Remembering Ave Montague

Tim Etheridge January 31, 2009

On Saturday, January 24, the San Francisco film and arts community lost one of its treasures, my friend and colleague, Ave Montague.

Ave was well known for her hard work, creativity, and passion for the arts. I once asked her how she was able to make a name for herself in the arts community. She told me she had been working at a nonprofit organization that lost its funding, and she was out of job. All she had was $200 in the bank, a rolodex and an old computer. Realizing she had a son to feed, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. And work she did.

Before Ave came along there was a dearth of activities and attention focusing on African American culture and arts in San Francisco. There was no Black Film Festival, MoAD (Museum of African Diaspora) was years away from being built and the Lorraine Hansberry Theater was rarely mentioned in the mainstream press. But all that changed under the spell of Ave. She founded the San Francisco Black Film Festival (SFBFF) with little funding, and what began as one day of screenings, grew into an eight day event. The Festival—which will continue in June— is seen as an important showcase for emerging and risk taking African American filmmakers and highlights an array of works from Brazil, Cuba and Africa.

As soon as the SFBFF was on solid ground, Ave began to focus on art and was hired to publicize the grand opening of MoAD. In true Ave style, the opening was a huge success and she continued to work with MoAD ensuring it had a strong media presence. Relentlessly hard working, Ave would never take no for an answer. With her charm, intelligence and sense of humor, the media was putty in her hands. Belva Davis, a veteran television journalist said it best: "Until Ave came along, we had no black PR person who could get you coverage in major outlets."

I had the pleasure of working with Ave for several cycles as a publicist with the SFBFF and it was an inspiration to watch her juggle the various aspects of the Festival. From programming to mentoring filmmakers to donor cultivation to working the box office to managing volunteers, Ave could do it all with grace and panache. She never let her need of a cane slow her down. She could accomplish more in one hour than most people could in a day. Even while the SFBFF was in full swing, Ave would already thinking about or working on her next project. There was always something creative brewing in her head.

One project she had been thinking about was a way for San Francisco to celebrate the election of Barack Obama. Ave was always certain Obama would become the nation’s first African American president and once that became a reality, she went into overdrive and immediately began planning an event for all San Franciscans. Ave told me she wanted to produce something special, a grand event where everyone—young and old; black and white; rich and poor; gay and straight could party the night away and revel in the historic moment. The event would be called "Inauguration West" and Ave worked tirelessly to ensure its success. I worked with her on publicity for Inauguration West and for the past two months I spoke with her constantly. The days leading up to the event we were practically joined at the hip. The event was on Tuesday, January 20. On Saturday, January 24—a mere four days later—I received a late night phone call from a colleague informing me that Ave had passed away. I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. It was extremely upsetting news and I couldn’t believe it. Only four days earlier, Ave had been glowing at the success of Inauguration West. She was ecstatic the event had sold out and thrilled to see the diversity of San Francisco represented. She was smiling as I said good night. We gave each other hugs and said we’ll meet up for lunch next week. Sadly, that day never came. San Francisco, the arts community, and I have lost a cherished friend. She will be deeply missed.