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Conflict Rouses Providence Arts Community: Artist Nafis M. White Calls Upon Volunteers to Keep Doors of Central Contemporary Arts Open; CCA Responds by Shutting Doors Permanently

On March 10, artist Nafis M. White took to Instagram to rally community support. Here, Kendall DeBoer tracks the ensuing conflict.

Feature by Kendall DeBoer

Colorful artwork by Nafis M. White adorns the walls and floor of a space at Central Contemporary Arts.

Nafis M. White, “Freedom is My Favorite Position,” installation view, Central Contemporary Arts, Providence, RI. Pictured: a selection of Oculus works (on wall) and All In (After Tony Feher) (floor piece). Courtesy of the artist and Cade Tompkins Projects.

What is hidden and what is visible? What do we allow to be legible?
—artist statement from Nafis M. White

I visited Central Contemporary Arts (CCA) with the intention to write a review of “Nafis M. White: Freedom Is My Favorite Position,” a solo exhibition that opened February 4. I still will; I could wax poetic about the charged materials and atmospheric energy they radiate throughout the space. Unfortunately, circumstances surrounding the exhibition and its home institution have been in flux. The artist and CCA have taken to their respective social media accounts over the course of the past several days—the former to air grievances and rally a grassroots volunteer staff, the latter to issue statements in response. Writing about this friction seems necessary, if not urgent, as the exhibition officially closes on Saturday, March 18, 2023.

CCA opened seemingly out of nowhere in 2021 with a mission of “building artistic innovation, local power, and public access” and “cultivat[ing] expansive thinking and creative expression for a more joyous and equitable future.” Situated in Pearl Street Lofts’ complex in Providence’s West End neighborhood, the organization also offers studios to artists in residence. White’s exhibition at the space appears, at the surface, to be a natural fit—White is a pillar of the Providence community who has been active in the local arts scene for years, receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2015 followed by an MFA from the same school in 2018. She is particularly well-known and well-respected in the overlapping circles of queer and Black artists in the area.

Though there are many details underlying the dispute between White and CCA, the crux of the current situation is a seemingly abrupt change in open hours at the venue and the resultant curbing of access to the artist’s work on view. When the show opened in early February, CCA’s open hours were listed as Wednesday through Saturday, 12–6 PM (totaling twenty-four hours a week). As of March 14, these hours still appeared in earlier Instagram and Facebook posts advertising the show, as well as in the printed pamphlet I picked up during my visit in early March. At the time of publication, CCA’s website lists the hours as “Saturday 1–6 PM and by appointment” (totaling five hours a week, almost eighty percent less than the initial hours).

(left) This screenshot of a CCA Instagram post advertising “Nafis M. White: Freedom Is My Favorite Position,” originally posted on February 8, 2023, highlights the original hours. (right) A photograph of the printed pamphlet that was available at the front desk at CCA when I visited March 1, 2023, also lists the original hours.

The conflict became evident on March 10, when White took to Instagram to express frustration with the steep decline in open hours, writing, “Family, the director at Central Contemporary Arts has effectively abandoned my exhibition and has kept the doors closed on the exhibit. This is the third consecutive day of no shows and no calls.” White’s post indicates that there had been no clear communication or consensus about the change in hours, and voices her ongoing difficulties, claiming: “the show has been staffed by only me and that is not my responsibility and has been a tremendous lift while I prepare for other exhibits and projects.” Simultaneous stories shared by the artist revealed that the director “has not been showing up Wednesday through Saturdays as a general practice,” and “was not there when she [the director] caught COVID and did not have any contingency plan at all.” Soliciting help from the Providence community, White’s post and stories urged volunteers to help staff and maintain CCA. She writes, “I would LOVE this show to be accessible to the Communities of which I am a part. I don’t know why the director has decided to not honor the hours of the exhibition and non profit with no communication and no plans. This is a publicly funded venue that is not serving the population that it was funded to serve.”

