Baraka Sele, Independent Producer and Consultant
Please note: This interview has been edited and formatted for the purpose of publication on the WOCA website.
Baraka Sele is currently an independent producer and consultant. From 2004 – 2011 Baraka Sele was the Assistant Vice President of Programming at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, New Jersey.
From 1996 – 2011, Ms. Sele also served as the Curator/Producer of NJPAC’s Alternate Routes (formerly NJPAC World Festival), an international performing arts series. The series, which received national and international awards, funding, press and recognition, featured year-round performances by artists of New Jersey, the United States and from around the world, complemented by educational, humanities and residency programs.
Besides working as a performing arts consultant, curator, producer and presenter, Baraka has served on numerous local, national and international advisory committees, boards and panels, including the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, International Society of the Performing Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Vera List Center for Arts and Politics, Walker Art Center, the Kennedy Center, et al. She has traveled extensively throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. She has also been a guest speaker at conferences, seminars and universities. Throughout a more than thirty-year career of working in the arts, Ms. Sele has focused on collaborations and presentations with artists of diverse communities and cultures in order to build enduring partnerships and to facilitate inter-cultural exchange.
On Her Beginnings…
BS: My interest in the arts came at a very early age; initially through poetry. My mother read to her children everything from nursery rhymes to storybooks to children’s magazines. As a result of reading to us, she said I composed my first poem at the age of two. In third grade I wrote a poem that my entire class had to learn. I also studied music from fourth grade through college. In college, I continued some of my music studies, but I also began to study literature, dance and theater.
At Eastern Michigan University, I had a professor of African-American literature, Naomi Madgett, who I asked to read my poetry. I did not know that she owned a printing/publishing company called Lotus Press. As a result of reading my work, she decided to publish my first book of poems. I couldn’t believe it. I became a published poet while still an undergraduate student. That’s kind of how it all started; it was poetry that took me on this journey.
I was engaged in poetry readings throughout Houston and around Texas when I was asked to open for legendary jazz musician and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The person who had hired me said, “Why don’t you come and work for us?” And I inquired, “What do you mean work for you? What does this organization do?” He replied, “The same thing we did with you. We hire artists like you or Pharoah Sanders and we put them on a stage.” And I said, “That’s a real job?” That person, who is now deceased, was Lanny Steele (founder of SumArts). Lanny became one of my first mentors in our field.
What was really wonderful, as well as challenging about SumArts, which stood for “the sum of the arts freshly stated,” is that it had a staff of 2 ½ people. It was a small community-based organization. You literally had to know or learn how to do everything. Even though the experience at SumArts was difficult at the time, it taught me and served me well.
On Her History of Collaboration…
BS: My interest in collaboration actually started when I met Alonzo King, the Artistic Director and Founder of Lines Contemporary Ballet, while working at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Alonzo King invited me to his company’s rehearsal and they were absolutely incredible. I was so impressed and enamored with his company that I said to him, “If you could work with anybody that you’ve ever wanted to work with, and I could help you make that happen, who would it be?” He asked me, “Do you know who Pharoah Sanders is?” I said “You’re kidding, right?”… I introduced the two of them and that collaboration was, I think, the first time I consciously brought artists together because of their vision. Alonzo went on to do several collaborations with Pharoah.
In 2010, I received an email from Alonzo King that said, “I want to thank you and to let you know how much I appreciate you…You asked me that question however many years ago and no one has ever asked me that question, before or since.”
Ever since Alonzo King’s and Pharoah Sanders’ collaboration in 1993/1994, I’m very proud and pleased to say that I’ve been trying to bring artists together nationally and internationally for both collaboration and cultural exchange. I feel like learning from each other’s culture, community, historical and aesthetic contexts is as important as artists creating work together. In my opinion, learning is the real collaboration and exchange.
On Her Career Path and the Controversy of “Multicultural Programming”…
BS: My first official position in the arts was with SumArts. After that I was hired by The Houston International Festival (THIF), which was a major undertaking. I presented or produced between 250-275 events, programs and performances in a 10-day period. I brought artists from every continent to perform on THIF stages.
During my tenure at the festival I received a call out of the blue from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. They asked me if I would apply for the position as the first Performing Arts Artistic Director. At that time, Amalia Mesa-Bains, a legendary artist and MacArthur Fellow, was the chair of the board.
What was interesting about Yerba Buena at that time (1992,) was that it was supposed to be the first multi-million dollar arts facility dedicated to what was called “multicultural programming.” It’s a term that I don’t really care for and try not to use in my own programming vocabulary. Unfortunately, multicultural came to mean only people of color. It became the new euphemism for minority. European culture was not considered to be “multicultural.” It became very clear that multiculturalism was controversial. So even though I objected to the terminology, I was honored to have the opportunity to work at this institution.
After four years of working at Yerba Buena Center, a wonderful and unbelievable opportunity fell into my lap. I got a call from Mikki Sheppard, who was the Founder and Executive Director of 651 Arts. 651 Arts was planning to initiate a program entitled Africa Exchange. This program, which was to be funded by the Ford Foundation, would facilitate collaborations between artists of the African continent and artists within the United States.
