The Coleman Center for the Arts (CCA) is a nonprofit contemporary arts organization in York, Sumter County, that uses art to build community and foster positive social change. The CCA sponsors gallery exhibitions, public art projects, and educational programs. It occupies five buildings on York’s historic Avenue A that house a gallery, living quarters and work space for visiting artists, and the city’s public library.
The CCA was founded by York native Dorothy “Tut” Altman Riddick and other local citizens in 1985. A painter, art collector, and in general a patron of the arts, Riddick envisioned an art center Coleman Center for the Arts in York as a means to help to bring economic activity and creativity to her home town. Like many small towns in Alabama’s Black Belt, York faces widespread unemployment, poverty, a loss of downtown businesses, and social divisions in race and class. Building on the passion of York citizens for their community, CCA founders secured the donation of buildings, financial contributions, and volunteer support. The main building was donated by York’s Coleman family that lends their family name to the organization. The Alabama State Council on the Arts and the city of York have been funders since the CCA’s early days and continue to support the organization. Riddick’s vision of art as a catalyst for positive social change also remains central to the CCA’s work.
In 2005, artists and curators Shana Berger and Nathan Purath took over as co-directors and have expanded the artist-in-residence program and focused it on “socially engaged public art.” To that end, they developed a model for creating participatory projects and a framework through which artists and community members create works that address civic and social needs together. The model gives community participants a direct voice in projects, providing artists with their point of view, community aspirations, creative ideas, and hard work. An artist’s initial work is then exploratory and collaborative and spawns larger projects that are a result of additional community interaction. In 2010 for example, musical artists Samita Sinha and Stephanie Loveless offered a “Community Sing” in which residents sang and talked about well-known American folk songs as a way of sparking civic dialogue on America. This initial work led to the creation of the Community Coalition Choir, led by Sinha and comprised of local singers. The choir blended different singing traditions common in Sumter County and beyond, including modern gospel, traditional sacred songs, new youth texts, classical Indian music, and choral experiments, a produced a complex expression of the choir’s musical identity. This kind of collaborative process brings artists and the community together and influences further projects in the proposal stage with community exposure and feedback. Participants are directly involved in the process and outcomes of subsequent projects, thus breaking down the typical division between a work of art and its audience.
Of note is an education program known as Art Club that was begun in 2009 with the help of resident teaching artist Garland Farwell. The program provides area youths ages 12-18 an opportunity to build skills in visual thinking and gain pre-college experience in a safe and alternative space. The Art Club curriculum aims to empower students to become conscientious and conscious artists and citizens and help them develop their artistic talents and problem-solving abilities. During the fall semester, students focus on acquiring art skills, enabling them to learn foundational methods of art and media production. During the spring semester, students work as a group to produce a public art project focused on a particular concept, such as the history of cinema or food in contemporary art. Through exposure to contemporary art, youth participants gain experience working independently and in groups, designing projects, and writing conceptual statements and press releases. Art Club students have become some of the most engaged and vocal participants at the CCA and are frequently active in projects with visiting artists.
The CCA gallery features the work of local artists as well as regional and national artists. In addition to providing a community space for artist events, such as the One Mile Garden Potluck, a town hall style presentation by artist Alfredo Jaar and the Art Club pop-up cafeteria, the gallery has featured the work of individual artists as well as group shows. Each spring, the CCA offers the Sumter County Fine Art Council Juried Show. One of the CCA’s most popular gallery shows, it features the work of artists from Sumter County in all media, and is judged by a distinguished regional or national curator.
The organization’s approach to commissioning new works as well as the community’s enthusiasm for the center and its activities attracts artists to engage in collaborative works. Some of the CCA’s more recent projects include an ongoing community garden designed and planted by environmental artists Bob Bingham, Ally Reeves, and Robin Hewlett, with the assistance of Catherine Shelton, a local organic gardener. The garden highlights the distance food must often travel before it reaches the table, promotes small-scale food production, and connects residents to the land and each other. The main series of plots, which use Shelton’s method of building up organic layers of soil, compost, manure, and mulch, are comprised of sculptural mounds that provide organic seasonal produce year round to area residents. Several satellite plots have been installed throughout York in yards, churches, and schools. This particular project also spawned a small public fruit and nut tree orchard planted with help from the Pennsylvania-based Fruit Tree Planting Foundation.
Alabama-based artists who have worked with the CCA include Birmingham native Amy Pleasant, Garland Farwell who moved to York from New York City in 2009, Marilyn Gordon and Lilly Mack of Black Belt Designs in York, and printmaker Amos Kennedy of Gordo, Pickens County. CCA has collaborated with a number of artists from outside Alabama as well, including Tierney Malone of Houston, Texas, the Los Angeles-based Fallen Fruit Collective, and Chilean artist Alfedo Jaar.
The CCA is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Visual Artists Network, AmeriCorps VISTA, the University of West Alabama, the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Alabama Power Foundation, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sumter County Fine Arts Council, and other organizations and individuals. The CCA is overseen by an up to 15-member board of directors that administers organizational policy, strategic direction, and financial and legal matters. It has a staff of five including the two co-directors.