White’s call for support resulted in about forty community volunteers offering to keep the doors open from 12–6 PM daily for the remainder of her exhibition. The request also led to various community members putting pressure on CCA to take accountability and apologize. On Sunday, March 12, CCA posted a public statement from their Instagram addressing White’s claims, opening with: “Over the past two weeks, there have been false statements and accusations made about CCA and the director, including allegations by an artist that she was not paid for her work and was staffing her own gallery hours.” The statement proceeds to share that CCA is “a W.A.G.E. certified organization” that pays “all artists generous artist fees and material stipends.” CCA posits, “Our hours have not differed from those hours listed on our website,” but also admits that, “for the past two weeks, we have had fewer open hours due to lower exhibition attendance on weekdays.” The statement implies that the change in hours occurred two weeks prior (which would have been late February or early March) and was a consequence of low visitor numbers. The statement ends with a reiteration of CCA’s mission, and some well-wishes for White: “CCA is dedicated to building artistic innovation, local power, and public access. We look forward to continuing to work with our community to fulfill this mission. We are so grateful for all that Nafis M. White has contributed to the space and wish her the best.”

The statement CCA posted on their Instagram on March 12.

As I write this article, the statement has been removed from Instagram and the CCA account has been deactivated. Before it was removed, the statement had about sixty comments critiquing the language as dodging accountability and avoiding the larger concerns and allegations made by the artist. One commenter, Arielle Jennings (@arimjenn), wrote: “You may have compensated Nafis in some form or fashion, but you are directly interfering with her receiving additional opportunities, connections, and sales of her artwork by changing the hours of the gallery last minute and not allowing the community to see her work.” Notably, W.A.G.E. responded from their official Instagram account (@wageforwork), sharing, “Yes, CCA is W.A.G.E. Certified but to be totally clear, W.A.G.E. Certification is limited to paying artists equitably. Using it to paper over or justify questionable institutional practices outside of that scope is W.A.G.E. Washing.”

In order to understand the timeline of events in this conflict more clearly, I reached out to both the artist and CCA’s director, Natalie Cohen, a recent Harvard graduate who moved to Providence in 2020. On March 13, I asked both individuals a similar set of questions in hopes of figuring out what exactly happened to strain communication between the institution and the artist. Speaking to each party over the phone, I learned a lot about the working dynamics between the two.

I spoke with White first, and asked her about how she came to be involved in CCA. White has been leasing a studio from CCA since August 2022, which is why she has her own key to the exhibition space. White noted there were earlier moments of tension between herself and Cohen. One particular clash arose from a fundraising event held on December 9, 2022. “We had about seventy people. It was really fun, really raucous [with] people from all communities, young and old.” White says Cohen had hoped the fundraising event would bring in “thousands of dollars for the benefit of the organization,” but the event ended up losing money, and as a result, the director “was furious.” (In my later call with Cohen, she stated, “Admittedly, I was putting a lot of blame on her [White]”). “Despite there being many community leaders, advocates, and people of color, she looked at me and said nobody was there,” White said.

I spoke with CCA director, Natalie Cohen, later the same day. The timeline of events, for the most part, matched up between both individuals’ accounts. Cohen mentioned that White first rented her studio at CCA in August 2022, and that though the two were on friendly terms, the December 9 fundraising event became a sore spot between them. “Things started to change for us when I hired her to run an event for us, and the event went poorly. […] It was supposed to be a fundraiser and we ended up losing thousands of dollars.” This incident was a couple of weeks after Cohen had already signed on for White to curate a show for February (which was later canceled), and Cohen deeply values upholding her contractual agreements. “We had a long talk about it,” she states, “and we just had to move forward.”

Both White and Cohen corroborated that another exhibition had been planned to open in February of 2023, but due to irreconcilable differences with that artist, the show ended up canceled, at which point Cohen decided to run “Nafis M. White: Freedom Is My Favorite Position,” organized by White and curated by André Bloodstone Singleton instead. By January 26, White had signed a contract to create works to be installed in the CCA gallery for a solo show by February 3. More tensions surfaced as the show neared. It became clear that both Cohen and White had different ideas for how to communicate both about the exhibition and with one another. White claims Cohen approached the artist with a contract that ceded “control over [White’s] social media,” asking for each of White’s posts to be “verified by [Cohen].” Cohen agreed that she did draft a contract about social media because she was “frustrated that [White] had posted without thinking twice about the organization,” but was not “trying to control [White].”

