Denise Herd has fond memories of the first-ever Art & Soul event — an Indy-based, arts-centric celebration of Black History Month that first took place at the Artsgarden back in 1996.
“I remember one of the events that kept me up the most was when we did a panel on the evolution of rap music and hip-hop, because that is so tied to the Black community, and it’s a form of artistry because it’s spoken word,” says Herd, who worked with the festival that year as a consultant and community partner. “We had a panel discussion, we had performances, and I remember the Artsgarden being standing room only that day.”
Art & Soul celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2021 from February 2nd to the 26th, supported by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and community partners. Due to the coronavirus pandemic this year’s version of the annual month-long festival will look a little different, with performances taking place virtually. To increase the event’s reach, Arts Council of Indianapolis has teamed up with WISH-TV, which will broadcast via Facebook one-song performances at 12:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays in February.
Herd, the former manager of diversity and media relations at Indiana Repertory Theatre, was brought on by the Arts Council of Indianapolis in 1996 to help put together its annual Black History Month function. The event didn’t have a name when she first came on board.
“We brainstormed, and it dawned us that the name was right in front of us,” Herd says. “It’s Art & Soul because art is a part of your soul. The name just stuck.”
In its first year, Art & Soul set a precedent for future iterations of the event, involving various mediums of performance including dance, music, theater, visual art and more. Herd said she’s intentional with each decision, no matter how small.
“I knew we had to do it right because if we didn’t get it right, we wouldn’t be able to do it again,” she says. “But I also knew we really needed to take some risks as well. So I wanted to make sure that we had a cross representation of art, and then specific art forms that were really aligned with the culture.”
Art & Soul has evolved since its inception, selecting and highlighting several featured artists each year starting in 2009. Ernest Disney-Britton, vice president of community impact and investment with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, explains how the event’s overall atmosphere has blossomed into something quite special.
“When I stepped into this role in partnership with four program partners, we were looking at a program that did have a full schedule throughout at least half of the month in terms of performance, but what it lacked was a cultural and spiritual framework for making that Black family reunion atmosphere,” says Disney-Britton.
Herd says that over the years she’s seen the Indy community’s perception of Art & Soul shift.
“What I’ve seen is less apprehension and more appreciation,” Herd says. “You have to remember we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. So people would walk through the Artsgarden on their way to the mall and see it, but they may stop or they may not stop. Now, people stop — it’s an event people look forward to.”
This buzz surrounding the festival is what brought 2021 featured artist Yadin Kol in contact with Art & Soul in the first place. “I was made aware that there was this dope event going on downtown at the Indianapolis Artsgarden, and that was in February 2016,” Kol says. “I don’t even think I knew the event was called Art & Soul.” Upon experiencing a day of performances at the festival, however, Kol says his life was forever changed.
“What I did not expect was to be absolutely blown away by the talent there,” Kol says. “I saw a poet by the name of Mariah Ivey that year and a few other musical artists that just completely blew me away. In those moments, I feel that I became privy to what it meant to be a true artist.”
Having witnessed Art & Soul catapult the careers of her peers in recent years, 2021 featured artist AshLee Baskin is hoping the event will have the same effect on her artistic pursuit. For her performance this year, Baskin will present a show entitled “Black Thread,” which evolved from a spoken word piece she wrote.
“It’s an acknowledgment and celebration of [being] Black, from a literal standpoint,” Baskin says. “But then also, figuratively. How we’ve shown up in this country, how we show up in culture, our contributions… you can’t really talk about the Black experience in America and not talk about some of the struggles. But at the same time, I juxtapose those with the triumphs, the resilience and the brilliance.”
While audiences will be experiencing this year’s Art & Soul performances through a screen, community partner and esteemed Indy musician Rob Dixon sees a silver lining to the remote presentation.
“I like the fact that we’re documenting all of these performances,” Dixon says. “By making all of these things virtual, we’re not only taking a video but a snapshot in time of an artist’s performance. I think these things will live in perpetuity for people to see in years to come. I think that’s a lesson learned, and we should just constantly do that from here on out to properly archive.”
In reflecting on Art & Soul’s 25-year legacy, Herd ultimately emphasizes that the Arts Council of Indianapolis deserves praise for their longstanding commitment to spotlighting Black art each and every year.
“We as a nation and we as a community are at a crossroads, and we’re all very focused on inclusion, equity and diversity,” Herd says. “I don’t think we’ve even seen what all [The Arts Council] can do, and I think we will see that in the years to come because of the hard work that they’re doing right now and the position they’ve placed themselves in right now.”