How Grass Stains grants foster diversity in South Florida art world

Above: Hattie Mae Williams, Ana Mendez, Jenny Larsson, Stephan Koplowitz, Niurca Márquez, Agustina Woodgate, Marissa Alma Nick, Monica Lopez de Victoria.

Lack of diversity in the arts isn’t fiction. It’s real, as most recently evidenced by the 2016 Oscar nominations. The Academy Awards controversy got me thinking: What are we, the Miami arts community, doing at the local level to foster diversity from the ground up?

I posed this question to Pioneer Winter, director and founder of Grass Stains. This Knight-funded, site-specific performance initiative grants $5,000, plus logistical support and one-on-one mentoring, to South Florida-based choreographers and performance artists.

“All six current artists are female,” Winter said of the Grass Stains cohort, adding that the selection process, “boiled down to the strength of their applications. While performance (especially dance) is saturated with women artists, more men hold positions of leadership. I’m happy these artist-leaders are women. Each of them is incredibly different, so this will make for intriguing and vastly disparate premieres.”

The Grass Stains application process is open to anyone. Out of the 57 applicants, six women were chosen by three panelists—Mary Lisa Burns, a dance educator from New World School of Arts; choreographer Stephan Koplowitz; and gallerist Anthony Spinello. Based on the quality of their proposals, which included video samples and a written component, Jenny Larsson, Marissa Alma Nick, Hattie Mae Williams, Niurca Márquez, Ana Mendez and Agustina Woodgate (who is represented by Spinello), were awarded grants. 

“We will continue to impartially select artists based upon their artistic rigor and honest interest in site-specific work,” said Winter. “The panel did a terrific job in sifting through many applications—sometimes by artists who had no true interest in site work, but saw only the commission fee. The artists selected are now part of a cohort that will continue to benefit from working with Grass Stains long after their projects are completed.”

Among the selected artists are several Hispanic names, but Hattie Mae Williams, a well-known Miami-based artist, is the only black woman in the group.

“Regarding next year’s application, I hope a more diverse group of artists will apply. While we received 57 applications for this year, it was pretty evenly split between choreographers and visual or performance artists. I hope to get more poets, musicians and theater-based artists to apply in 2017,” Winter said.

Grass Stains is doing what it can do to foster diversity in the arts, in multiple senses, but there’s a whole swath of Miami artists who are missing out. How do we reach them? This is a question that Grass Stains can’t answer alone, but the initiative has the potential to transform the community.  

“Site-specific work is important because it engages one’s community in a direct way when it is created in public spaces. It brings the creative process into the public square. Working on-site transforms these spaces into ‘studios’,” said Koplowitz, who provides mentorship to the Grass Stains artists. “It can alter people’s perception of where art can take place and challenge peoples expectations as to the role of art in one’s community. It has the power to re-contextualize known spaces, giving people a chance to renew their view of their neighborhoods or known environments.”

The arts create culture as culture creates art. But when whole segments of the population go missing from this powerful process, culture is skewed, and art becomes another tool for baselining whiteness. Art matters–but only if we break barriers with it and create a real multicultural society right here. In our own community.