In her almost 87 years, she has captivated Broadway and European audiences and counseled U.S. presidents.
She has lived amid poverty in East St. Louis, Ill., and on her estate on a tropical island filled with mangoes and singing canaries.She has fasted for human rights for Haitians and championed civil rights for African-Americans.
An anthropologist, an author, a painter, a poet and mostly a legendary dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham has lived as diverse a life as anyone.
Now, an effort is under way to make sure future generations will get to experience her art, her passions and her life.
Last weekend, a dinner in Dunham's honor in Champaign, Ill., and an open house in East St. Louis kicked off a campaign to restore and rescue the Dunham Dynamic Museum and the other Dunham cultural centers in East St. Louis. These include her collections, her children's dance workshop and her home and international artists' dormitory.
Backers hope to secure private and public funding as well as to establish the Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities as one of the region's most important cultural institutions. A five-year plan for saving the Dunham centers has been prepared by a team from the University of Illinois.
The campaign is part of a larger effort to bring back the Olivette Park neighborhood of East St. Louis, where she lives, and to stabilize it using cultural resources.
Drastic cuts in arts funding in recent years and the depressed state of the East St. Louis economy have created a financial crisis for the museum and centers, backers say.
In November, the situation got so grim that local utility companies cut off gas and electric service. Dunham's security system was shut off; water lines ruptured in the children's dance studio. It appeared that the Dunham programs would end.
East St. Louis City Manager Lamar Gentry and others intervened to help restore some of the utilities. And the Katherine Dunham Emergency Assistance Committee was created. In a few short months, the committee has already secured some financial commitments.
Kenneth Reardon, who teaches urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois and heads the East St. Louis Research Action Project, wrote the five-year plan.
"This campaign is a critical effort because of the invaluable contribution Ms. Dunham has made for more than 60 years to American culture as a dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, educator, community builder and humanitarian," Reardon said. "The state and nation can ill afford to lose touch with the dramatic example of Ms. Dunham, whose artistic, scholarship, teaching and civil rights activities have inspired so many."
Dunham said she had "not been sure whether the Dunham centers would last beyond her life but that," because of this new effort, "she was now quite confident (they) would enjoy a long history."
She first came to East St. Louis when she was 62. She wanted to create a world-class arts center in one of the country's poorest cities. She had an affinity for the area: Her mother was born in nearby Alton, Ill.
Dunham has recently overcome a bout with pneumonia, but she says with customary zest: "I like being (almost) 87, strangely enough." Last week, she got an honorary degree in Ohio. Later this month, she'll get one in Arizona.
Reardon, of the University of Illinois, says: "What's remarkable about her is that in a minute she could call up the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and they would be delighted to take the collection because of its value. But her commitment to East St. Louis and its future - particularly the children of the city - have kept her struggling to find a way to support this community-based arts program in one of the poorest cities in the country."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)