“This church is very white,” said Mandy Kjellstrom, a church member and an organizer for social justice art exhibits at the church’s Oak Street Gallery. “I’d say we only have three or four people in our congregation who are black (out of) 150, 175.”
The Young Men’s Institute, on the other hand, has been a center of Black culture since the early 20th century. Now, leaders with the church and center are calling each other “sisters in reciprocity” over a commitment to share visual art exhibitions organized by and highlighting local Black artists and issues affecting the Black community.
A ceremony earlier this month in front of the Oak Street Gallery was an unusual level of fanfare for the opening of a local art show. Works by Heather Tolbert and Kai Lendzion are on view through the end of May, and a connected showing of work by Micah Mackenzie just came down from the YMI gallery.
The YMI Center and Oak Street Gallery plan to partner in November on exhibitions related to food distribution.
“What’s wrong is not the church. What’s wrong is Asheville. What’s wrong is that access,” said the equity program developer for the YMI Center, who goes by the single name Alexandria.
“Black folks, Black artists, Black people don’t have access to a lot of spaces,” Alexandria said. “And since we’re talking about art, we’re talking about galleries and museums who will sometimes, maybe in February, decide to put an artist up there or give a spotlight on a special occasion, but it’s not part of the norm.”
For the church, which manages the attached Oak Street gallery, the ceremony was as much a catharsis and public reckoning as a celebration of art. Last summer, Kjellstrom and the church organized two exhibitions to honor Black lives, but Alexandria and others with the YMI Center rebuked them for curating the shows without the input of Black artists and for including elements they said showed an insensitivity to Black histories.
Kjellstrom begins welling up with tears when recalling how she had planned to hang from trees weathergrams filled with the names of Black people killed at the hands of police. She took down a second exhibition that had been installed at the YMI Center.
“One of the big things I learned when I was over there is that white people take up entirely too much room in society,” Kjellstrom said. “And here we were, white people in a traditionally Black art gallery. It was their space.”
“It was white folks bringing their art into a Black space, and we didn’t feel like it belonged,” Alexandria added. “We did want to be in collaboration, however, because the work was there and because you were so receptive to the dialog we were having. I’m always interested in talking to white people who are willing to listen, and Mandy and those who are part of this church were willing to listen.”
Alexandria said she wants to extend that dialog to the region’s major galleries and museums.
“It’s not that we don’t want to be in those spaces. Those spaces are not just predominantly, but they’re historically and intentionally white, and they might as well have a shingle up outside that says ‘Black people are not welcome,’” she said. “So if we want to change that, we have to talk about why historically it’s been that way. You look at a lot of murals here in Asheville, even the ones that were done during the protests, the summer of riots, most of that was done by white folks. We need to ask the question why and we need to change that.”