It had been a long time. As I fought the blistering cold winter wind on my way from the IRT to 2 Astor Place, I had to admit to myself that it had been a long time since my last sojourn to the Cinque Gallery.
Once inside however, any sense of alienation and embarrassment evaporated, as long neglected acquaintances just happened to call, just happened to stop in to look at some art or shoot the breeze. The current exhibition included names of old friends such as Tyrone Mitchell, Bernard Cameron, Ni Ahene, Nettle Noonoo, George Mingo — and some names that were relatively new to me such as Candace Hill-Montgomery, currently artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum, and Elizabeth Antafou. Tyrone and George showed up at the gallery while I was there and when Vincent Smith wandered in out of the cold, I felt my day complete.
I had come to get an update from Karen Hatcher, the gallery’s administrative director, and Ernest Crichlow, the co-founder. As we collected our notes and thoughts, it was hard to believe it had been 11 years since Malcolm Bailey’s exhibition inaugurated this brave new space that was to be dedicated to the promotion of young (and some of were not so young) artists. It was as if the three elders, Romare Bearden, Ernest Chrichlow, and Norman Lewis, were passing the torch onto the next generation. After the turbulent 1960s, we were looking forward to a decade of aggressive progress and an opportunity within the established art market, for artists and art aficionados alike.
Now is was 1980. Perhaps the hope of the decades past had diminished somewhat, but the determination had not faltered.
Cinque, like many other black cultural organizations in this country, has had its ups and downs. A recent decision to close the doors temporarily also brought about a change in administration. Undeterred, however, Cinque seems to again find itself at a point where it could be considered established, and yet still emerging, since it has not yet been able to attain the financial footing that would allow it to do what it wants to do best. Small minority art organizations as a whole are often heavily dependent on public monies for their basic survival. The dawning of the new age of fiscal austerity, contrived or not, has resulted in stagflation minority groups have felt the crunch, it seems, disproportionately. Most of them, and Cinque included, have had to wage a herculean struggle over the past decade to offset rising inflation, operating costs in the wake of holding policies on the part of funding sources.
As a result, Hatcher and Crichlow have had to formulate plans to diversify their financial options, including an attempt to tap possible sources within the black community, which, up until now has maintained a more passive role in this matter. As I listened to my two colleagues, I could remember the signals of the impending squeeze that had become more and more evident to me and others who had served on various granting panels over the past three years. Despite vehement claims to the contrary, it had become evident to us that the alleged melting pot in America was beginning to show itself inoperable, not that the elements of diversity were unwilling. There was an uneasy feeling among minority cultural activists that a prominent, established Western European art bias persisted — a phenomena that would insure the survival of large, older institutions, while groups seeking to formulate the blossoms of — this nation’s ever-diversified cultures seemed doomed. The monies just could be found for such causes.
The budget cuts from the Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City, the continuing struggle of the New York State Arts Council to ward off a reduced allocation — all spelled disaster for minority cultural organizations who were not line items in the city budget. On the federal level, the Expansion Arts Program of the National Endowment of the Arts, in conjunction with the Challenge Grant Program, initiated a pilot program Institutional Advancement Grants to highlight and strengthen the artistic work of developing arts organizations which have proven artistic excellence, but are not financially and administratively secure.
For Cinque, one concrete step to circumvent these turns of events has been to negotiate a new space within the complex of the New York Art Consortium. Crichlow emphasized the potential for mutual cooperation which this situation offered, and which seemed to be the most viable alternative to such organizations. A conference sponsored by the Visual Arts Research and Resource Center Relating to the Caribbean, directed by Martha Vega, had in 1978, explored similar lines. In outlining Priorities For The 80S, the conference participants had clearly seen the need for such action on a more widespread scale. Organizations such as the Consortium, the Association of Hispanic Arts, and the Black Theatre Alliance proved excellent working models for other such organizations.
Meanwhile, the business of the Cinque Gallery goes on. Hatcher is the latest in a long succession of energetic and dedicated directors. She formerly worked as an intern for the Special Arts Services of the New York State Council on the Arts. Both she and Crichlow reemphasized the unsung purpose of the gallery to provide administrative, political, and social knowledge to young blacks who wished to work in the arts.
As administrative director, Hatcher devotes a day or so a week to viewing slides which are presented to the artistic director, who, in turn, will make a final decision on exhibitions in the gallery’s space. She remarked that the gallery’s more recent exhibitions in which more established artists were included, have been hit with a great deal of criticism from those who felt Cinque was betraying its mandate to feature young talent. Her predicament is not uncommon in this star-studded world where better known names are necessary to attract an audience. In the art world, this phenomenon is also linked to the desire of collectors to insure their investment with proven reputations when they decide to buy, rather than speculate on unknowns. Hatcher believes that there can be a balance between the two concerns. Clearly, the involvement of established artists such as Richard Hunt and Mel Edwards in Cinque, indicates the emotional ballast which the gallery provides for the black art world. Expenses for exhibitions, which features one or more artists, are defrayed by the gallery. In return, the gallery retains 25 percent of all sales which are arranged through the artists themselves, a meager amount compared to the whopping 50 percent which is the norm on 57th street.
If all goes well, the gallery hopes to relocate to its new space by April. In any case, they welcome inquiries and slides, and hope that the black community will continue to come out and support their endeavors. The decade of the 1980s will be a crucial one for Cinque and many other minority-oriented galleries. While the odds seem overwhelming at times, the determination on the part of its principals is a battle already half won.