Farewell, Bonner

RatliffA tribute—and gratitude—to Bonner Wagnon.

By Phillip Ratliff 

It was 2002 when a consulting firm, Wolf, Keens & Co., published a report known as the Cultural Master Plan of Greater Birmingham. The plan was thorough, the result of months of hearings with representatives from public and private arts and culture institutions. And it was expansive and visionary, propagating a bird’s-eye view of a culturally vibrant Birmingham that lay decades in the future.

Bolstering this vision was some $15 million in funding, spread out over three years, a delicious bucket of money dubbed the Jefferson County Community Arts Fund, or JCCAF. (The first two words in that name—Jefferson County—should say enough about why that funding source is no more.) The amount was small by municipal government standards, but a windfall to a community of artists used to getting by on little more than hustle and hope.

From that fund, about $800,000 annually was directed to boutique community organizations—sewing co-ops and poetry slams and summer music camps, situated in such economically emerging areas as Fairfield and Woodlawn. In arts funding lingo, these enclaves are “underserved” communities, which simply means that when funding is flowing, it tends to bend around, not channel into, these places.

Directing money and talent into underserved communities was for years the passion of Cultural Alliance grants director Bonner Wagnon. Bonner’s job was to dice large chunks of money and the vision it was to hold into small, bite-sized morsels that people could swallow and be nourished by. Hers was the work not simply of someone who had control of the knife but of an arts nutritionist, of sorts. Bonner was instrumental in helping Lillis Taylor—founding director of Bib and Tucker, create a quilting “sew-op” in the heart of Woodlawn. Bonner pushed Lillis’s artistic vision and helped her work find value in the marketplace.

Real Life Poets, John Paul Taylor’s spoken word outreach program, is perhaps one of Bonner’s most popular successes. Taylor does important work with urban teen poets, work that impacts their skills in language arts and their competence as performers. When they came to Bonner at the Cultural Alliance, they were a loose band of individual poets trying to build some structure around their passion.

“Bonner walked them through an elemental business plan, helping them form a nonprofit, spending hours and hours helping their organization get some legs,” says her former boss, Buddy Palmer, president and CEO of Create Birmingham.

Bonner came to the Cultural Alliance (the forerunner of Create Birmingham) after over a decade of policy work in Washington. She campaigned for George MacMillan during his run for governor and went to work for the Lakeshore Foundation in the early 1990s. (For a more thorough bio, I recommend Greg Garrison’s article on Bonner, which you can find online.) Somewhere along the way, Bonner developed a taste for homegrown art. Every year she was at Magic City Art Connection, spending her own money. Her home was filled with the work of Birmingham artists and craftsmen.

When Jefferson County created the JCCAF, there was no precedent for that level of public investment in the arts, and there hasn’t been any thing since like it, Palmer says. Once word got out, artists swarmed to the Cultural Alliance, often with no idea how to write a grant or administer a program. Artistic vision sans business know-how is a perennial problem in the arts world. Bonner lived her life as its solution. To a world tall on outsize visionaries and short on detail and direction, Bonner brought an ability to realize, to see specifics, to plot next steps. She was quite simply a policy whiz, Palmer says, and her grant writing skills were utterly meticulous. She was usually the smartest person in rooms typically populated with artists or politicians accustomed to thinking that they held that honor.

Although Bonner passed away from colon cancer last May at the age of 54, her impact on Birmingham continues.

“Bonner nurtured up and coming cultural organizations. She encouraged people to dream about the possibilities of how to engage with their community. She nurtured a lot of folks. But she did not pet you. She was a tough-love nurturer,” Palmer says.

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