Q&A: Art Sanctuary And Celebration Of Black Arts Director Valerie Gay

Arts advocate, civic leader and performing artist Valerie Gay shares her picks for the Celebration of Black Arts...

For more than three decades, Philadelphia has honored the literary and creative contributions of African Americans with the Celebration of Black Writing. Presented by black cultural hub Art Sanctuary, this year marks the 32nd year of the festival and a brand-new name: the Celebration of Black Arts, which reflects the current scope of the annual month-long event and its presentation of not only literary arts, but also performing and visual arts.

Throughout the month of May, tons of enlightening workshops, author readings, brilliant exhibitions and lively performances have made up the Celebration of Black Arts.

The weekend of May 20, though, the festival hits a high note with an awards ceremony and a day-long Literary & Arts Conference and Outdoor Street Festival.

Who’s behind this immense festival?

Much of the credit for the success of the Celebration of Black Arts goes to Valerie Gay, executive director of Art Sanctuary, an organization that spotlights regional and national African American artists across all genres through art exhibitions, music workshops and diverse classes — all with the goal of using “the power of black art to transform individuals, create and build community and foster cultural understanding.”

We asked Valerie Gay to share some insight into this year’s celebrations and why Philadelphia is a place where the arts can thrive.

Q: How did Art Sanctuary’s Celebration of Black Writing evolve into the Celebration of Black Arts?

A: We decided to change the name because we had been slowly evolving the festival over the last four years to expand people’s general concept of writing and to show connections to the arts in everything else in our lives. This year is just a reflection of everything we’ve been doing all along. During the month, we feature films, we celebrate songwriting, theater, dance and visual arts, showing the connection all of these art forms have to one another and to our lives.

Q: What are some of the not-to-miss events remaining during the 2016 festival lineup?

A: That is very tough! Friday, May 20 is our Legacy Awards at Temple Performing Arts Center and we are so excited. We will be honoring folks who are at the pinnacle of their careers. In literature, we’ll be honoring Bernice McFadden, who has written nine critically acclaimed books, and Robert Bogle of The Philadelphia Tribune for the Tribune’s 130 years — it’s the longest-running, continuously publishing African American newspaper in the country, which is amazing. We’ll also honor two Philly natives who have each received international acclaim in their respective fields: photographer, author and scholar, Dr. Deborah Willis, who will receive the Award for Excellence in Visual Literacy and GRAMMY Award-winning singer/songwriter and producer Bilal with the Gamble and Huff Award for Excellence in Songwriting.

On Saturday, May 21, we have a whole conference and festival at the Church of the Advocate. In the morning, we’ll have workshops, panel discussions, film screenings and even a cooking demonstration. Starting at 2 p.m., the festival will go outside for a huge street bazaar with vendors and lots of authors, all encouraging literacy. We’re also having a concert stage where we’re featuring artists like Laurin Talese and the Roger Lee Dance Company.

The final event of the month will happen at the African American Museum on Tuesday, May 31. We are going to show the documentary about poet Sonia Sanchez, and that’s in partnership with the African American Museum and WURD. It’s just another way to connect to the amazing work happening in and all around our community.

“There are very few art forms that don’t have some kind of home in Philadelphia. We are open to allowing the creative voice to take root.”

Q: What makes Philadelphia a great city for the arts?

A: Philadelphia is the cradle of liberty, so it makes sense that art movements have come out of this city. Philadelphia has a diverse community and therefore a diverse arts community.

There are very few art forms that don’t have some kind of home in Philadelphia. We are open to allowing the creative voice to take root.

Q: What are you excited about within the local Philadelphia art scene?

A: I’m really excited about all of the pop-ups that are happening. There are lots of cross-genres and cross-pollinations that are popping up — I personally am in a cross-pollinated band that’s made up of a guitarist, a vocalist and a DJ. We do classical concerts and then electronic dance parties and everything in between. It’s so much fun.

There are so many things that are happening in the city, that any given night you can find amazing art. It’s beautiful. We are very spoiled here to live in such an artistically rich city.

Q: What’s next on the calendar at Art Sanctuary?

A: In our next exhibit, we are actually going to have Danny Simmons’ work in our gallery starting in September. So when folks come back from summer vacation, they can see some really cool world-class art — and the gallery is always free and open to the public, too, which is really exciting for us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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