The artist and the director noted that their initial conflicts escalated further in early January, when Cohen approached CCA’s board of directors regarding her relationship with White. Cohen reported the board recommended that White and Cohen have a conversation with a third-party mediator. In the presence of this third person, White and Cohen sat together. White says “[Cohen] starts crying, immediately,” and Cohen confirms she felt “overwhelmed.” It’s important to note that the board members are often referenced as a point of authority by both White and Cohen, but nowhere on the CCA website can information about these directors (or Cohen for that matter) be found.

In spite of these difficult interactions, the show opened with a jubilant and celebratory event on February 4, hosting over four hundred attendees. It seems that around mid-February the tone shifted again towards agitation, as Cohen contracted COVID-19 and closed the space while she was sick. “My art dealer actually contacted her to extend the show because we were not told or given any kind of contingency plan,” said White. It was around this same point in time that White notes Cohen began “calling [White’s] art dealer and telling them how unprofessional [White is and] how hard it is to talk to [White].” (Cohen said this is somewhat true; she recalls describing White as “unprofessional” to the gallerist shortly before signing the contract for the exhibition.) Shortly thereafter, the open hours of the gallery would change.

(left) A post made by Nafis M. White on her personal Instagram on March 10, 2023 is the first instance of White’s public calls to garner volunteers. (right) White uses her Instagram stories to update followers about the status of the space, the volunteers, and her interactions with CCA as pictured here on March 10, 2023.

When White took to Instagram to call on her community, the debate about when the hours were changed began to unfold in real time. When I asked Cohen about why the hours changed, she admitted, “I physically cannot do these hours, but I wouldn’t ever ask her to volunteer to do her own hours.” When I asked about why there are not more staff members present in the gallery, she shared “there’s just no extra money” for hiring staff. I tried to pin down exactly when the hours on the website changed, mentioning the pamphlet I picked up during my early March visit. “I believe [the hours] changed on March 3,” said Cohen. I asked if and when Cohen emailed White and her gallerist about the change. “No, I emailed them on Wednesday, March 8. So I guess there was only one day [the gallery was closed], that didn’t make a difference. There was one Friday that she was not notified.”

I asked why White chose to move forward with the exhibition at CCA when there were multiple instances of strained encounters between her and the director. She said that although some of her friends advised her against it, her mother encouraged her to seize the opportunity, yet proceed with caution. Regarding why Cohen chose to move forward with the exhibition, she remarked that the early conflicts “didn’t feel like enough to put down a show that could be really great, and it is really great,” commenting that White’s work is “beautiful.” “I love Nafis’s work,” the director expressed.

By the end of the day on March 12, White’s team of volunteers were on deck to “keep the door open.” She emphasized the communal and D.I.Y. nature of the show at all steps during our phone conversation: “My mother and my lover were on their hands and knees cleaning the floor before the opening. The door would not be open to the community unless we [volunteers] do it. So yeah, let’s do it!” After a couple of days of radio silence from CCA on social media, the organization posted on March 14, that “due to safety and legal concerns, CCA will remain open only on Saturdays 1PM–6PM and by appointment,” with comments endorsing the decision from CCA board member Noelle Sands. The CCA website does not list clear instructions for making an appointment, but one can glean from the thread’s comments that the process involves e-mailing Cohen via hello@centralcontemporaryarts.org. Ten minutes after posting this second statement, CCA added, “Several members of the community have pointed out that our language is racially charged, particularly around the use of the word ‘safety’. CCA would like to take full responsibility for this irresponsible language choice.”

Controversy aside, the show in and of itself is wonderful, and I highly recommend that anyone in the area try to see White’s exhibition before it closes on March 18. My forthcoming review will attest to the delights and complexities of White’s art. Though White hoped to host a closing party on March 19, she canceled in compliance with CCA, whose stance is “per [White’s] agreement with CCA as well as CCA’s agreement with our landlord, [White] may not hold these public events in the space,” as articulated in an email Cohen sent to White on March 14, at 10:24 AM.

White is calling upon Providence to attend on Saturday, March 18, to pack the gallery and see off the show. Because, as Sands wrote in the comments below both of CCA’s Instagram statements, “CCA [is] under no contractual obligation to staff the gallery for those hours,” we will have to wait and see whether the public will have access to the exhibition on Saturday. White is confident, however, that they will be open, declaring emphatically, “they have to open the doors.”

