Ilene Berman

Visionary Award Acceptance Speech

I am an artist with what is called a social practice. Trained as a sculptor, I use materials and processes to critique and celebrate social structures. One of the beautiful things about being a sculptor is that you develop a sensitivity to the use of specific materials to tell your stories. Clay can speak of the earth, humility and warmth; textiles speak of humanity, time investment and connections. As my social practice has developed, relationships and time have become key sculptural materials. How else could I create an understanding of a specific social structure than through relationships and committing the time to listening and being a part of the surrounding conversation?

The beauty of entering into conversations about a city as artists is that we aren’t expected to have all the answers. We enter the conversation with our creativity, and with our ability to see things differently. For example my arts practice, NODhouse and room13delmar, were born from walking the entire footprint of Grand Center, from Lindell to Cook Avenue and experiencing the shift at Delmar and Grand. At first I thought the shift was the result of the built environment, the lack of beautiful lighting and flower boxes north of Delmar and how it embodies the history of this divisive street: the investment in one area of the city compared to the neglect in another. But, since spending time there, I’ve learned that what is important is not the absence of lights and flowers but the absence of institutional support for the public sharing of the creativity north of Delmar.

So, the question became, how could I both celebrate that creativity, and critique the absence of its public storytelling?

That is how room13delmar began. The mobile studio functions as both a celebration of the creativity that already exists north of Delmar, as well as a critique of the absence of that creativity in the offerings of the Arts District. Over the last year and a half, groups of us in the four blocks north of Delmar (some of whom are here tonight) have been developing relationships of creative trust. And with that trust, the expectation of being seen and heard.

Teacher and philosopher Paulo Friere said, “If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I must make use of every possibility there is, not only to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in practices consistent with it.” My utopia is a place where each person expects that his or her life matters; a city that honestly critiques itself, and whose institutions celebrate the lived experiences of all of its citizens. We can do much better here in the Arts District. We can make a permanent home for the Black Repertory Theatre. We can fill opening nights at Portfolio Gallery and purchase artists’ work there, and, we can include, a First Night Stage, north of Delmar.

Lives are enriched by the work of artists. I know that each of the visionary women honored here tonight can tell you of a time that her life was impacted by experiencing the work of a female artist. Grand Center will fulfill its mission when it ensures that its Black neighbors experience their stories being expressed by Black artists throughout the Arts District. We can create such a reality together. We need only a shared vision and a commitment to using ‘every possibility there is not only to speak about (our) utopia, but also to actively engage in practices consistent with it.’

Ilene Berman