“Students were taking these classes and they were having a conversation about the artwork they were seeing but they had never interacted or they barely interacted with African-American art, or art from the African diaspora,” said Kheli Willetts, executive director of the CFAC and assistant professor at SU, teaching Art of the Black World, one of the classes that spurred the idea for the CFAC. “We don’t just say African-American because some of the artists that we talk about are Caribbean, they’re Latino, but they self-identify as African-descended,” she added. “When we say African-American in some level, it’s widely defined because South America is still America.”
As the center continued to grow, it moved to 2223 E. Genesee St., where the collective stayed for more than 20 years, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the CFAC established itself at the current building at 805 E. Genesee St. This was a benchmark for the center because it placed them in a more accessible and central location for the Syracuse community, Willetts said. And this was precisely what the founders were shooting for.
Led by the late Herbert T. Williams, who had been an associate professor in SU’s African American Studies department, with the participation of people such as Mary Schmidt Campbell, who is now the dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, George Campbell, the recently retired president of Cooper Union, and Syracuse artists such as David MacDonald, the idea was to create a space for cultural exchange where underrepresented minorities could show their work, learn, grow and connect as a community through art. Unlike traditional art spaces where amateur artists or minority artists were not always welcome, the CFAC was—and still is—all about encouraging creation and helping people feel welcome. “If you love art, there is a place for you,” Willetts said. She’s been affiliated to the CFAC for almost half of her life, starting as a student at SU in the 1990s.
Forty years from its creation, the CFAC has grown to be all its founders intended and more. Besides the exhibition galleries and the community entertainment activities such as film screenings, concerts or plays, the CFAC has a ceramics studio, a visual art room, a dance studio and a small theater, all used mainly for teaching purposes.
Since 2009, the CFAC has expanded its reach to the community with programs such as the Creative Arts Academy, a pre-professional afterschool curriculum for students in grades seven to 12 from the Syracuse City School District who are interested in pursuing a career in the arts, said Kelundra Smith, marketing specialist for the CFAC (and an occasional contributor to The New Times). “It’s a tuition-free program and their teachers are all practicing artists,” she said. “Most of our students are from some minority group. We have Hispanic, Asian, Creole, but they don’t have to be. We are specifically here for students who are serious about a career in the arts.”
Many people have been touched by the CFAC throughout its history: Students come and go but not without finding their passion first. One example is Angela Brangman, who participated in the annual Teenage Competitive Art exhibition that the CFAC has organized in collaboration with the Syracuse chapter of The Links, Inc., an African-American volunteer service organization.
Brangman won the director’s award her senior year of high school for a drawing she submitted to the competition. Now, almost four years later, she is a senior communications design major with a minor in marketing at SU, and is still connected to CFAC, this time as an intern. She also taught an art class for children, which she found to be a very rewarding experience. “It was nice to get involved with the community as well as the field that I want to pursue out of college,” she noted.
While programs like the Creative Arts Academy and the Teenage Competitive Art exhibition are big and important successes for the center, Willetts believes the biggest accomplishment has been remaining viable for 40 years.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the CFAC will host a gala celebration Saturday, April 28, at 6:30 p.m. at the Double Tree Hotel, 6301 Route 298 (Carrier Circle), East Syracuse. There will be a silent auction throughout the evening to benefit CFAC’s education and exhibition programs and a special musical performance by the rhythm and blues band Mint Condition. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased through communityfolkartcenter.org. For more information, call 442-2230.