BAMS Fest founder Catherine Morris sees peril – and opportunity – in the moment
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has had a disproportionate impact on the black community, at the same time as a national reckoning on race relations called attention to societal ills stemming from systemic racism. The economic displacement caused by COVID-19 has also particularly hurt artists, who are often part of the gig economy.
What does this unique moment mean for the black arts community? CommonWealth talked about the pandemic, arts, and racism with Catherine Morris, the founder and executive director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest. BAMS is a nonprofit that aims to break down racial and social barriers to arts, music, and culture for communities and artists of color across Greater Boston. It produces performances and public programs curated from a black perspective. Its trademark is an annual summer music festival, first held in 2018.
Morris, a Boston native who lives on the South Shore, started BAMS Fest in May 2015, as a graduate student in the business school at Simmons University.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation with Morris.
COMMONWEALTH: The black community has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that impact been felt among black artists?
CATHERINE MORRIS: The biggest thing is that they don’t have any spaces to create. The artists we work with are heavily dependent on being in their laboratory or their zone of creation and being able to go to those spaces to spark creation and imagination. They’re denied that because of COVID. Even if venues or spaces are open, there’s many more restrictions that impact their ability to go to those spaces.
Events we’re doing, everyone has to get tested no matter what. A lot of artists don’t have access to free COVID testing sites. They’re paying for it in an economy where they’re 1099 [independent contractor] workers and they’re not getting any income. Trying to survive this has been really hard, and I think for black artists particularly they’re trying to navigate in virtual spaces. If not everyone has the technical resources to do that, they’re going to be left in the dark in ways I think are really going to hurt our whole society but really our economy. Because our city, our state relies on the creative economy, relies on the arts and culture sector to keep it vibrant and enhance quality of life. And I suspect the majority of people who keep that economy alive are black and brown people.
CW: Does the pandemic change the content of art that’s being produced, or just the format?
MORRIS: The art…is stronger than ever. The way the artists reach the masses, the format is what has changed. Music now is enjoyed by being on a screen. And it takes away from the human connection, the energy, the flow, the being in a roomful of strangers. It’s not the same with a screen. You can’t go up to the stage. It’s very transactional, it’s not transformative.
The upswing is artists get to be really creative about how they want to reach a broader audience because everyone is forced to be at home. In addition to artists building their home bases, now they can go global if they want to. Versus the time, money, and energy to go on tour or be accepted in a cohort, fellowship or program, you can literally rewrite the narrative yourself in times of COVID through a virtual platform.
CW: How do you create a community around art when you can’t gather?
MORRIS: One of the things we work hard to do is be authentic in how we show up in times of COVID, whether virtual or not. I think what we’ve done organically is to check in with audiences and artists, either in small batches, one on one, or helping to promote their work, their projects. Just to continue to raise visibility that artists are continuing to create even if we can’t be together. To do that in a consistent way so people don’t lose faith that we will get back to a different normal.
This idea of creating community is all about information sharing and resource sharing. The more we can find those events or projects happening across the city and beyond, it keeps communities connected and continues to create a sense of belonging and the opportunity –– that you can get away from your 9-to-5 or being on a Zoom screen by just listening to the music or doing a do-it-yourself art–making kit. You’ve just got to know what those things are. We’ve really worked hard to be a resource where we are sharing that information.
I think more now in virtual sense, we’re allowed to be little more scrappy with our ideas and the audience can forgive us for that because it’s COVID. If it’s a team of artists doing a selfie video, which wasn’t accepted in the past, it’s accepted now. That level of scrappiness allowed for connection. Our communities are looking for that. Be authentic, be yourself, you don’t have to put on a face. If you’re going through a bad time, doing this work is not easy. It really has allowed folks to support and understand us holistically.
CW: BAMS Fest was created to host a large music festival. Obviously, that’s not happening in 2020. How have you adapted to the pandemic?
MORRIS: We buckled down and focused on how we should show up differently for black artists and communities of color at large. We spent the first half of the year assembling different brain trusts with external stakeholders to explore our thinking about solutions to problems –– our digital footprint and infrastructure, our business model, our programming models and leadership succession planning.
As a result, we are establishing a new model to support the 400 plus BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] artists that we work with. We are inserting ourselves in public forums and conversations across sectors to highlight the important role and need to support the arts and culture–creative economy holistically. We have been able to produce virtual programming to give BIPOC artists the opportunity to still connect with their fans and a broader audience.
