By Niki D’Andrea, December 2020 issue.
Each year, as part of LGBTQ History Month, Echo Magazine honors community heroes who have helped raise awareness and spark change on the local and national levels by nominating them for induction into our Hall of Fame.
Echo’s annual Hall of Fame tradition was established in 2006, and each year LGBTQ and allied community members have been recognized of their contributions in government and politics, nonprofit service, activism, and entertainment.
There was no way Bob Booker was going to sit around at the senior center drawing turkey hands and making popsicle crosses. The arts programs he helped launch for seniors “were developed with a lot of care and respect for those individuals,” he says, and they focused on exploring what interested them in the arts, whether it was talking about poetry or putting paint brush to canvas.
Booker is a lifelong arts advocate, artist, and arts administrator — but most of all, he’s a community builder and a paradigm shifter. During his 11-year tenure as executive director of Arizona Commission on the Arts, Booker led initiatives that provided support to local artists and access to the arts for people of all demographics. Being inducted into the Echo Hall of Fame is the latest accolade for him on a long list of awards.
Since his “retirement” in 2017, Booker continues to advocate for the arts and make statements with his own art at B Booker Studio [https://rcbooker13.wixsite.com/rbookerstudio]. He recently co-chaired Arizona Arts for Biden and says now is the time, more than ever, for artists to join in “the revolution for the soul of America.”
He was fascinated with the arts from an early age, accompanying his parents to museums and folk craft fairs as they moved around the East Coast throughout the 1960s for his father’s job. After spending much of his childhood in Richmond, Virginia, Booker’s family landed in South Dakota, where he attended a public high school rich with arts programs.
“I found a real place in the theater department in high school,” Booker says. “I think you’ll talk to a lot of gay folks that really found a home for themselves in the arts … I think the arts have always provided a safe place for folks that maybe were trying to find themselves and trying to find their future. I was one of those examples. I was a kid that fell into the theater department and found a place that was welcoming, that was not biased, that was gay-friendly.”
He earned a degree in theater from Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1977 and became an intern for the South Dakota Arts Council, working directly under executive director Charlotte Carver. It was there, while running errands, organizing mailings, and filing paperwork that an earnest passion for arts administration was born.
“In that arts administration and public funding environment, I recognized that if I was going to be a professional actor, I didn’t really have the talent to survive. So, the arts administration became interesting to me,” Booker says. “The fact that you were able to work with the broad spectrum of the arts, you could work with all these disciplines, and that you were close to artists and supporting their work. You were close to arts organizations. So, when I was an intern with the South Dakota Arts Council, I imagined a future in that field.”
Booker obtained his first executive director job, at the Minnesota State Arts Board, in 1997. He worked on the board of the Minnesota AIDS Project from 1996 to 2001, and on the board of Arts Over AIDS from 1993 to 1995.
Booker and his partner tested positive for HIV in 1989. One of Booker’s goals in portraying the impacts of AIDS through art was to change public perception. “We wanted to recognize the impact that HIV and AIDS was having on the artistic community of Minnesota, to reimagine language and messaging and visual images that would help people understand the pandemic and the crisis we were going through in visual and personal ways,” Booker says. “Early on, the images we were seeing on the news were of people dying, like the famous Nicholas Nixon picture of the gaunt guy in the hospital bed with his father next to him. Those were the images coming out early on, and we wanted to change that image to something that was not only surviving but thriving.”
HIV awareness is still a big deal to Booker, now a longtime survivor. Sadly, his partner died eight years ago. “The medication that he was on wiped out his liver and he passed away,” Booker says. “So, it’s important to always recognize that even though we have made incredible strides in that field, people are still dying and people are still not able to tolerate the medication and people still have other complications — especially those of us that are in our older years.”
Booker became executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts in 2006. Over the next 11 years, he led the commission through recession-era budget cuts, public policy shifts, and a prosperous post-recession period that included expanding funding partnerships and artist grants and the creation of Arizona’s first Poet Laureate post.
Jaime Dempsey served as deputy director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts under Booker and became executive director after his retirement. “My dear Bob. He’s a force! Not only is he lovely and generous and fun; he’s a great advocate for the creative sector, a wonderful friend and mentor, and a true activist at his core,” Dempsey says. “He’s been putting his body and his name on the line for decades, persistent in pushing back against all manner of injustice. I adore him. Please give him all the accolades.”
Echo: Congratulations on being inducted into the Hall of Fame!
Booker: Thank you! As I looked through the past members of the Hall of Fame, I am really honored to be part of that group of advocates, that army of “action people” who are committed to making our world better. I’m really honored to be part of that cohort of individuals.
Echo: What was your childhood like in Richmond, Virginia?
Bob Booker: I was supposed to be a very conservative kid. I joke that had I gone to my parents’ college, which was the University of Richmond and at the time was a Baptist college, I probably would be a very successful lawyer with an alcohol problem, a wife, two kids, and a boyfriend in Peru.
Echo: What’s one of your favorite memories from your time as executive director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts?
Booker: We created a program called Art Tank, which was sort of modeled after the Shark Tank TV show. It was a program that happened in four regions of the state, where arts organizations and individuals would compete for funding for an innovative project they created that moved the arts forward in some way. The grant was based not only on the project, but on the presentation. We had a panel of folks from that region of the state … and then individuals had four minutes to make their case.
I remember one woman in Bisbee, she came on stage with a giant cardboard car, and her presentation was all about her program to deliver arts programming to people in that region of the state where the kids didn’t really have access to visual arts education. She would take this van and drive into communities and set up shop and kids would come and take classes. Art Tank was a dynamic and exciting program, and a really fun competition, where everyone had a voice in it and the audience even had an Audience Award.
Echo: What things are essential to a healthy and thriving arts community?
Booker: Access is always the word we talk about. The goal is that every child in a school has access to the arts — that they have a visual arts classroom and teacher, a drama teacher, and a band. It’s one thing for someone with wealth or financial abilities to take their child to piano lessons or dance class, but in the arts, we want to make sure that everyone is accountable, and everyone has the opportunity.
The other thing we have to look at is access to performances and exhibitions that are reasonable and affordable for people. So, we have to look at ticket prices and ask, “Is that an affordable price for individuals across the state?”
Echo: You’ve been a lifelong advocate for the arts. Who or what do the arts advocate for?
Booker: It was said, “The revolution will not be televised.” Though I honor the poet Gil Scott Heron, indeed the revolution is being broadcast, minute by minute. On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and in the media, we hear a call to become implicated in positive change. We are in the midst of a revolution. A revolution to save the soul of America. Our army is legion. Artists carry creativity, innovation, questions, experience, and answers in their backpacks … show up, speak up, advocate for change, advocate for the arts, advocate for America.
Visit echomag.com/echo-magazines-hall-of-fame/to see previous inductees.