of hope,

entrusting the next generation of young historians

to amplify the "true history of the United States."

"Right on!" he declares,

"In time, you will be the ones to tell the story."


The Americans for the Arts Johnson Fellowship honors artists and culture-bearers who demonstrate a commitment to engaging and celebrating community through and with their art. The award recognizes the belief that artists can create real paths to community change. That Jemison is committed to community is evident in the way he speaks, drawing connections from the past to celebrate the present and inspire the future.

What also emerges from his talk are several support structures that enable his artistic and cultural practice in community. As service providers in the field -- as consultants, funders, member associations, advocacy organizations -- what can we do to ensure the continued existence and effectiveness of such structural supports? Let's take a look below at each of these structures that emerge from Jemison's talk.

Laws and policy. Jemison specifically speaks about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990), which requires that institutions which receive federal funding return Native American human remains, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony to their respective tribes and responsible parties. Jemison oversaw the return of human remains and cultural objects to the Seneca Nation for many years of his career, facing varying levels of difficulty in working with the museums that housed the artifacts.

"Bring home the human remains and everything else will follow."

When we are working with artists in community, or with community-based organizations, it is important that we are informed of laws, policies, and regulations relating to community heritage and cultural patrimony. We must understand the jurisdictions and processes for enacting relevant policies, and we should defer to the expertise and guidance of community leaders.

Freedom of practice. Jemison speaks about when he was first entering the field and the challenges he faced in presenting and defining his work as a Native American artist.

"I was trying to present contemporary Native American art in the heart of the art world on West Broadway in Soho... do I express something that is immediately identifiable as Native American?... For me, I have to do what I think is important."

It is a reminder that art may not necessarily reflect themes that are outwardly relevant to a specific community. Artists who identify with specific community groups -- based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, geography, etc. -- need not only create work that explicitly reflects those groups. Artists create work that is relevant and important to them. Period. It is our responsibility to create programs and opportunities that support the wide expanse of their work, and to not prescribe them to artificial boxes defining their practice.

Culture in community. Artists and culture-bears who work in community practice in many different ways. It may not always look like traditional notions of producing art. Community vitality draws on cultural practices that bring people together, foster joy, and engender more creativity.

"I was able to reach out to the wider community... who wanted to learn how to husk corn, how to braid corn, how to hang up ears of corn... the Husking Bee!"

Let's continue to support and enable programs bring folks together. Allowing artists to be creative with the form and format of such events and activities can make possible wider and more inclusive participation from community members, and, as such, greater impact.

Next gen leaders. Jemison narrates histories of the Seneca Nation that are often excluded from historic accounts. He shares how younger historians are discovering these earlier untold stories and coming to him to ask his thoughts.

"Right on!... You will be the ones who will tell the story."

As service providers, let's not forget the young artists, scholars, activists, and culture-bearers who are up-and-coming in their respective fields. Providing support in the way of funds, fellowships, programs, jobs, and other such opportunities can allow these youth practioners to do their own research and exploration and to learn in mentorship from community elders. We can support them in carrying forward and reimagining their vital stories and truths.

Positions of power. To end the talk, Jemison and Haworth discuss the recent increase in Native representation in museums and other cultural organizations. Not only has more funding been set aside to collect contemporary Native art, but also, as more Native folks gain access to curatorial and director-level positions, they are paving the way for other Native artists, scholars, and practitioners to present their work at and collaborate with these organizations.

"These major institutions that you're talking about, they have to show leadership -- The Whitney, the National Gallery, MoMA -- and by that leadership, perhaps others will follow. But ultimately... it's really up to the collectors to open their eyes and look and try to understand something they previously didn't have a lot of knowledge of or didn't see much of, because, as I said, we were kept out of those institutions. The curators were not putting our work in those shows. Now, that has been changing... and can we keep it going?"

What does that mean for us as service providers? Let's keep advocating for and allocating funds towards hiring leaders from diverse arts communities into positions of power. Such roles allow them to innovate and expand access for their community members, as both artist-presenters and viewer-participants.

These are all structural ways that we can continue to support artists as catalysts for positive change, impact, innovation, and joy in their communities. Many thanks to G. Peter Jemison for sharing his inspiring work and highlighting these emergent issues.

@ artists: What else do you need or would like to see? What other forms of support and partnership have you received that have enabled your community practice?

@ providers: What other types of programs have you offered that have enabled arts practice in community? What challenges have you encountered?

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