On the Need for Diversity at the Table…
BS: It’s almost sad for me to say it, but I often find that women (and men) of color are still not at the table for grant application panels, advisory committees, and boards. At times you would think that we are still back in the 50’s and 60’s, trying to have a place at the table. What is often of great concern to me is that I hear decisions being made or artists being discussed by people who may have no knowledge of the cultural, political and historic backgrounds of diverse artists. Certainly, we see Latinos and African-Americans on television or in the movies, but to be connected to those communities and to understand how they create their art, based on the communities they come from and the lives they lead, is a different issue. There have been panels that I have served on where I was shocked at the limited knowledge, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of artists of color.I think it’s incumbent upon us to say that all people need to be represented and have a place at the table.
One of the things that I often speak about is racism and exclusionary practices in the arts. People are always taken aback, like “Oh, that can’t be possible in the arts.” We act as though we are all so noble and enlightened and liberal because we work in the arts. This is not always the case.
On the Importance of Reading and Research…
BS: One thing that is part of my personal mission and focus, and directs my day-to-day methodology, is reading and research. I think we depend too much on easy listening, press packages and getting the quickest information possible about an artist instead of doing extensive research. Unless we are only interested in putting an artist on stage, getting butts in seats, and then going home, I think it’s incumbent upon us to really understand:
1. who is on our stage
2. why we are putting them on our stage
3. the type of interaction we expect them to have with our audience and our community
4. the connections and/or impact we are trying to make
You can only answer these questions if you really know the artist. One thing that’s important to me is to go and see the work. I rarely present work that I have not seen.
I also read information about culture, not just about artists. It’s important to speak about things in relation to their cultural context. When I was on my way to India, I read books on Indian culture, economy, history, and things that would teach me about the artists and the kind of environments in which they work.
On Expanding the View of Curating To Include The Bottom Line…
BS: On Dr. James W. Austin’s first day as President at the Houston International Festival he said,“ The arts is a business, and we are going to run this organization like a business.” I not only appreciated what he said but I also understood what he said, which is probably why I was one of the only persons still remaining from his original staff when I left Houston.
We often think that curating is just about who’s on the stage or even the intentionality, but curating is also managing the budget; orchestrating the calendar; balancing schedules, taking stock of your resources; and understanding your venue and it’s capacity to successfully produce an event. It’s taking into account all of the manners of business, from fundraising to marketing. Just like Coca-Cola, IBM, and Chrysler, the arts is a business.
On the Real Meaning of Community Engagement…
BS: I don’t use the term community outreach because that sounds to me like missionary work. I try to work at civic and community engagement. I think engagement is about sharing ideas. It’s about collaboration. Often I‘ll go to an arts center or community and say, “Wow, this is really interesting; you’re doing some interesting work. May I work with you?” The work is about asking—and most importantly, listening. That’s how the South Asian Theater Festival happened at NJPAC. You make people feel like your venue is their house- because you went to their house, you broke bread with them, and now they come to break bread with you. That’s community engagement.
Listening reveals to us how much we don’t know. One of things that I did before I started the NJPAC International Hip-Hop Festival was to conduct a town meeting. I sent out flyers and emails that I said I’m thinking about producing this event, if anyone has input or ideas about what you think it should look like, I want you to come to this town meeting. Too often we are concerned with our own little corner, our own little world. People usually want to engage, if we just open up and listen.
On Her Personal Definition of Success…
BS: I don’t have one. I don’t believe in success, I believe in being a servant. When I left Eastern Michigan University, I didn’t think I was going to be doing this. I mean, there was no such thing as an arts administration class. I went to the chapel on my campus and I said “God, I will go wherever you want me to go and I will do whatever you tell me to do, the only thing that I ask is that you let me know you are leading me and guiding my steps.”
On The Importance of Having a Support System and Her Commitment to Women of Color in the Arts…
BS: During a period when I was going through a difficult time at the Houston International Festival, I was dating author and poet Kalamu ya Salaam from New Orleans. When I shared with him my challenges, he said to me, “You need a support system.” I didn’t know what the term meant. He explained that a support system is someone (or a group of people) who does what you do and can offer advice, encouragement, or support.” I replied, “I don’t know any black women who are doing what I’m doing.” He asked, “You don’t know Stephanie Hughley?” When I found out Stephanie Hughley was producing the National Black Arts Festival (1988), Kalamu and I drove to Atlanta and I was introduced to her. She was the first person that I had ever heard say (besides myself) that “I work for God.” We have been lifelong professional colleagues, personal friends, and confidantes ever since.
There’s no doubt in my mind that my first mentor was Naomi Madgett, who is now ninety years old. She is still running Lotus Press, flying all over the country, and doing poetry readings. Having a model like Naomi and others has made it clear to me that I have a responsibility to be a mentor to other women. My life’s work is about being a servant. If blessings have come to you, then you pass on those blessings. I am really excited about WOCA and the work that it’s doing. While this path can be difficult and challenging, the camaraderie, community and connections that you build along the way make it, indeed, a rewarding journey.