Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: I find that black artists, artists of color, and unrepresented artists, maybe artists with a disability, they’re the ones who get lost in the shuffle.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker with the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Rosemary Tracy Woods. She’s Executive Director of Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts, and has also been a very active member of her Local Cultural Council. And welcome to our program.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Oh, thank you, Anita. So great to see you, and it’s a honor to be here.
Anita Walker: You have been such a huge part of the cultural life here of Springfield. Working on the Cultural Council, running your gallery, being so involved in so many of the cultural activities here in Springfield. First of all, tell me a little about you. How did you get so involved in the arts?
Rosemary Tracy Woods: I got involved in the arts purely by accident. I was actually avoiding doing chores.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: I grew up in Philadelphia, and as I tell everyone, my aunt was a domestic for a very wealthy family. And every day after school, I would have to go there, wait for her to get off. Luckily for me, it was right across the street from the Philadelphia Museum Art. So that is where I used to run and hide. I would say, “Oh, I can’t. I can’t. I can’t do anything right now.” And that’s how it got started.
Anita Walker: Fell in love with the arts–
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Fell in love with the arts.
Anita Walker: –in an arts museum.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: In a art museum. My first piece of art that I saw that I could relate to, I remember it so distinctly, was The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner. His niece, who was an attorney, was bringing it into the museum through the back, where I usually sat on the steps. And she said to me, “Come on, little sister. Help me move this stuff in.” So I helped her, and I went in and I saw all this beautiful art. And I just fell in love.”
Anita Walker: And Art for the Soul Gallery. I love the name of it. Tell me how that got going.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Well, my– one of my friends and I started an art gallery in Connecticut at the time and after about eight or nine years of doing that, and commuting back and forth, because I worked in Connecticut but lived in Springfield, I decided to take a piece of property that I owned in the old Classical High School and turn it into my own gallery. So I looked around for names and a very good friend of mine, Jay Oliver [ph?], really came up with the name Art for the Soul. She said, “Girl, you have so much soul and you love this art.” So that’s what we named it.
Anita Walker: Perfect. Well, no one knows better than you how important it is to have artists in a community involved in every conceivable way, not just as artmakers, but as actual members and activators of the community. There’s such a huge contribution you make to the quality of life and living and being in any community, and you’ve certainly done that yourself. And we have a lot of communities in Massachusetts that are working with the Mass Cultural Council to figure out how we get more artists involved. How did you find your way onto the Local Cultural Council and getting involved as you are here?
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Well, I found my way a long time ago. I had another friend, who was a teacher. And then, from her– my conversations with her– in fact, it was Diane Yarborough (ph?). It was many, many years ago. I serve on the Council on and off. I can’t even tell you how many years. It really came about as me starting to advocate for the arts, when I discovered that art programs were the first, or art teachers were the first, to be cut in school. And I know that when I was growing up, if you weren’t in the band or the glee club or acting or could draw or something, you weren’t considered a part of the community, and everybody wants to be a part. So I think you can’t have life without art. It is art in so many forms. I just don’t advocate for visual art, but performing art. And– I don’t know. It’s just– it’s a love and a passion I have, and you have to have a passion for it.
Anita Walker: So I’m going to ask you the same question in two different ways.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Okay.
Anita Walker: So if we have some artists who are listening to this podcast and they say, “You know, I’d like to get more involved in my community. I do my art. I work in my studio. I make my music. But I think there’s more I could contribute.” How would you recommend– what steps should they take to get involved in their community?
Rosemary Tracy Woods: I tell all artists, first of all, go to the Massachusetts Cultural Council website. That’s the first step. Look up and see if your town or municipality has a local council. Contact the mayor’s office; see if you have a programmer, someone who’s been dedicated to take care of the arts. And then, word of mouth. Now, here is [sic] Springfield. I’ve been working with this UMASS arts extension, Springfield Cultural Council, the Springfield Cultural District, and we’re trying to get a database of artists. First time I found the database, or I was looking, I went on MCC. So I think– and then, word of mouth. We have the Indian Orchard Mills, where there’s a group of artists. The problem that I find is that your established artists, or, I would say, your European artists, seem to just fall into the mainstream. I find that black artists, artists of color, and unrepresented artists, maybe artists with a disability, they’re the ones who get lost in the shuffle. So those are artists that I concentrate on. I also find that artists, especially if they’re an emergent artist, are just afraid. They don’t trust the system, and the system is very hard. And that includes applying for grants. You have to be so well established or other avenues of criteria that they’re looking for.