CW: We’re in a moment of national reckoning about race. Are you surprised at the outcry that transpired over the killing of George Floyd?
MORRIS: Yes, in terms of when I think about the days of Rodney King. It’s almost similar except the technology got better. The fact you had multiple perspectives filming the same thing just amplified this question of, have we moved on, and we haven’t. It’s literally changed the landscape of how we defined race, how we defined racism, how institutions and powerful people have to look at themselves nowadays. And it forced us to think about how we learn new habits and ways of treating people as human being or as a society perpetuate bad behavior that continues to divide us.
CW: What barriers exist specifically for black artists within the general arts community?
MORRIS: The biggest thing right now is a lack of access to capital and financial resources. The state only gives a certain percentage of money to support anything arts and culture, then it’s broken down by cities. Boston is completely underfunded compared to Portland or San Francisco or Atlanta. More now than in the last 10 years, there has been more of a focus on supporting black, indigenous and people of color artists, but we’re in a trend at this moment. What’s going to happen when the dust settles? Is that always going to be a priority as it should? The whole system authentically has to change so that there’s consistency around the financial resources that we need to actually help artists grow their creative practice, stabilize their business, and build connection with their audience.
Particularly for black artists trying to become an LLC, 501c3, or sole proprietorship, they get denied a lot of access to seed money to start a business because they’re only seen as something that’s supposed to fill a room, not something you should go see and invest in as you’d do with any business. It takes a lot of courage to create from scratch and to do that full time. There needs to be a wholehearted investment in that work as we do with any entrepreneur.
With COVID, as desperate as people are to get outside and experience art and culture, you need artists to do that work for you, but we’re not investing in them. It’s because of our values and the value we place on arts and culture as so below the belt. It’s not considered high priority as we do with education or sports teams or health care. Arts and culture is just as important as any of those sectors because without it cities wouldn’t be able to survive. We don’t have enough brick and mortar performance spaces. Smaller venues are closing. Ones that are owned and operated by white people, there’s a lot of inherent bias about what kind of black artists and art forms walk through their doors. It tends to be the same artists, so those emerging never get the opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued by audiences.
CW: Has the growing interest in systemic racism created a new audience for art produced by black individuals?
MORRIS: I think there were already people who were doing this work, particularly photographers were documenting these things for years. Because there are folks individually and collectively who do not want to be labeled as racist, there are a lot of audiences out there who are now interested in understanding at least the basic things of how we got to this moment. Whether they want to work on themselves as individuals is a different story. At least there’s an acknowledgement that the powerful and privileged actually have to learn about this thing they created, and the decisions they make are going to determine how we’re going to look three, four, five, 10 years from now about this thing of systemic racism.
CW: What role can artists play in helping the public understand the reality faced by black individuals?
MORRIS: They have to stand their truth and they have to become more involved beyond their creation. It’s not just creating for the sake of creating. For us as an organization, we started getting to understanding advocacy and policymaking work, something we never would have done years ago. When we started to understand there was a huge fight at the State House about increasing the funding to support the arts and culture ecosystem, I realized that a lot of people who were advocating were not black, they were white, older women.
Part of it is artists just don’t know what they don’t know, so [what’s important is] sharing information about what’s happening at the State House, with your city councilors, here are your Main Street offices in neighborhoods doing things to get more access to spaces, here are how restaurants try to incorporate artists. A lot of artists are not thinking that way. They’re here to create. To build legacy, to build movements, you have to be informed, educate yourself about things beyond the scope of work you do.
The other thing we’re working on is creating a virtual space where there are hard conversations happening that address commonalities between artists and audiences of color. Artists go through just as much as any regular person, the only difference is that artist took a leap of faith to stand on their creativity to sustain them, versus the majority of us who work 9 to 5. They go through the same issues everyone else does in terms of satisfying human basic needs, paying their bills. It’s just they express their lived experiences through the art form we can all identify with.
CW: Does racism and societal recognition of systemic racism have an impact on the art being produced in the black community?
MORRIS: I think holistically what we have heard is at the end of the day there are so many stories that are not being told, and now’s the moment we have to tell them in very bold and ambitious ways that are loud and clear, that signal to people that something has to change. I think, overall, racism isn’t going away, but the barriers to equity do have to start coming down or moving.