The Folk Art Center is celebrating 50 years

CFAC drummers, including Joshua Williams (left), at the 2021 College of Arts and Sciences Department Fair.

Habibatou Traore ’24 was in his first weeks at Syracuse University when he heard African drums during an activity fair for new students last fall. She followed their sound to Joshua Williams, who teaches West African dance and drumming at the university’s Folk Arts Center (CFAC). At Williams’ suggestion, the sociology major attended CFAC and now works there as a work student. “The constant celebration of black supremacy, whether it’s highlighting the visual or performing arts, is inspiring,” she says.

CFAC, a unit of the Department of African American Studies (AAS) in the College of Arts and Sciences, is an arts and culture organization dedicated to the promotion and development of artists from the African diaspora and other underrepresented groups.

In 2022, CFAC celebrates its 50th anniversary, culminating with a luncheon and art auction held on October 22 and a performance by Ailey II–Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Landmark Theater on October 26.

Tanisha Jackson

Tanisha M. Jackson, CFAC Executive Director and Professor of African American Studies.

“For 50 years, CFAC has helped share, preserve, and perpetuate the stories and histories of the African diaspora through the arts,” said Tanisha M. Jackson, PhD, executive director and professor of African American Studies. “We are proud of the community we serve, the environment we provide for dialogue and interaction, and the incredible programs and artists we support.”

In 1972, Syracuse University actively diversified its faculty and programs when Herbert T. Williams, a sculptor and art historian, was employed with a dual appointment between the School of Fine Arts in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the newly hatched African American Curriculum.

Williams was asked by Harry Morgan, program director, to create an institution or facility that would engage local members of the black community in cultural events and the visual arts. That fall, Williams launched a course called Art of the Black World. Students enrolled in this inaugural semester became involved in the creation of the organization, along with interested members of the local community.

The result was the Community Folk Art Gallery, which opened in January 1973 in a former bakery on South Salina Street (shown below, courtesy of CFAC) on Syracuse’s predominantly black south side. The first exhibit featured the work of Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee and poet Quincy Troup.

CFAC's first home in 1973

Developing the gallery was a massive effort. One of the first people Williams involved was ceramicist David MacDonald, who joined the faculty of the College of Visual and Performing Arts in 1971. “As the only African-American faculty member in the art school, he naturally gravitated toward me,” MacDonald recalls. , who spent 35 years on and off the CFAC board over the years. “Our mission was to give the community some access to campus resources and the campus to gain some knowledge of the kinds of cultural things that are going on in the black community.”

Jack White at CFAC

Jack White, one of the artists who helped launch the CFAC gallery. (Image courtesy of CFAC)

Others integral to the gallery’s beginnings included nationally acclaimed local artist Jack White, who then taught as an adjunct at Syracuse; BA Ceramics Basheer Q. Alim ’74; and doctoral students George Campbell PhD ’77, H’03, a physicist who went on to serve as president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and the Arts from 2000 to 2011; and Mary Schmidt Campbell G’73, G’80, PhD’82, president of Spelman College from 2015 to June 2022.

Williams students received partial credit for work on gallery programs, such as guest curators, helping organize and hang shows, running a Friday night film series, and conducting art workshops for local residents, who ranged from preschoolers to elderly. One of the community’s oldest programs is an annual spring art contest for local high school students held in conjunction with The Links, a philanthropic organization for black professional women.

“It is a joint effort,” Williams said in 1977. “Without SU’s involvement, the gallery could not exist. But the community helps establish the programs and policies and benefits directly.”

The gallery moved three times as it outgrew the space, expanding its programming each time.

Carol Charles speaks into the microphone

Carol Charles, who became CFAC’s managing director in 1999. (Image courtesy of CFAC)

Williams died in 1999. Carol Charles ’84, who had served as an associate director under Williams, became managing director. Kheli Willets ’92, G’94, Ph.D.’02, joined CFAC as academic director in 2002 and was named executive director after Charles left in 2008. Both women were involved with CFAC as undergraduates of SU. Charles studied Art in the Black World as an undergraduate and later used the CFAC facilities as a dancer and in the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company. Willets was a metalwork major who became a gallery-study student, an experience that exposed her to the opportunity to teach at a college and work at a museum that focused on black art. Her work at CFAC inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in museum studies, a doctorate in art education, and a career based in the art and culture of the African diaspora.

Until then known as the Community Folk Art Center, it moved to its current location across from Syracuse Stage in 2006, becoming part of the university’s Connective Corridor initiative and in the University Coalition of Museums and Art Centers (CMAC).

Renovated specifically to serve as an arts space, the new facility features two galleries, one named after Williams, a dance studio, a theater (originally home to the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company), the David MacDonald Ceramics Studio, and classrooms that can accommodate up to 50 students for their extracurricular and summer art academies.

Jackson succeeded Willetts in 2019, continuing to expand the arts education center with robust public programming, including exhibitions, film screenings, gallery talks, workshops and studio and performing arts courses, as well as after-school and summer art programs offered free to local students.

exterior view of the community center for folk art

CFAC’s current home at 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse.

She sees CFAC’s role as greater than promoting the arts. “CFAC, in a very organic and genuine way, showcases Syracuse University’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives,” she says. “We do it in practice, and we do it in who we are and how we engage with these themes through exhibitions and programs.”

Kishi Ducre, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of African American studies, says the CFAC provides students with a unique vehicle to incorporate artistic expression into their scholarship. “One graduate student whose research focused on farmers in Tanzania ended up writing a one-woman play and performing it in theater as part of her thesis,” says Ducre, who served on the CFAC board during the tenure as Chair of the African American Studies Department.

It’s a perfect fit for Kaylee Smith, who works as a graduate assistant at CFAC as an MA in the AAS Master’s Program in Pan-African Studies. While her dissertation focused on museums and the return of stolen African artifacts, her work at CFAC provides a practical perspective to this research. “CFAC enhanced my research by allowing me to see what goes on behind the scenes at a museum or gallery,” she says. “Those who prepare these spaces have to make decisions about what to display and when.”

McDonald, who retired as professor of ceramics in 2008, attributes CFAC’s longevity in part to the health of the AAS department. “When we started, the African American studies program was new and somewhat experimental,” he says. “At many colleges and universities, the courses in these early programs were eventually absorbed into other academic disciplines, but at Syracuse the program has grown into a full department. I think that’s been instrumental in supporting CFAC, which has provided the tool to have conversations and hear voices that you wouldn’t normally hear in the average academic institution.”

To learn more about CFAC’s rich history, visit the historical exhibit, on display through December 10, which includes archival news articles and photographs that highlight the early years of the organization and a retrospective of the work of CFAC’s co-founders.

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