Anita Walker: And, plus, a lot of these emerging or new artists maybe have never applied for a grant before. They wouldn’t even know how to start to fill out an application.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Absolutely. But we have workshops. I tell them go– really, in all honesty, and I’m not just saying it because you’re here, I send them to MCC. There’s so many artists I say, “Apply for this scholarship.” And I go there and find things. And I also tell artists, especially when they come into the gallery, if they’re hanging with friends, I say– I’ll ask them, “Are you artists?” They say, “Hmm. I don’t know.” And I’ll ask them again. “Are you an artist? What do you like to do? Don’t go by your definition. Are you an artist?” And eventually, they’ll say yes. And I say, well, the first thing to do is you have to remember if you want to be wise, you have to hang with wise people. I don’t have any girlfriends that don’t like art. I don’t hang– when I go on vacation, I don’t go shopping. I’m not looking for the mall. I’m looking for the museums, the galleries, and if you’re not doing that, then, we’re not hanging. So you– I tell them, and I invite artists, you have to go to the museums in your town. You have to go to galleries. I caught the train on Saturday, went into New York. A lot of things were closed, but just to look around and just see. You just have to venture out and not be afraid. And again, it’s word of mouth. True, I advocate for the artists, but it’s so, so, so difficult to bring people in. And I really don’t know if I should say this, but art is so racist also. That you have this core of people, and I don’t want to pick on the museums, but the museums remind me of a morgue. You know, no one talks. Everyone’s whispering. It’s so quiet. So to break down those barriers and make people feel welcome, I think institutions need to make some changes also.
Anita Walker: I think you’re– well put. And I think a lot of museums are listening to that point of view and are really trying to become more welcoming and show the work that is more inclusive and representative of the communities in which these museums are located. You’ve talked a lot about the way you talk to artists, artists that come into your gallery. First, recognize that you are an artist and stand up straight and tall and say, “Yes. I am an artist.”
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Yes.
Anita Walker: But how about for communities that are looking for ways to reach out and find artists who may be hidden? And I’m using air quotes here. Hidden in the community. You talked about a survey that you’re working on.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Well, we have a survey. And basically, the survey was conducted so that we could create a database, and MCC has a database of artists too. So we sent out this survey, and we haven’t had the best response, because I know there are tons of artists out here. But I think, to date, we may have maybe 200 artists that have signed up for the survey. So we asked artists, musicians, crafts people, performers, and creative people of all types to fill out this survey. And the survey will be in the database, and that database will be accessible to anyone looking. But as far as artists, I think that they really have to look in the papers. I feel that when they have call for artists out, that those calls need to be simplified. I don’t think that– I think the people who create the RFPs are not talking to the artists. They’re just creating something that they think– I know a lot of times, you’ll see some– a call for public art. And then, how you get that out. Just don’t put it in the newspaper, because a lot of people don’t read the newspaper. I think it should be more of a effort, and I still believe in the old-fashioned way of flyers. I have a million–
Anita Walker: Put them in the coffee shops.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Put them in coffee shops.
Anita Walker: In galleries.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: In galleries and schools.
Anita Walker: Where artists hang out.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Where artists hang out. And put it on the television. Everyone watches TV. And social media is big, but you have older artists, in my generation, who really– I says, “How do you live?” They don’t do social media. And I have a lot of friends that don’t listen to anything but NPR. They don’t listen to the mainstream stations. So I think flyers. You just have to make that effort, and you really have to want to do it, and you have to understand what the process is. Don’t put out a RFP for public art and you have a 100-foot wall and you’re giving the artist 10 minutes to do it, and then, you don’t put a budget in for scaffolding. Or the wall isn’t primed, or you’re waiting for the artist to contact the owner to get permission. It’s just so many little things, and I think it needs to be more communication between the people who have the money and say they want to give it away, and the people they’re giving it. And make that diverse; make that inclusive. I mean, me, I’ve had a gallery since ’99, but I’m not a great grant writer. I’m more of a visual person. So hire a grant writer. Can I? Can I afford that with a one-person shop? So things like that. The same thing with the RFPs and the grants and things that are made accessible to people. Have to be in layman’s term, just plain old English.
Anita Walker: Simple language.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Simple, not 20– sometimes, I read these RFPs or I read these publications and I have to have a dictionary. Because, truly, I don’t understand.
Anita Walker: And to your point, I’ve heard of some grant-makers who, when they’re reaching out to artists, maybe the application doesn’t even have to be in writing. Maybe you’ll come and have an interview and tell about what–
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Yes.
Anita Walker: –your project’s going to be. Or maybe you’ll make a little video and explain it, rather than having to put it in so many characters online–
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Yeah.
Anita Walker: –in a particular form, and so on, and so forth. The other thing that occurs to me, just listening to you talk, again, communities wanting to reach out. You’ve talked about word of mouth. Networks. Networks of artists. Communities getting to know networks. And then, when they’re trying to get the word out, using those artist networks to get the word out.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Absolutely. And also, in order to reach people, well, they say in order to have a good friend, you have to be a good friend. Just not the same old avenues. They really have to come out of that ivory tower and come down to where the people are. And I think that’s really, really important. We are so detached. You know, there’s a thing with people who live in influential areas don’t talk to people who may live in a less appropriate area, or whatever. I don’t– I just don’t know. It just seems to be such a divide, and it’s not just with art, it’s with everything. And I think people need to just come together and have more compassion.
Anita Walker: We know that the power of culture is one great way to connect.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Yes.
Anita Walker: And what we wanted to get to the bottom of here today is how we can connect with more artists and have more artist voices at the table and involved in their local communities. And you have certainly mastered that here in Springfield. Rosemary Tracy Woods, executive director of Art for the Soul Gallery. Another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Rosemary Tracy Woods: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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