Break dancers during the inauguural We Are Hip Hop event in January 2021. Photo: Loyd Visuals

The pandemic hasn’t stopped Blumenthal Performing Arts from accomplishing its goals. Over the past year, the arts nonprofit – with the help of new staff members – has been working to expand its reach across the Charlotte community.

“Blumenthal, throughout its nearly 28 years, has always sought to try to be a home for just a wonderfully diverse variety of creativity,” CEO Tom Gabbard said. “I think that the death of George Floyd prompted some really healthy reflection and evaluation of how we could do better, despite whatever we had done in the past, to be this diverse, inclusive place.”

For Blumenthal, this meant finding new ways to be more inclusive through its leadership and programs. 

Though the pandemic forced downsizing of staff, Gabbard said he was committed to making progress. In September, he hired Boris “Bluz” Rogers as director of creative engagement, a new position in Blumenthal’s programming department designed to help create, develop and launch new programs. The Emmy Award-winning poet partnered with Blumenthal on events, such as its poetry slams, for almost 15 years before officially joining the staff. 

In addition to new programming, Blumenthal created the position of community impact manager to expand the reach of Blumenthal’s partnerships and educational initiatives with specific attention to diversity, inclusion and equity. Singer and music educator Dawn Anthony was tapped earlier this month to serve in the role.

But why create this position now? Anthony said the past two years have incited a global change in the narrative.

“I think it has a great deal to do with the support we’ve seen from the community, and globally, to speak out regarding the inequities and the systemic racism we’ve seen throughout this nation and the world,” she said.

Blumenthal has added Charlotte creatives Boris “Bluz” Rogers and Dawn Anthony among its ranks.

Before joining the Blumenthal staff, Anthony assisted Blumey Awards music director David Dabbon with the 2021 Blumey Awards that aired on PBS Charlotte in May. She also published her first children’s book in 2018 and serves as a music educator for her own organization, DNAMuzic.

Anthony plans to expand Blumenthal’s educational footprint through increasing community discussions. These conversations, called Community Cues, bring the perspectives of underrepresented communities and grassroots organizations to the table. The first Community Cue links the topic of mental health to coincide with the new “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit — artist Vincent Van Gogh struggled with mental health issues throughout his life. This conversation will be held on June 22 at Camp North End for educators and the Arts Educator Network.

“She’s somebody that brings an artistic sensibility to the situation,” Gabbard said. “She cares deeply about the art and access to the arts. She is exactly the kind of team member we love having at Blumenthal.”

Dawn Anthony working with students during rehearsals for the 2021 Blumey Awards. Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts

Gabbard said Bluz has also been a perfect addition to the team, encouraging him to experiment with programming.

“You have to just try some things, and see what works and what doesn’t, what strikes a chord with people, and particularly, what gets people eager to be together and explore,” Gabbard said.

Most of Bluz’s programming is focused on bringing local artists into Blumenthal, offering them the organization’s extensive resources.

“It’s really just being a good community partner,” Bluz said. “We have resources, we want to help, just let us know what you want. If you want our suggestions, we’ll give them to you, but first and foremost, what do you want?”

His first event was “Revive the Vibe,” a day-long concert at Victoria Yards and the Spirit Square Plaza back in October. He followed up with organizing Blumenthal’s first hip-hop festival, We Are Hip Hop, held at Camp North End. With the festival’s success, Gabbard said it’s now being referred to as Charlotte’s hip-hop festival.

Greg Jackson and Bluz during We Are Hip Hop in January 2021. Photo: Loyd Visuals

Accessibility is important for Bluz, and he strives to offer free programming as often as he can. Last year, he started Uptown Sweat, a free fitness class featuring a wide range of activities from yoga to salsa dancing to double-dutch. He also strives to bring different cultures to different parts of the city.

“Because that’s where Charlotte falls apart – sometimes, we get so creatively segregated that we won’t move outside of our neighborhood to do something fun,” he said.

Bluz sits on the board of The Brooklyn Collective, an organization working toward preserving the legacy of Charlotte’s former Brooklyn neighborhood, which is now the Second Ward area in uptown Charlotte. Blumenthal has hosted multiple events at the Brooklyn Grace Church, including a monthly music showcase for local artists called Acoustic Grace and a free poetry workshop called The Atelier at Grace held this past May.

“This past year, and the things that have gone on with injustices for people of color and inequities, leads my ideation to really think about what resources Black people don’t normally have,” he said. “This job is my chance to really open up the floodgates for everyone.”

Dawn Anthony is also focusing on accessibility, with more opportunities for residents to attend Blumenthal events, including offering free or subsidized tickets for educational groups and organizing transportation for visitors who don’t have the resources to get there. She also hopes to strengthen Blumenthal’s relationship with community partners such as Freedom School Partners, the International House and Girls Scouts Hornets’ Nest.

“One of my goals is to diversify the experience of our community,” she said. “I want to have conversations with communities that you don’t often hear from rather than bringing folks in from New York and California, and really delving more into the grassroots organizations that are here and expanding that conversation.”

With Anthony and Bluz on Blumenthal’s staff, Gabbard said he’s excited to see what future programming they will bring to Charlotte.

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