(left) CCA’s second public statement post to Instagram from March 14, 2023 reiterates the gallery’s hours. (right) White calling for attendees to fill the CCA space on the closing date of her exhibition.

Later on March 14, CCA shared they would be denying access to their current artists in residence, Edwige Charlot, k.funmilayo aileru, Samuel Nehila, and of course, Nafis M. White. In an email sent at 11:37 AM, Cohen wrote: “I am very sorry for this inconvenience, but due to safety and legal concerns, you will not have access to the studios until Friday. Your March rent will be refunded in full (by Saturday, latest) to reflect this change.” Sands shared in Instagram comments, “We are not insured for unauthorized activity happening in the space and need to prioritize protecting the gallery from any legal misdemeanors.” The CCA account later commented on the same post that “unauthorized individuals were given keys to the space, so unfortunately, we had to change the locks […] Friday is the earliest we can guarantee that we have new keys from the landlord to give to our tenants, but we are working with the landlord to get studio residents their new keys sooner.” Cohen disclosed over the phone that she did not know which individuals White may have given keys to for volunteer shifts, but later learned that White had only given keys to her gallerist, Cade Tompkins.

At 11:54 AM on March 14, just a little over an hour after the email stating White could not hold public events in the space, Cohen emailed White and CC’ed gallerist Tompkins a cease and desist notice demanding that White “immediately cease and desist from making any and all defamatory and false statements against [Cohen] within one day of the date of this email (March 14th) and remove all defamatory statements and content from social media and any other platforms.” The email includes a list of alleged defamatory and false statements that Cohen requests White to recant, including the following: “You claimed that ‘CCA and the Board of Directors has been actively attempting to silence me and my work,’” and, “You suggested on Instagram that I was contributing to a white supremacist agenda.” Though the letter requests White remove defamatory content, there is no statement indicating that Cohen will pursue legal action should White choose to ignore the request.


UPDATE:
March 15, 2023 – 7:59 AM EST

By the evening of March 14, many community members replied to CCA’s second instagram statement, articulating their dissatisfaction with CCA’s response. Board member Sands was quick to reply to many comments, addressing complainants with requests to “Please give me a call if you want to discuss further, I’m happy to have a conversation,” and “For any additional information, please give me a call,” listing her personal phone number. Arielle Jennings (@arimjenn) replied to Sands, “We are not going to be calling you individually to have a chat. We are a concerned community who is seeing one of our own get shut out of her own exhibition. Throwing your number out and asking us to call individually does not solve what is currently happening.” White claims the efforts to take the conversation offline are “a tool to isolate and redirect.”

In the same thread, W.A.G.E. commented with information regarding the requisites for certification:

“Another clarification about what can be expected from a W.A.G.E. Certified institution: While staffing and public access aren’t explicitly delineated under Certification Requirements, they are baseline necessities and should be considered part of what W.A.G.E. identifies as Basic Programming Costs and Services: 

‘An artist fee is distinct and separate from basic programming costs and services. Basic programming costs are the costs associated with the basic requirements of mounting programs as defined by the organization’s mission and are irrespective of specific content. These basic requirements also constitute the basic programming services an organization must provide to artists in mounting programs. The provision of basic programming costs and services are required for W.A.G.E. Certification and include:
-Provision of exhibition, performance, or projection space
-Preparation of exhibition, performance, or projection space for the program
-Shipping and insurance costs when necessary
-Presentation infrastructure, including display equipment, exhibition furniture and lighting
-Documentation of exhibition or event
-Promotion of exhibition or event
-Travel and accommodation when necessary
-Obtaining and paying for image rights for commissioned and existing texts’”

We received a PDF copy of the contract from Cohen via email in reply to our initial request for comment, which tracks with statements from White: “The director circulated my contracts (studio lease, exhibition contract) to community members who had contacted them.” The contractual agreement between CCA and White lists an artist fee of $1,500 (which, at the time of the contract, had “been paid in full” as a “previous curatorial fee agreement” for the canceled exhibition White had been scheduled to curate; in other words, the same $1,500 Cohen paid to White for curating the canceled exhibition was considered an already-paid artist fee for White’s solo exhibition). The contract also lists a materials fee of $3,500, and states that the fee covers “all exhibition materials,” “all printing fees,” “all promotional posters,” “all materials for printing,” “payment for photographer/videographer for performance and exhibition documentation,” “any special refreshment needs for exhibition Opening,” and “payment for all performers and artists participating in exhibition.” CCA also “will ensure [sic] artwork up to $50,000; Artist must ensure [sic] all exhibition works greater than $50,000.”

