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BARS: A Study of Space with Rhea Beckett

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Light shone effortlessly through the windows of the Black Artist Research Space (BARS) on a humid August morning. The main room was empty, save a few folding chairs scattered about. The walls were bare from a recent deinstall, and the sound of my conversation with founder Rhea Beckett was all that filled the room.

I suppose this is what it feels like to “take up space.” It’s a special knowing that you belong, be it physical or philosophical. Established in 2020, BARS is a haven for Black artists and culture movers that exists far beyond its own walls and expands in every direction. Even its origin story has various points of entry. Beckett’s journey feels somewhat mystical, kissed by the ancestors and rooted in a rich history of Black space-making and caretaking.

Born into a family of educators, Beckett’s place in the realm of culture was cemented at an early age. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where her mother, an educator, was a supporter of the local arts scene. “I remember watching her paint in watercolor as a therapeutic practice,” Beckett recalls. As a young child, Beckett showed interest in singing and visual art, so her mother enrolled her in music lessons at age four, and by age five it had become “a very serious thing.” So serious that Beckett would go on to study music classically for the next several years, becoming a vocalist and eventually joining the illustrious Jubilee Singers at Fisk University.

 

Rhea Beckett photographed in her gallery by Kelvin Bulluck for Bmore Art Magazine Issue 14. Art by Gabriel Amadi-Emina, Shannell Kitt, Rhea Beckett, and Emmanuel Massillon.
I literally cried over some of the news clippings. It was a lot of soul work for me. I just kept thinking, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.'
Rhea Beckett

Founded in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, the historically Black university was in desperate need of financial assistance by 1871. To raise funds and keep the school afloat, Fisk’s treasurer and music teacher George L. White took a nine-member choral ensemble on tour. In a gesture of hope, he named them The Jubilee Singers, referring to the year of Jubilee in the Bible’s book of Leviticus. As the ensemble toured, they gained popularity and garnered a stream of standing ovations that continue into the present day.

“I was always a serious artist but being a Fisk Jubilee Singer really transitioned me into thinking about being a professional artist,” Beckett says. “My first year in the group was their first Grammy nomination [in 2010], and the year before they had received the National Medal of the Arts from the President. So there was a lot of spotlight on the group at that time.”

Although visual arts had taken a backseat, Beckett continued to explore through elective courses. The space visual art created for experimentation was a welcome change of pace, an intoxicating freedom that Beckett held tightly. Changing her major from Musical Performance to Art, Beckett took a pause to reassess her future. She customized a two-part, gap-year internship: one with paper conservator Christine Young and the other at the University’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery.

Both opportunities quickly affirmed Beckett was heading in the right direction. While working with the conservator, Beckett restored original journals from the very first Fisk Jubilee tour in 1871. “I literally cried over some of the news clippings,” she says. “It was a lot of soul work for me. I just kept thinking, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”

 

Rhea Beckett photographed in her gallery by Kelvin Bulluck for Bmore Art Magazine Issue 14. Artwork by Gabriel Amadi-Emina.

The next sign came in the most unassuming form. Rounding out her internship in 2014, Beckett curated a student exhibition at the Fisk Spring Arts Festival, which had been running for more than 80 years, attracting Black artists and patrons from across the country. “There was a Black woman—to this day, I don’t know who she is—she comes into the gallery while the exhibition is up and she just begins to talk to me, just, you know, like elder energy,” Beckett recalls.

As their conversation continued, the woman mentioned the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Curatorial Practice program, after which Beckett enthusiastically applied: She was already intrigued by then-program director George Ciscle’s unconventional method of exhibition making. After entering the program in 2014 and moving through her coursework, Beckett began to think about what a thesis project might look like. She wanted to create an exchange between artist and audience beyond the typical, at times contrived, gallery experience.

“I grew up knowing Black artists, and when they would speak at someone’s home or at a church, it was always about so much more than being in the gallery,” she says. These recollections led her to contemplate the responsibility of placing Black art into Black-owned spaces—an internal dialogue that was especially important to Beckett, given that Baltimore is a predominantly Black city.

As part of her thesis, Beckett selected New Beginnings Barbershop and the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center skating rink to house installations by Tiffany Smalls and Bashi Rose, respectively. “I started thinking about the barbershop as one of our first true cultural institutions, a place where Black people could congregate that wasn’t designated by white folks like the church,” Beckett says.

While her thesis project expanded the realm of possibilities, everyday responsibilities and the proverbial “what’s next” set in after earning her MFA in 2016. That year, Beckett took an internship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and continued working part-time for two years at Washington, DC’s National Building Museum, where she had started in 2014. By 2019, Beckett was teaching curatorial practice at MICA and art at Coppin State University.

 

Rhea Beckett photographed in her gallery by Kelvin Bulluck for Bmore Art Magazine Issue 14. Artwork by Rhea Beckett.

Enter 2020, with its pandemic, quarantine, and spotlight on myriad racial injustices carried out across the nation. Beckett was a MICA student in 2015, during the protests surrounding the Baltimore police murder of Freddie Gray, and the 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd triggered an overwhelming state of emotional exhaustion and intellectual fatigue. As Beckett watched people protesting and organizations speaking out in support of Black lives, Black businesses, and Black artists, she paid attention to the differences between intention, placation, and action.

Here, Beckett began to revisit the idea of Black space. Based on her intimate relationships with arts institutions, Beckett knew that important conversations were not really happening. So she and a former collaborator, Alexis Dixon, decided to shake things up. To do this, she resurrected an aspect of her thesis that she had previously shelved to streamline and save time: a digital platform, the birth of BARS.

The duo titled this social-media-based project Racism in the Arts, and the series of posts highlighted various ways institutions reify white supremacy in the field. “It was a daily conversation of how we felt being the Black women working behind the scenes [in arts institutions],” Becket says. “That experience, from our perspective, was completely different from our peers who were the artists.”

She likens the experience, unfortunately, to being at war. “We were the first brigade of, ‘Whoa, did you just say that in this meeting?’… I was losing jobs for speaking up.” The posts went viral, receiving more than 300,000 impressions on Instagram alone, which led to several organizations, including the arts administration and policy department at SAIC and the Canadian Arts Commission, using the framework in their anti-racism initiatives.

Beckett continued to expand BARS by way of both digital and physical space, producing exhibitions across Baltimore and neighboring cities, including All Together, a survey of contemporary Black women artists at the DC Public Library in the summer of 2022.

In the midst of creating ownership in the ether, Beckett was presented with the opportunity to give BARS a brick-and-mortar home in 2021. Serendipitously, a fellow artist and supporter of Beckett’s vision (who wishes to remain unnamed) had access to an empty space on Franklin Street in the downtown Seton Hill community of Baltimore. Beckett, a history enthusiast, tells me that the first group of free Haitians and Dominicans in Baltimore settled there, and that their presence can still be seen in the blue doors and homes painted yellow and pink as you move between the streets.

I can’t help but see this placement as divine alignment. From the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were created to preserve a Black space, to a graduate thesis that explored the importance and responsibility of uplifting Black space, to the evolution of “space” as more than a tangible place, Rhea Beckett is building the unbound.

 

Rhea Beckett photographed in her gallery by Kelvin Bulluck for Bmore Art Magazine Issue 14. Art by Emmanuel Massillon.
Rhea Beckett photographed in her gallery by Kelvin Bulluck for Bmore Art Magazine Issue 14. Art by Emmanuel Massillon in background.

Header Image: Rhea Beckett with art by Aliana Grace Bailey.

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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