Jonathan Cunningham is Manager of Youth Programs and Community Outreach at EMP Museum. He’s also Mayor Murray’s newest Seattle Arts Commissioner, former Seattle Weekly Music Editor, and board member of The Seattle Globalist, a community-based news outlet. In between organizing the City of Music Career Day, hosting a panel at PopCon, and planning a cool fundraiser in support of youth arts education in Kenya, Cunningham took a few moments from his busy schedule to talk with me about his work in youth arts advocacy, his new role as Arts Commissioner, and why he loves working at EMP. Here’s a snapshot of our chat.
Seattle Weekly: Tell me about this Sunday’s Madaraka Festival at EMP.
Cunningham: Calling it a festival is kind of a misnomer. Madaraka Day is the Kenyan day of independence, and this event is actually a big concert and arts show in partnership with One Vibe Africa [a Seattle- and Africa-based youth empowerment group]. There’s a concert side and [trumpeter and One Vibe Africa ambassador] Owuor Arunga is arranging all the music. The Physics are playing, vocalists Naomi Wachira and Naomi Wamboe will perform, among others, and there’s a surprise special guest. There’s an art component, too. Students and instructors at the community arts program in Kisumu, Kenya have sent their original art over and all proceeds from the sale of that will go directly to funding their arts empowerment program. It’s going to be a great day of unity for the community.
SW: Can you tell me about this “surprise guest”?
JC: I’m not going to say who, but for a hip-hop oriented show like this there are only a few names that would be worth it.
SW: What inspires you to work in youth arts advocacy?
JC: Someone’s gotta do it! But really, I think so many young people feel really marginalized, aged out, and classed out. A lot of young folks don’t feel like they have a voice, when they actually have a lot to say. One thing that really touched me was when Teentix.org [a service that provides teens with low-cost tickets to Seattle’s many arts, music, and cultural events] held the first “Teeny Awards” and EMP was voted “Favorite Organization.” That was shortly after I was brought on board here, and it was incredible. I mean, how often do teens want to hang out in museums?
SW: What do you enjoy about your role at EMP?
JC: This past February I programmed the museum’s first Black History Month event, “Octavia’s Brood.” Octavia Butler was an amazing science fiction author who was black, she lived in Seattle and died here. It was so well-received a few times we had a line out the building and down the street. For me, it was really good validation about the work I’m doing. Plus, it’s such an incredible team here, and I have the entire institution’s support. Like the City of Music Career Day and a number of things I’m working on. None of this happens alone, we all work together to make things happen here.
SW: Congratulations, by the way, on your appointment as Seattle’s newest Arts Commissioner. What are your thoughts about this new role?
JC: I’m really excited and really honored that they chose me. You know, I actually decided to throw my name in the hat just as a challenge to myself. I never thought they would actually pick me. It was very competitive. The seat that I’m filling was formerly occupied by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, an amazing person and soul who recently left SAM for the MET, she’s the new Education Director there. Pick a comet, any comet, and that’s Sandra. No one can fill Sandra’s shoes, but what I want to do is just be myself. I’m learning through success and failure and I’m confident in what I bring to the table.