From 1968 to 1972, St. Louis was home to the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), a seminal arts collective that nurtured African American experimentalists involved with theater, visual arts, dance, poetry, and jazz. Inspired by the reinvigorated black cultural nationalism of the 1960s, artistic collectives had sprung up around the country in a diffuse outgrowth known as the Black Arts Movement. These impulses resonated with BAG’s founders, who sought to raise black consciousness and explore the far reaches of interdisciplinary performance—all while struggling to carve out a place within the context of St. Louis history and culture.
A generation of innovative artists—Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Emilio Cruz, to name but a few—created a moment of intense and vibrant cultural life in an abandoned industrial building on Washington Avenue, surrounded by the evisceration that typified that decade’s “urban crisis.” The 1960s upsurge in political art blurred the lines between political involvement and artistic production, and debates over civil rights, black nationalism, and the role of the arts in political and cultural struggles all found form in BAG.
This book narrates the group’s development against the backdrop of St. Louis spaces and institutions, examines the work of its major artists, and follows its musicians to Paris and on to New York, where they played a dominant role in Lower Manhattan’s 1970s “loft jazz” scene. By fusing social concern and artistic innovation, the group significantly reshaped the St. Louis and, by extension, the American arts landscape.