Carr Center workers were studying their new dig in Midtown Detroit when they had an “accident by divine order,” as director Oliver Ragsdale put it.
At Park Shelton on Woodward, the longtime black arts organization had secured a former retail space to renovate into a live performance studio. It was then that someone looked up and saw an ornate plasterwork above the current suspended ceiling.
The tiles were removed, old architectural drawings were obtained, and the Carr Center discovered they had a gem in their hands: The room wasn’t just an abandoned retail space – it was the room. 1926 Park Shelton Hotel’s original ballroom.
âSuddenly 1,100 square feet became 2,500 square feet,â said Ragsdale, general manager and program director. “When you see the space, it’s pretty mind-boggling.”
That bit of serendipity is another victory for a Detroit-based organization whose national awareness has grown in recent years, as the Carr Center solidifies its place as a leading presenter of African-American work in the fields of music, dance and visual arts.
It comes as Carr launches a year-long campaign for her 30th anniversary celebrating a legacy that has taken root as the Michigan Arts League as she seeks to expand her audience – by introducing black art to people of all colors in a unique twist on diversity. Three decades later, there is palpable momentum at the Carr Center, centered by growing optimism and ever bolder vision.
Since 2016, the mission has been aided by a series of high-level artistic directors, a role now occupied by famous jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, following the terms of Dee Dee Bridgewater and the late Geri Allen.
This week, the Carr Center will unveil a season of anniversary programming that includes the organization’s first live events since early 2020, before the pandemic dampens face-to-face gatherings.
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The anniversary year will also include the unveiling of the Carr Center Performance Studio in the former Park Shelton Ballroom, where renovations will be completed by next spring.
â¢ âJazz on Filmâ, a virtual five-part series from October 5 to November 5. 2 showcasing new and old works by filmmakers from across North America.
â¢ An exhibition highlighting the work of Detroit artist Jason Phillips (Oct. 16-Feb. 28).
â¢ âA Season Spectacularâ (November 6), Carr’s first in-person musical event since the pandemic. It will feature Carrington, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, pianist Kevin Harris and others with the Gathering Orchestra Nonet, conducted by Detroit jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker.
â¢ âTo Stevie With Loveâ (February 26), a tribute to Stevie Wonder originally planned for last year. It will be under the direction of Carrington with guest artists to name.
â¢ âThe Great Women of Detroit Jazz: Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby and Betty Carterâ (April 9), a Jazz Appreciation Month program.
Additionally, Carrington will reveal what Ragsdale calls a âmassive, multidisciplinary and immersive experienceâ linked to jazz and gender justice. The project, produced by the Carr Center, will tour elsewhere before playing in Detroit, likely in 2023.
The full program of 30th anniversary events will be available at thecarrcenter.org.
Learning lessons from the pandemic, Carr will move forward with a hybrid model of virtual and live events. The organization hosted its first streaming event in June 2020, and a $ 50,000 grant from Co.act Detroit that summer helped it purchase its own suite of gear that allows it to show footage at eight cameras.
Ragsdale said he had been warned the organization could cannibalize its live audience by continuing to webcast, but he ignored the threat – pointing to the NFL as a rebuttal.
âThere is going to be a great thrill to have hundreds of people in a theater space, the electrical energy that is going to occur, this special communication between the artist and the audience,â he said. âBut this concert will also be seen in Australia. And it is important. If we are to bring African American culture to the world, we have to have both. “
The Carr Center’s flourishing name stems in part from a strategic plan designed with the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, which has helped connect the Detroit-based group with key artistic actors and funders nationwide.
âIt opened up the world in a new and different way,â Ragsdale said.
For years, the Carr Center was anchored downtown in Detroit’s Paradise Valley neighborhood (at one point Harmonie Park), leaving the building in 2017 after being outbid when he sought to purchase the space. .
The group first created a network of seven spaces across the city, eventually reclaiming them up to the three in play today: downtown Hannan is home to Carr’s administrative offices; great performances are presented at the Detroit School of the Arts, and the Park Shelton site contains Carr’s visual art gallery and future performance studio.
Ragsdale said the departure from Paradise Valley brought a new philosophy to the Carr.
âWhen you focus on the bricks and mortar, it takes a lot of time, effort and resources,â he said. âAs you move from creating creative places to creative excellence, you now see a different kind of prominence. The downtown Carr Center was a physical space. The Carr Center in Midtown is a program (state of mind).
Under Ragsdale, the organization has stepped up efforts to integrate its audience. Traditionally, the black arts have been presented “by and for” African Americans. At Carr, he said, “our ‘for’ is everyone.”
Today, Carr’s audience makeup is 55% black and 43% white. Ragsdale is keen to grow that latter number even further and has diversified the group’s board, staff and audience to help. It’s also part of the reason Carr will continue her globalized streaming efforts, seeking to bring African-American performances – in an African-American context – to viewers in Europe, Asia and Australia.
The fact that it airs from Detroit adds credibility to the cause.
âThere is no question that we are marketing Detroit. Detroit has brand awareness, and you can take advantage of that, âhe said. âBut you also have to showcase excellence. And then this excellence becomes reliable.
The Carr is inspired by a philosophy expressed by Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian Institution: âAfrican-American history is American history. Ragsdale puts it this way: âMy diversity is not your diversity.
“We want to fend for ourselves, not to be included in the others,” he said. âMost of the diversities are ‘getting black people to white stuff.’ This is not what we are talking about. We’re not talking about making sure black people play in symphony orchestras or dance companies. We are interested in anyone who experiences African American culture.
Contact Detroit Free Press Music Editor Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]