The W.A.G.E. Basic Programming Costs and Services appear to inform the CCA contract, but White has claimed to have spent over $10,000 out of pocket on costs related to the exhibition, suggesting that the $3,500 fee meant to cover printing, promotion, graphic design, documentation, refreshments, and performers might have been wishful thinking at best, and a reliance on free labor at worst—especially when the contract was signed on January 26, 2023, with install deadlines just eight days later on February 3, 2023. Cohen maintains that the fee should have been adequate to cover costs, though the director also notes that White and Cohen had a verbal agreement that the performances at White’s opening would be paid for by the artist.

As of 12:02 PM on March 15, the CCA instagram (@centralcontemporaryarts) is no longer available. It appears to have been deactivated. White reacted to the deactivation in her Instagram stories, stating, “They [CCA] erased everything community said, they erased the amazing posts by W.A.G.E.; this is erasure, and this is the playbook.” She also maintained “we’re not closing the gallery,” stating that her gallerist was currently welcoming guests at CCA. White also reiterated that visitors should “pull up Saturday.” The artist continued: “Bring non-alcoholic beverages; bring things to share; bring food to share. I’m working on getting donations of food, if any of you all have folks that we can reach out to for food donations. We’ll pull out tables in the gallery space, and like music pumping. Saturday […] we need hundreds of people in the gallery, getting into that work, and meeting each other.”


UPDATE:
March 16, 2023 – 7:24 AM EST

As of late last night, CCA director Cohen shared with this author that she intends to close CCA indefinitely. “The gallery is shutting down,” she stated, citing that there are no longer finances to feasibly run the space. Apparently Cohen had already been thinking about closing the space, and the studio residents “all decided to leave on their own accord.” Cohen will return the artists’ security deposits. Similarly, Cohen reports that artist Lilly Manycolors, who was co-curating a youth exhibition with local Providence teenagers scheduled to open later this month at CCA entitled “Seeing Ourselves: Building Relationships from the Inside Out,” resolved to cancel the show due to the social media disputes. However, Manycolors notified us that the show is not canceled, but rather “forced to find a new location so that the participating youth can have their show that they’ve been working so hard to produce,” she clarified in an email on March 17 (see update below). For other upcoming projects, like the proposal selected from their recent curatorial open call and another future exhibition, Cohen says she will pay the full curatorial fees to the curators, but will not be staging the shows. 

Regarding the last Saturday of “Freedom Is My Favorite Position,” and White’s call for hundreds to fill the gallery to celebrate the show closing, Cohen remarked, “I don’t really know what the plan is for Saturday.”

UPDATE:
March 17, 2023 – 7:37 AM EST

One of the studio artists in residence, k.funmilayo aileru, posted on the evening of March 16 via xyr public Instagram story (@kfunmilayoa): “The director’s claim that the studio residents ‘all decided to leave of their own accord’ is false. I have not spoken to Cohen about leaving.” White reshared the story and added “We were not notified and discovered this fact once we read the article. This was news to us all.” Due to the impending closure, the artists are working on organizing a fundraiser to help alleviate the burdensome expenses of relocating. White shared in another Instagram post on March 16 that “Studio Artists have to move urgently. Keep watch for a fundraiser shortly.”

In an email to Boston Art Review on March 17, artist Lilly Manycolors shared that because of CCA’s closure, she is looking for space to show an exhibition of work by Providence teens. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the show would be canceled.

UPDATE:
April 15, 2023 

On March 27, Natalie Cohen informed us that despite White’s claims from February that she had not been adequately paid, a contract dated January 11, 2023 notes that White had been paid an artist fee and materials fee that together totaled $5,000. Cohen specified that this contract was not upheld due to the fact that the artist completed her installation one day later than what was specified in the agreement. Per an additional contract dated November 11, CCA had agreed to pay the artist an event planning fee of $1,850 for a holiday bingo event. This fee was paid to White in full despite aspects that were stipulated in the agreement not coming to fruition.

Kendall DeBoer

Contributor

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