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Raising the Roof

UNC's black cultural center goes free-standing

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It's been a long time coming and the wait is finally over. After more than 10 years of struggling to raise funds and keep up the momentum, UNC-Chapel Hill and the surrounding community finally has a free-standing building in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. Named for the late Sonja Haynes Stone, a Carolina professor who died in 1991, the Stone Center was first housed in the student union and was the focus of local and national attention during a student-led movement for a free-standing building. It is now focused on the study of Africa and the African diaspora, and raising awareness and appreciation for African-American culture.

The new tri-level, 44,500-square-foot building will house seminar rooms, classrooms, a 10,000-volume lending library, a 360-seat auditorium, a multipurpose room, a dance studio, several office suites, and space for visiting scholars or artists. Private contributions covered more than 95 percent of the total project cost, which topped $9 million.

One of the highlights of the new center is the Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum, named after Robert and Sallie Brown of High Point, N.C. The first exhibit there, Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art, is from the personal collection of Vivian Hewitt and the late John Hewitt, and will open on Monday, Aug. 23 (the exhibit closes Nov. 10). Celebration represents 50 years of collecting and includes 55 two-dimensional works by artists such as Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, Henry O. Tanner, Jonathan Green, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett.

"It's been traveling for four years, and we're very lucky to get it," says Paul Baker, the center's program coordinator and curator.

"It's put together by Bank of America, and it's a collection the Hewitts had put together in New York. Their relationships with a lot of African-American artists that were with the Harlem Renaissance influenced their commitment. This is going to be a wonderful collection. This is not going to be your basic collection that you would see at a museum--this is going to be a real heavy-hitter."

Joseph Jordan, center director and associate professor of Afro-American studies at UNC, says that alumnus and board member Billy Armfield and his wife, Janie, who were friends of the Browns, donated the funds to name the gallery after the Browns. Mrs. Brown died shortly after the gallery was named in their honor.

The Brown Gallery will not only play a significant and powerful role on the university's campus, its influence will also be felt throughout local communities and on national and international levels. One of Jordan's many goals is to ensure that the rich history of artists is preserved, and at the same time provide a venue for artists who are creating great art today.

"You have such a focus on past masters, and you lose focus on the fact that you have excellent, able, capable, talented individuals still working today," says Jordan.

"In a way, we want to give people a sense that there is a history of creativity in the community. We also want to give people a sense of continuity, that this creativity hasn't stopped, that we want to recognize people like Elizabeth Catlett who really need to be known to a much wider audience. Pamela [Sunstrum, education and outreach coordinator] will do outreach to schools to make sure these young kids--black, white, Latino and otherwise--come in and understand that there is some foundation to black creativity, and that there is kind of a cross-cultural sensibility. That you don't have to be black to appreciate this."

Jordan is often asked about the organizing principle behind the gallery, and he emphasizes that all types of art will be represented. Patrons can expect to see abstract and kinetic art, new media presentations, and everything in between. He feels positive that by keeping the doors open to a variety of works, patrons' interest will remain high and they will be more willing to contribute during fundraising.

"This will help us in terms of fundraising that is necessary to keep us operating at this level," he adds. "So, if people come, and we do things that they like, or even if they don't like it, they identify with it or think it's important, then the donations will come. But, if what you're doing is irrelevant, the money won't come. That will be the test."

In addition to including a variety of works in the gallery's exhibits, Jordan stresses that he also wants the gallery's mission to remain intact.

"We want people to know that when you come here, you are going to get something different. It's still going to have artistic integrity, it's still going to be culturally specific to us, but it's going to be different every time, and we're going to keep people unsettled," he says.

Antoinette Parker, public relations officer for the center, says the center will also offer several programs to the local community. "We'll have different reading groups like Hekima Reading Circle, where the community and students get together to discuss specific books. Also, various artists such as Sonia Sanchez and Aya de Leon will be giving workshops that are open to the community and to students. In November, the guest speaker at the Sonya Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture will be Precious Stone, Dr. Stone's daughter."

Other artists scheduled to appear at the center include former Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, jazz artist and Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon, and award-winning Brazilian filmmaker and television producer Joel Zito Araujo.

"This [center] fulfills the dreams of those people who struggled," says Jordan. "The struggle for the center is a touchstone for us; in other words, we are mindful of what students, faculty and staff were interested in trying to accomplish here, and for us, that's a starting point.

"Our feeling has always been that people from that era will be disappointed in us if all we did is the exact same things that were going on in '77, in '92, in '96 and '98. We want to continue to evolve as an institution on the campus. Right now, we divide our work into three areas: social justice outreach, arts and cultural programming, and scholarship and scholarly initiatives. In a way, that kind of brings together a broader vision of Dr. Stone, as well as a more specific sense of what is expected of a center on an academic campus."

The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History holds its grand opening celebration Saturday-Monday, Aug. 21-23. For more information on the art exhibit or opening weekend activities, visit www.unc.edu/depts/bcc/ or call 962-9001.

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