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Raye Jones Avery is retiring this year from her post as the executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center. She brought the center to Market in the early ‘90s, when she told The News Journal: “We’re going to have to package, market and promote Christina Cultural Arts Center so it stays on the lips and tongues of people.” And so it has. Today, the CCAC is one of the cultural linchpins of downtown Wilmington, a cornerstone on which much has been built.

Raye was recently honored at the 2019 Governor’s Awards for the Arts for her work in arts administration: “A common thread through her work has been a selfless commitment to the community and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and standard operating expediency to make any initiative more inclusive, more effective, and more impactful.” Our chat with her was personal and wide ranging. There’s a book to be written there (and she’s working on that), but for today, we’ll focus on her work as an administrator, her work as an artist, and the legacy she leaves behind…

On 30 years on Market

“The change been dramatic. I didn't think it would take as long as it's taken, but it is quite exciting and I'm just thrilled to have been a part of the transformation of downtown Wilmington. The Art Loop is bustling, the restaurants are bustling, you got people hanging out and socializing. There's a lot of young people moving downtown. It's awesome.”

“But for me, there's just a twinge of bittersweetness, because there still are significant numbers of people in our community and in our neighborhoods that are not able to experience the fullness of what the creative sector is offering. We just need to do everything that we can to welcome people, make people aware and make those experiences affordable.”

“Organizations that serve people who are primarily brown and black are not as well funded. I'm about to document it, I'm about to research it, and I'm going to speak about it. It is something that needs to be discussed, and I think through awareness, people will operate a little bit differently. Our programming is no less significant than a mainstream arts programming. I would argue that it's more relevant, because it's absolutely essential. More than 50% of brown and black young people in this country have absolutely no access to art whatsoever.”

“I believe that we need to be more bold in our advocacy, not only for institutions, but for artists who can be a voice for the underserved.”

On using her voice

“I’ve found it difficult to balance being a practitioner and an arts administrator. It has been enormously challenging. I've had inadequate time to immerse myself in my own artistic development. You must have a regiment of practice and you must have a regiment of regular performance in order to grow. And I've had a lot of stops and starts. So I've had big gaps in time in terms of my own study as an artist. But I did what I could.”

“But the fulfillment that I get from it is that I have the opportunity to use my own voice, in what I choose to sing about, what I choose to write about, what I choose the comment about. That's the joy for me. I get a chance to speak my truth.”

“I have a spoken word piece called ‘Visiting Room Sonnet’ that is set to music and speaks to my experience of being in a relationship with a man who was incarcerated off and on for 18 years. I performed it at the Delaware Art Museum recently. That was the premiere performance. People in the audience appreciate that I'm not hiding that part of my life experience. It's inspired by both my experience and Langston Hughes, who asks question: ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ This piece asks the question: ‘What happens to a black man who is incarcerated? What do his dreams smell like?’”

“For people that can relate, there are no words. They just say, ‘That's deep.’ People who can't relate to it, they don't quite know what to make of it.”

On her legacy

“In its most simple terms I can think of, the joy of arts administration is contributing in small ways to the human development of young artists. They grow very quickly. And they come back, they write, they send emails, they visit. What has been poured into them at the Christina Cultural Arts Center has shaped their perspective, has uplifted them, has taught them self-discipline and the power of teamwork, and has really molded them in very significant ways. That is the greatest joy that I have experience with as an administrator. The rest of the stuff – the paperwork, the meetings – I can live without.”

“Brenda Wise is an attorney. She spent many, many years in our after school program. Kia Childs, the executive director of Great Oaks, spent many years at the Christina Cultural Arts Center. Some of our graduates are in Atlanta, trying to break into the film scene there. These people studied from little kids through high school age, until they got ready to leave and explore the world.”

“I got a note a couple of months ago from a young lady named Helen. She wrote me and said that she goes to North Carolina A&T -- I think she's a junior or senior. She was one of my student interns, and she always wondered why I was so particular about doing things in a particular kind of way. And now as an adult, she realizes that I was pushing them towards excellence. Not perfection, but excellence. And now she has a certain level of discipline that she's in search of excellence. She's just not doing her work at school just to get by.”

“So they go in a lot of different directions. But our graduates are out there doing great things.”

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