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Will gallery sale help bring a major African-American arts institution to St. Louis?

Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Powell, Portfolio Gallery founder

For Portfolio Gallery and Education Center founder Robert Powell, it’s now or never.

At the age of 70, Powell’s long-time dream of a dedicated African-American arts organization is no closer to reality. But his daily reality just got a little closer to making it happen.

Last month, Portfolio sold its Grand Center building at 3514 Delmar Blvd. for $480,000. Now, Portfolio Inc. has some cash and Powell has some time. Time to do things like meet with other African-American-focused arts groups who might be part of a new subdistrict under the Zoo-Museum District umbrella. Time to drum up support from corporations, institutions, anyone who’s interested.

“Who will help? Who will dare say, ‘That’s a good idea?’” Powell said.

'Continue to go to the Big House'?

Images from zoo museum district entities
Credit File photos and Wikipedia
Images from zoo museum district entities

The ZMD hands out more than $70 million in taxes every year to its five institutions: the St. Louis Art Museum, Zoo, History Museum, Science Center and Botanical Garden.

A bill allowing an African-American arts organization under the ZMD has languished in the Missouri  legislature since 2005. St. Louis city and county voters would ultimately have to raise property taxes to create it.

So why wouldn’t Powell and others look to existing institutions to support work by and about the African-American community? Powell used a plantation reference in his answer.

“I say, ‘So, we should continue to go to the Big House, right? C’mon up, is that what we should do? Or should we build our own?’” Powell said.

He says events in the wake of Michael Brown’s death are also a part of why it makes sense to do it now.

“I think it would be a great idea, and time, to change the image of St. Louis,” Powell said.

Patrick Dougherty, executive director of the ZMD, said the current board hasn’t had extensive discussion of adding a new organization.

“No group has come forward in several years, asking to be that entity,” Dougherty said.

Until last March, Powell was a ZMD board member. He stepped down voluntarily because of his connections with two subdistricts.

Funds to support art show and musical

The building housing Portfolio since 1989 will be used by the St. Louis Symphony, Powell said. He said a buyer purchased it for the Symphony, whose North Grand Avenue performance space and offices sit in front of the much smaller former gallery.

While Portfolio no longer has a building, it’s still a working organization. The 26-year-old group is using money from the building sale to present African-American art.

Powell said Portfolio wants to hold an annual art show featuring work from up to 200 African-American and other artists. The first one may take place next year. Powell is working to get support from some of St. Louis’ large corporations for the show.

Miriam Makeba is a Nelson Mandela. - Portfolio founder Robert Powell

Portfolio is also helping bring to the stage a new musical about a singer and anti-apartheid activist known as “Mama Africa.”  “Zenzi! The Musical” tells the story of the late Miriam Makebaof South Africa. It’s being produced by UMSL Professor Niyi Cokerset and is set to premiere at the Touhill Performing Arts Center next September.

“She’s a Nelson Mandela,” Powell said. “She’s a woman who spoke out against the injustices and had to leave her country, and once she left, was barred from coming back. Just another one of the steppingstones that tell our history.”

Watch Miriam Makeba sing “Pata Pata” on a 1967 “Ed Sullivan Show.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.