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How the Gantt Center's new CEO's path led from chemical engineering to leading a museum

Gantt Center COO Bonita Buford says the museum has grown tremendously over the past 50 years but says its' mission of preserving African American culture and using the arts to create social change remains the same.
TYRUS ORTEGA GAINES
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Courtesy
Gantt Center CEO Bonita Buford says the museum has grown tremendously over the past 50 years but says its mission of preserving African American culture and using the arts to create social change remains the same.

The annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. always includes a full day of discussions and activities, focusing on the civil rights leader at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture in uptown. This year, the center’s new CEO, Bonita Buford will preside over events, following longtime CEO David Taylor's retirement.

Buford, the oldest of five girls, grew up mainly in St. Louis, Missouri. She says the arts were always a part of her upbringing through the French, violin and art classes she took. But Buford also excelled in math and pursued degrees in the sciences in college.

"I got a math degree from Spelman and then a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Tech ... and worked in that industry for several years in Texas and Germany," Buford said. "After I left the chemical industry, I did consulting and started volunteering to find out what I wanted to do. One of my first volunteer assignments at the then Afro-American Cultural Center was helping to organize Archbishop Desmond Tutu's visit to Charlotte in 2005."

Buford worked as a volunteer for the Gantt Center for several years before joining the staff full time in 2011 as its communications and operation director. Before being named CEO after Taylor's retirement in December, Buford was the Gantt's COO. She says being CEO was not a goal but one she is embracing as an opportunity to build on the center's success over the past 50 years.

Meet Bonita Buford, the Gantt Center's new CEO
Bonita Buford is leading the Gantt Center after its longtime CEO retired. She joined WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about how her life path led from a career in the sciences to running a museum, and her vision for the Gantt.
Gantt Center COO Bonita Buford says the museum has grown tremendously over the past 50 years but says its' mission of preserving African American culture and using the arts to create social change remains the same.

"I see myself as the person who can help raise the funds and get the word out there so the staff can continue to do the great work they do," Buford said. "We will continue to tell authentic African American stories and push social justice and be that force in the city.

"I envision us moving forward in a very multidisciplinary way. People have viewed us as more of a museum and we will of course maintain that but also make sure we have dance, film and music as part of our regular offering so it really is a multidisciplinary center," Buford said.

Buford's other priorities include:

  • Bringing in larger exhibitions and expanding the center's collection to include more contemporary artists — the "masters of the future."
  • Have more events and activities outside of the center in libraries and recreation centers so people who do not come uptown to the Gantt will have better access to what the center offers.
  • Working with the school system and holding additional sessions for teachers as they work to incorporate the arts in the curriculum
  • Continue showcasing African American stories and making the center a safe space where discussions on social justice, the arts and other issues can be held.

"It's exhilarating and terrifying to be a part of this idea that started as a cultural festival and now we have this building built by the renowned architect Philip Freelon in the heart of uptown," Buford said. "I am humbled and honored to be a part of this. I really am."  

For a list of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events, go to https://www.ganttcenter.org/calendar/mlk-day-2024/

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.