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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, July 13, 2024


March 14, 2002 – The performances of Brazilian capoeira at the Reichhold Center for the Arts on Friday night and at the St. Croix Education Complex on Saturday night will undoubtedly draw enthusiastic applause.
So will a Virgin Islander who will be in the audience both nights — the executive director and associate director of V.I. Council on the Arts for the last 32 years, John Jowers.
Betty Mahoney, who became VICA acting executive director after Jowers retired last Dec. 31, didn't really plan to bring Ginga Brasileira to the Virgin Islands as a retirement tribute to her longtime boss, but it worked out that way.
"We usually bring in a performance group at least once a year," she said. "Because of the history of the slave trade in the Caribbean as well as in Brazil, I was going to do it for Black History Month, but the group wasn't available." With the March dates open, she booked the group, and then got to thinking.
"Our staff is so small that we couldn't really do a retirement party for John," she said. Indeed, with Jowers' retirement, it consists of two and a half — Mahoney, who has served for the last 14 years as special projects coordinator; Marie Daniel, who has been grants officer for longer than that; and retiree Sandra de Lugo Olive, who helps out in the office part time.
"We thought it fitting to present the performances in honor of John's 32 years of service," Mahoney said.
For a description of capoeira and Ginga Brasileira, see "Brazilian capoeira show is Jowers tribute."
Home office beginnings
Jowers, a native St. Thomian, worked for the local telephone company for a few years, then went into the Army, then came home and was hired as associate director of the V.I. Council on the Arts for the St. Thomas-St. John district in 1969, three years after VICA was formed as the V.I. government liaison with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Stephen Bostic, the executive director, had his office on St. Croix. Jowers set up shop initially "in my mother's house on Seventh Day Adventist Street. This is why people are still sending VICA mail to P.O. Box 103 — that was her box."
The next office was in the old Gate Hotel, up from Back Street across from Walter's Living Room. Then he negotiated space in the Francois/McGowan complex, first on the second floor, and later on the first, where the VICA offices are to this day. He also set up a Christiansted office, which his not been staffed in recent years but, if all goes as planned, soon will be again.
Jowers was named executive director upon Bostic's death in 1985 and held the position until the end of last year. "I thought it was time to retire," he says. "It isn't because I don't love the job. I absolutely loved what I was doing."
His wife, Dolores Jowers, retired last July after 30 years as curator of the Fort Christian Museum.
Working barely a block from each other for decades, the two shared a ride into town and often visited each other's bailiwicks on business matters, from consulting on programing to using one's copy machine if the other's was broken down.
Now that they are both retired, they are still sharing a ride into town — where Dolores volunteers at the museum and John volunteers at the VICA office.
"I'm volunteering myself out to Betty and Marie to help get things done," Jowers says. "I've been trying to clear out my office of 30-odd years of accumulation." He's also still involved in ongoing restoration projects involving artwork at Government House.
At the museum, where no acting curator has been named, Dolores Jowers volunteers "some weeks every day," her husband said.
The two are planning to attend both Ginga Brasileira performances. Also attending will be Alan Cooper, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, a regional organization which the Virgin Islands joined in 1989.
In April, the couple will be heading to Lower Manhattan for a family affair — the birth of their third grandchild, daughter Christine's second child. She and her husband, Rob, have a 3-year-old boy. Son Steven and his wife, Annette, who live in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have a 6-month-old daughter. Jowers admits to one regret about the impending trip: "I wanted so much to be here for the 50th Carnival." It's a tradition in which his roots go deep: He was King of Carnival in 1955, with Fay Moon as Queen.
Taking V.I. arts to the world
Talking about what VICA has accomplished, Jowers cites the national and international exposure it has provided for local artists. In connection with the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife showcasing the Virgin Islands in 1990, he organized a show of work by 35 V.I. artists at the Tourism Division offices in the nation's capital. He was the prime mover behind the "Island to Island" show of work by 17 local artists in Manhattan's SoHo district a year later.
Through VICA, the territory was represented in a UNESCO exhibition that opened in Curacao, then toured the Caribbean and Paris, in several painting biennials in Santo Domingo, and at Carifesta arts festivals over the years, the most recent in St. Kitts. In 1988, under VICA's auspices, the Mungo Niles Dancers toured in New Mexico.
For years, VICA has joined state arts agencies across the country in sending locally made ornaments to Washington to be displayed on evergreens set up around the National Christmas Tree for a three-week festival. Last December, Jowers was invited to attend the tree lighting, where "they asked me to stand and be recognized."
Something else he's proud of is how much more widely VICA is recognized as a resource in the community now. "We used to get 30, maybe 40 people applying for grants, and now hundreds of people and groups put in requests every granting period." The down side is that funds are less readily available today than they once were.
He speaks with appreciation of the "excellent relations" VICA has had with every governor under whom he's served. And he recalls fondly meeting Pepino Mangravatti, who in the 1930s painted the three murals depicting St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John in the lobby of Government House on St. Thomas as a WPA project. The meeting occurred in 1974 when the artist "came in on a cruise ship, and we met him and he went and signed the murals."
"It wasn't my doing alone," Jowers emphasizes over and over in describing these milestones. "We are a small group, but we have accomplished a tremendous amount because we've worked so well together — the board, the staff, the advisers, the supporters in the community.
"Every single artist I ever spoke to, and in whatever capacity they worked, they were always willing to assist — visual, dance, drama, music, whatever." He adds, "We have had so many fine board chairs," naming a succession of names that shall go unlisted here, lest he feel bad about having inadvertently left someone's out.
If he had it to over again, Jowers says, "I would do the same things, but I would like to see the council supported more by our government." It's a comment he has been making as long as he has been connected with VICA. By law the V.I. government is to match the federal funding received each year from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since VICA was created in 1966, it has never done so.
Mahoney's working relationship with Jowers goes back to the 1970s. She was his assistant when he was associate director, then she left to work for the National Park Service on St. John before returning in the late '80s after he had been named executive director.
"It's going to be an extremely difficult act to follow," Mahoney says of his decades of ser
vice. "The roots of Virgin Islands culture really lie in John's hands … Everybody I know in the arts, whether young or old today — John influenced them, he had some impact on their lives."

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