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Bonita Buford: Learning from Life’s Teachings

The Gantt Center’s latest CEO boasts a background in chemical engineering and a deep passion for the arts

Gantt Center, Bonita Buford

Courtesy, Harvey B. Gantt Center, Tyrus Ortega Gaines Photography

In December, as the organization geared up to commemorate its 50th anniversary this year, David Taylor, the current president and CEO, revealed his retirement after a successful 14-year tenure. Following this announcement, the museum board appointed Bonita Buford, who brings a unique blend of expertise as a chemical engineer transitioning into a career centered around her love for the arts, to take over the leadership role.

Established in 1974 as the Afro-American Cultural Center, The Gantt has evolved from its humble beginnings as a grassroots cultural hub to become a prominent institution showcasing Black art, history, and culture on a regional scale. Buford envisions broadening the center’s scope beyond being solely a museum or a visual arts space. During a virtual meeting via Zoom in late January, she expressed her aspirations, stating, “We want to emphasize that we are more than just a museum; we are more than just visual art.”

Her agenda includes not only expanding the center’s art collections, exhibitions, and regional artist residency program but also fostering collaborations with external organizations, investing in digital initiatives, and actively engaging in community-driven social justice endeavors. The diverse lineup of events planned for the 50th anniversary celebrations, featuring performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and discussions with Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project, will set a precedent for future programming initiatives, according to Buford.

Buford’s academic journey involved obtaining degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering through a dual-degree program at Spelman College and Georgia Tech. Following her graduation, she dedicated two decades to a career in chemical engineering across various locations in the United States and overseas. Her professional trajectory led her to Charlotte in 2000 for a business development role at Hoechst Celanese (now Celanese), the leading global producer of acetic acid, a fundamental raw material utilized across diverse industries. However, her tenure with the company came to an end in 2001 due to a significant workforce reduction as operations shifted to Asia. Reflecting on this period, Buford expressed relief, stating, “I was eager for a change, but I lacked the courage to pursue it.”

Subsequently, Buford transitioned into roles as a project management consultant and travel advisor for numerous nonprofit organizations and churches, such as MeckEd and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. In 2005, she commenced her involvement with the Afro-American Cultural Center as a volunteer, eventually progressing to serve as a marketing consultant. In 2011, the center, rebranded as The Gantt, appointed her as the director of communications and operations, a role she held until being promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2015. Her official commencement as the president and CEO took place on January 1.

The following insights are excerpts from her personal narrative, condensed for brevity and clarity. Buford reminisces about her upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri, as the eldest of five daughters, highlighting her exposure to music, visual arts, and language education from an early age. Raised in a working-class household, she fondly recalls her parents’ commitment to providing enriching experiences despite financial constraints, emphasizing her mother’s creativity and her father’s profound influence as a jazz enthusiast.

Transitioning to her academic pursuits, Buford shares her unconventional path to chemical engineering, driven by scholarship opportunities and her exploratory nature in pursuing diverse engineering roles encompassing research, production, and sales across different regions. Her international assignments broadened her perspectives and underscored the global interconnectedness she encountered, challenging her preconceptions and expanding her cultural awareness.

The narrative further delves into Buford’s professional evolution, marked by pivotal moments such as the layoff in 2001, which prompted her to embrace new possibilities with enthusiasm. Her early engagements with the Afro-American Cultural Center, notably organizing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit, underscore her meticulous approach and commitment to excellence. Collaborative endeavors, such as the grand-opening gala for The Gantt Center in 2009, rekindled her passion for the arts and solidified her bond with the institution and its former leader, David Taylor.

Buford’s reflections on assuming leadership at The Gantt Center underscore her commitment to fostering a multidisciplinary approach, emphasizing the institution’s role in showcasing world-class exhibitions, supporting local artists, and cultivating a diverse cultural landscape in Charlotte. She envisions leveraging the transformative power of arts and culture to drive societal change, emphasizing inclusivity, and accessibility as core principles guiding her vision for the center’s future.

As she embarks on this new chapter, Buford acknowledges the weight of responsibility in steering The Gantt Center towards sustained growth and relevance over the next five decades. Embracing digital innovation and strategic collaborations with external partners, she aims to expand the center’s reach and impact while preserving its core mission of celebrating African American narratives and artistic expressions.

Beyond her professional endeavors, Buford shares personal anecdotes, including her role as a caregiver for her elderly father and her unwavering passion for the arts, particularly jazz music and ballet. Her commitment to supporting cultural institutions and fostering community engagement underscores her belief in the transformative potential of the arts to inspire, educate, and unite diverse audiences.

In conclusion, Buford’s transition to the helm of The Gantt Center symbolizes a new chapter in the institution’s legacy, marked by a blend of technical acumen, artistic appreciation, and a profound commitment to advancing cultural equity and social impact. Her narrative embodies a testament to the enduring significance of cultural institutions in shaping communities and fostering dialogue, empathy, and understanding in an increasingly interconnected world.