Art Lessons: Maven Draws from Artists to Create a More Equitable Culture

April 11, 2022

The following article is an except from Maven’s Fifth Anniversary Report. To read the full report, please click here.

When Kunya Rowley founded Hued Songs in 2015, he was struggling to see himself reflected on the opera stage. As a Black man, the stories being told did not sound like his, and they were not ones he could relate to. But, Rowley was determined to create a space where he and other Black composers could perform and tell Black stories. That’s when Maven Leadership Collective and serendipitous timing came in.

“There was a deep need for Black and brown artists to find spaces where we could be seen, heard and paid,” Rowley said.

Two years later, in 2017, Rowley had just received a Knight Foundation grant to launch Hued Songs. He shared the idea with Corey Davis, Maven Co-founder and Executive Director, who leaned in and said, “Tell me more.” Maven was just in its first year, but was already nurturing community leaders in the arts with a keen instinct for social impact. As Maven celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, it’s clear that embracing artists is an illustration of how everyone should unlock their creativity in social impact work. By allowing the freedom and safety for experimentation, risk-taking, and vulnerability, artists who work with Maven thrive—and their messages around societal change, amplified. This approach extends to the way Maven develops individual talent and shifts collective culture in organizations.

Rowley found that space at Maven. He applied to one of the first cohorts of the Maven Leadership Collective, where he was able to build his dream project and birth the initiative into his community. It was through the training he received at Maven that Rowley felt prepared to continue his work and advocate for himself and what he needs to continue producing quality art.

“Often as Black and brown folks, we are trying to do things that are safe because we don’t have the flexibility or the ability to fail,” Rowley said. “Maven created the atmosphere of a failure-friendly environment. It is a space where they encourage you to take up the space you need and to be transparent about what we need as well.”

In a recent video “Fierce and Unbothered”, presented by Maven Leadership Collective, and featuring Hued Songs, Rowley performs a mash up of the iconic “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” by The Freedom Singers with Beyonce’s “Freedom”. Filmed in the Historic Hampton House, where Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali famously met, archival footage of the Civil Rights Movement is juxtaposed with current images of Black Lives Matter protesters. By the end of the four minute montage, the viewer is left invigorated and stirred to action.

“Artists and arts organizations have always been at the forefront of critical social justice movements,” Rowley said. “We understand and interpret the world through the arts. It is the medium to be able to move people emotionally in a way that sometimes no other form or vehicle can.”

Maven’s dedication to the arts is clear in their partnership with Commissioner, an art membership program that helps everyday art lovers in cities collect the works of some of the most gifted local contemporary artists. Collecting art can be intimidating, either because people lack the network, the finances or the knowledge. Commissioner aims to dismantle those barriers.

“Artists are essential to our well-being in society,” Dejha Carrington, Co-founder and Executive Director of Commissioner, said. “Maven’s understanding of equity, diversity and access really points to the ‘people’ issues that we have in the industry, and helps shed light on the fact that artists do need support.”

According to Carrington, often people buying art or engaging in the art market do not necessarily understand where artists need support the most. Commissioner creates a throughline of events and community engagement for collectors to best support artists where they need it the most. Maven was a season sponsor for Commissioner this year, and has underwritten the commission of a queer artist of color as one of the four artists commissioned per year.

“Artists who are underrepresented, especially in the professional marketplace deserve to be amplified,” Carrington said. “Collectors are getting access to an artist who’s creating around social practice and that adds a tremendous amount of value because of the way that you’re asking the collector to think more deeply about the topics that they’re exploring…not just as a viewer, but as a participant.”

Maven has also been a long-time fan and friend of Nadege Green, an independent researcher, writer, editor, community archivist and audio producer who is helping preserve Miami’s Black history through the archive “Black Miami-Dade”. For Green, storytelling is a form of resistance which she does unapologetically.

“If we don’t uplift the narratives and stories of Black people unapologetically, it just does not happen,” Green said.

For “Give Them Their Flowers”, Green’s latest project which Maven underwrote and is coming out later this year, she wanted to capture the stories of Miami’s LGBTQ+ Black community that are not printed in the newspapers or archived in libraries. The project will honor the folks who have set the stage for equity and Black queer visibility in Miami, and a community that is not historically part of scholarship about Miami’s black community.

“We are here but we just don’t see it in all spaces,” Green said. “Art by design has a social impact. The things we go to in the heaviest times or in times of crisis are typically the arts. We don’t exist without the arts.”

Maven has proven that creativity and high performance thrives in a culture where diversity, safety, and equitable systems co-exist. Maven collaborates with leading social impact practitioners to unleash those conditions–irrespective of the issue area: civic engagement, economic impact, health equity, and access to the arts and public education. The absence of equity in these areas has been detrimental to the community’s growth. Maven is partnering with five arts organizations (old and new) to celebrate its anniversary in order to reach new audiences. They include O, Miami, New World Symphony, O Cinema, Commissioner, and Black Miami-Dade. Maven’s track record has been consistent as an incubator for artists, commissioned original artistic work, conduit for community partnerships, and in perpetuating a culture shift in arts organizations.

“The work that Maven is doing to uplift and amplify the work of these organizations and artists is critical,” Rowley said. “I hope that our community begins to take note of it and to follow in their steps.”