By Bernie Petit
The Latibah Collard Green Museum survived its first frost, so to speak.
And in the fashion of the leafy vegetable from which it takes its name, Latibah endured the harsh conditions and came out better because of it.
In Latibah’s case, its “frost” wasn’t the result of dropping temperatures but rather rising waters that forced it out of The ArtHouse, its former NoDa home.
“We actually had two floods within two years, but that second flood in 2011, that one left the building somewhat uninhabitable,” said museum founder T’Afo Feimster, an artist, playwright and actor.
It forced Feimster to find a new building, which he did a year ago. The renovation process started a month later, in January, and reinstalling exhibitions from the old site followed.
Now, “we’re ready to open,” he said of the new museum, at 720 Tuckaseegee Road in Charlotte. “What I found out with the museum is it’s ongoing. You’re always putting stuff up.”
The ever-evolving black history museum, originally filled mostly with Feimster’s paintings, sculptures and installations representative of the African-American experience, would have eventually outgrown the three studio spaces Feimster converted into a museum in 2009.
The flood, while devastating, presented Latibah with the opportunity to expand.
“I had always said those three studios were too small. My vision for a long time was to have a building of my own for the museum,” Feimster said. “This is not how I wanted to go about it, but it happened. Now the thing was to look for another space.”
He didn’t initially set out to find a larger facility. It just happened. Once he walked into what would become museum’s new home – a stone’s throw away from uptown and the Wesley Heights neighborhood – he fell in love.
It had everything he had scrawled down years earlier in his long-term plans for the museum – studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, office and workshop space and exhibition halls.
“But that’s down the road,” he thought. “Am I ready?”
He took a risk and a “build it and they will come” approach.
“I knew in the situation I was in, I would have to prove it,” he said. “I don’t think I could have gotten a buy-in on a dream or a vision from supporters. I knew I would have to… build it out of my own pocket.”
He put in plenty of sweat equity too, doing much of the renovation work on his own.
That didn’t mean he was alone, he said, pointing out the relationship Latibah had already established with the Arts &
Science Council (ASC). ASC previously awarded the museum grants for a monthly black history lecture series, its black history reenactment program and its “Underground Railroad” installation.
ASC stayed in contact after the flood. And through a partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, ASC recently named Latibah as a recipient of a Cultural Innovation Grant, which invests in emerging cultural organizations that show promise programmatically and innovation in serving diverse audiences.
Latibah will use the $15,000 grant, renewable after the first year, to focus on financial stability, organizational framework and growth.
The dollars are needed, Feimster said. But the relationship with ASC is just as important in keeping the museum going.
“The relationship that’s been established with the Arts & Science Council, that’s the meaningful part there because it’s not only the money that you get, but it’s that whole involvement that they give with wanting to help you succeed in what you’re doing,” he said.
“It’s not a ‘You need some money, here’s some money’ type thing. No, it’s ‘Let’s sit down and talk, let’s prioritize this stuff. Let us work with you.’ You can’t beat that. That’s establishing a relationship and taking an interest. I call it a partnership, quite frankly.”
The Latibah Collard Green Museum plans to reopen this month. Visit www.latibahmusuem.org or call 704-333-2426 for more information.