PMA Community Spotlight: Nikki Keith is Guiding Development at the Gantt Center
Since joining the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture as Director of Development in 2014, Nikki Keith has advanced her career in a meaningful way while overseeing the organization’s most successful year to date.
“I was attracted to the Center because of the focus on African American arts history and culture,” Keith said. “To marry that with my job is exciting.”
Previously, Keith served as Director of Development and Communications for Elon Homes & Schools for Children. She came to the Gantt Center with over sixteen years of experience in nonprofit management and development for organizations including the United Way of Central Carolinas and Boy Scouts of America.
“I’ve worked in development for the health and human services sector for awhile and really felt like this was a time to do something different but using my same skill set and re-energizing myself professionally and personally,” Keith said.
Keith started in June of 2014, a milestone year for the Center that marked the 40th anniversary of its founding.
Staff members had lofty goals for the Center’s development. In what they called “The 1974 Challenge,” they aimed to raise their membership from 649 members at the start of 2014 to 1,974 by June of 2015 to receive a substantial grant.
“Once we hit the goal, Duke Energy would donate $100,000 to the center,” Keith said. “That really helped to generate all kinds of energy and get existing members excited.”
By December 30th, the Center had already reached its goal, more than tripling its prior membership count. Alongside membership growth came new community events and member opportunities, making the year as a whole a rewarding time for the Center’s staff.
“It’s a time to reflect on meaningful programming and exhibits that have been accomplished,” Keith said.
One such event was the Gantt Fest last summer. The Center also hosted a tea to celebrate the founding mothers, UNC Charlotte professors Dr. Mary Harper and Dr. Bertha Maxwell.
Others included the Jazzy Holiday Gala in December, which took guests through the decades of music representative of African American culture and included iconic dances like the Soul Train line. The Center took its first institutional trip to Cuba that same month.
“After being closed off for 50 years, having a group travel there was immensely exciting,” Keith said.
The center installed a new exhibit called “Venturing Out Of the Heart of Darkness” based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about colonialism in the Belgian Congo, which launched on February 6.
“It will fill all three of our galleries and reflect the impact of colonialism on attitudes that defined black culture in America,” Keith said.
Keith said ideas for the happenings at the Gantt Center come from a number of different sources and is ultimately a collective effort of the staff. The prominent creative leaders for the Center include guest curator Regina Barber and President and CEO David Taylor.
“[Taylor] constantly challenges himself and the staff to think outside of the box, and for us to remember we’re not just a museum,” Keith said. “It’s a beautiful facility with lovely galleries filled with interesting and relevant pieces of work that celebrate arts and culture.”
The Gantt Center staff consists of a small but dedicated group of individuals who appreciate community sources for support.
“We are 12 people,” Keith said. “We’re not as nimble as some larger organizations, but many churches and volunteers have stepped up with community presentations to continue to promote the center.”
Keith described Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a huge success for the Center, with a variety of showcases and substantial community turnout.
“We had a woman who was doing freedom songs for children,” Keith said. “Someone did a one-act musical. More than 1500 people came, and that constitutes the essence of the center – the people and the programming.”
When planning the programs at the Center, Keith works hard to ensure they are engaging enough that she would want to attend them herself.
“To date, we’ve had many events and activities I’ve started, and I haven’t been to something that I would not have wanted to go to outside of work,” Keith said. “Back in October we had the Gantt Symposium and [hip-hop artist] Common came to speak. The fact that it’s something I could do on my own time makes it exciting to me.”
Keith stresses the importance of the Center being an ever-evolving cultural entity for members and the outside community.
“We have to constantly challenge ourselves to be relevant and meaningful,” Keith said. “One thing we are hoping to be able to do more of is develop programming in a quick, timely turnaround manner that would be attractive to our audience.”
Aside from internal efficiency, Keith emphasizes lasting relationships with potential and returning donors and members as a crucial facet to a successful nonprofit.
“What I’ve learned over time is that relationship building and relationship nurturing is key,” Keith affirmed. “As you meet and interact with people, honor those relationships because that will help you achieve your mission over time.”
Keith has high hopes the momentum from last year’s successful membership challenge will carry over into the coming years, with additional funding being an essential element to maintaining and improving the Center’s programs.
“I hope we continue with the energy the 40th year has created to continue making membership front and center because those dollars we cherish so much is how we put on high quality, first-class exhibits,” Keith said.
One of Keith’s goals for the Gantt Center is greater expansion through reaching out to the community.
“We’re really investigating how to embrace another one of our strategic missions, ‘Gantt beyond the walls,’” Keith said. “We’re looking at how we can bring the Gantt Center to the community and bring different parts of the community to the center.”
Even though Keith has worked for the Center for less than a year, she values its mission highly and looks forward to what the future holds.
“From a personal perspective, it’s important to preserve African American art and culture as part of the American story,” Keith said. “I feel blessed and fortunate to be a part of it.”