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Forging equity 

In early 2019, a group of 11 women of color ranging in age from mid-20s to 70s formed a new creativity collective called WOC•Art Collaborative (pronounced "woke art"; facebook.com/WOCArt585). They intended to pool their resources, expertise, and talents to create opportunities for women and femmes of color in Rochester's creative sector. Led by community organizer Rachel DeGuzman, some of the women had collaborated on creative endeavors in the past, but others were new to one another. All saw the need for a space that would be specifically geared toward bolstering a long-underestimated population of creatives. The group launched its efforts from a raw industrial space on Tremont Street, and determined that it would spend the next year collectively deciding how to operate and sustain its efforts.

"We thought, if we're trying to build something new that's steeped in community and equity then we need to take the time to actually figure out what it is, because we had absolutely no template," says DeGuzman, who is now the group's executive director.

One year in, both the space and membership have expanded, and WOC•Art has attracted investment from more established arts organizations in Rochester. The original space has transformed from an empty room to an expanded 4,100-square-foot arts center, having taken over the adjacent space formerly rented by Gallery Seventy-Four.

Now WOC•Art's headquarters is divided into the cozy DreamLab CoWork office and the wide-open DreamLab Studio space for painters, dancers, photographers, and other artists to use. The center has become an important host for performances and rehearsals, meetings of individual members as well as various community organizations, Kwanzaa events, a Police Accountability Board fundraiser, and more.

And this year, a small room within the space will be transformed into a recording studio for musicians and storytellers to use, and another section will become a marketplace where members can sell their work and those hosting events can sell merch.

The 11 founding WOC•Art members are still on board. But in the fall the group expanded to include new membership opportunities on two tiers, which is a result of the group sorting out its financial model. For an annual fee of $200, affiliate members get exposure on the group's website, access to networking events and other happenings at the space, and can rent the space for $25; and members of the WOC•Art Collaborative DreamLab CoWork cohort get use of the space. With membership that includes access to space coming out to about $50 per month, WOC•Art's pricing is far below market rates for renting a studio or office.

"We're trying to make it so no one ever says, 'I can't do something, I can't take a risk because I can't afford to present something,'" DeGuzman says.

The group's goal is to have 61 members (the 11 founders, plus 50 affiliate and cohort members by January 2021, DeGuzman says. At that point, membership alone will pay the rent and other operating costs of the space.

The collaborative has more than two dozen members at present. New members include artist and educator Athesia Benjamin, Ruth Anderson of Black Storytellers League of Rochester, innovation researcher and disability-rights activist Luticha Doucette, sensual movement artist Sharde' Pinkney-Salters, and Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt.

But to bridge that gap between now and the 2021 goal, WOC•Art also launched a Seed Equity Investment Initiative, with the Memorial Art Gallery as its first "Cultural Cornerstone" investor. Impressed with the way MAG director Jonathan Binstock has led the institution and the diversification of the museum's collections, DeGuzman and WOC•Art director of engagement Delores Jackson Radney reached out to him to discuss the collective's endeavors and goals. He was enthusiastic about WOC•Art, and MAG became the first seed investor.

DeGuzman says the group is looking for six to 12 other investors in 2020.

"We believe that a lot of these cultural institutions have more of a desire for equity for women of color artists in our community than they're able to achieve in their institutions," DeGuzman says. "And so one thing that they can do, as they work parallel in their own institutions, is also invest in our success independently, understanding that we have a lot of very well qualified, prolific artists in this community who don't have the necessary infrastructure to succeed, which we're providing through WOC•Art Collaborative."

"We're very grateful that there's a recognition that our community will benefit by investing in women of color artists, for us to have this stability," DeGuzman says. "In Rochester we have such limited resources. And I'm talking about space resources. Having space to rehearse, to have readings. Another play may be already mounted in the theater while you're starting your process. And having another space where you can actually start your process is critical."

One of WOC•Art's affiliate members, choreographer-dancer and Broadway actor Hettie Barnhill, rehearsed her Fringe show at the space last year. And because it's a woman-centered space, children are welcome. Barnhill's baby slept nearby in the studio as she worked.

This type of investment from a community is one form of reparations, DeGuzman says. "It's not reparations that's going to pay anybody's mortgage. But it can start leveling the playing field in Rochester and addressing inequity that exists today."

DeGuzman says that WOC•Art may eventually become a nonprofit organization, but that its model is also social entrepreneurship. "So we're creating our own financial structure that can sustain us. We won't have any money for salaries or programming, which will have to raise. But at least our space, which is central to who we are, will be secured with full membership."

She says that once funding for the operating costs is set, phase two of the group's Seed Equity Investment Initiative may focus on helping people who can't afford even below-market membership, or it could be invested in programming, such as a festival.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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