How to Advance Minority-Run Arts Organizations

A performance of the KowTeff School of African Dance.

Last month I took a crack at some of the issues around efforts of mainstream organizations and facilities to grow the minority component of their audience base. Now I’ll speak to the challenges facing minority-run organizations.

As it happens, the DeVos Institute recently published “Diversity in the Arts: Past, Present and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies and Theater Companies,” a study commissioned by the University of Maryland and part of a broader look at the state of diverse arts groups. The study details the fragile state of many of these groups and the challenges they face, including the lack of individual donors, pressure on mainstream organizations to do more diverse work, weak boards, reductions in subscriptions and arts education.

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The report does feature success stories, but the numbers are pretty grim as it relates to the financial position and prospects of a large set of surveyed organizations. And the report leads to a series of recommendations: building stronger boards, bettering management education, attracting great leaders, focusing on the art (as opposed to buildings), encouraging responsible philanthropy. Along the way there’s a suggestion that funders may need to consider limiting their funding to a smaller number of healthier groups.

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One panel from Jason Tseng's brilliantly scorching response to the study. Image courtesy: Jeremy Tseng/Fractured Atlas.
A panel from Jason Tseng’s scorching response. Image courtesy: Jason Tseng/Fractured Atlas.

It all looks and sounds very reasonable from the perspective of mainstream organizations and funders. But it misses the particular challenges of organizations coming out of minority communities (see Jason Tseng’s excellent comic response to the study, in graphic form). It misses the opportunity that we face, as a society, to invest in minority-run arts groups that address the particular challenges of their communities.

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I had the opportunity last year to work for a capacity building program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Sixteen small organizations were taught, trained and coached for a year in strategic and financial planning and board development. Many of these organizations operate in majority-minority communities, and I probably learned more from them than they learned from me. In fact, the experience led me to challenge my own assumptions about how arts organizations should organize and sustain themselves.

The first real insight was how strong their missions were. Not the ones recorded for the IRS and all the usual mainstream grant applications, but those that were revealed when we asked: “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” Then we got to their real missions, which were more closely connected with issues and challenges of the communities they served.

Supporters of The Laundromat Project recently raised $35,000. Photo courtesy of the organization.
Supporters of The Laundromat Project recently raised $35,000 in just 10 days.

There were groups like The Laundromat Project, which does amazing work in laundromats and other community facilities. Their mission is to “amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance our sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow.” They are very well organized, professionally managed and tapping impressively into mainstream support mechanisms.

One of my other favorites was the ID Studio Theatre, a group founded by Columbian actor Germán Jaramillo to address the needs and issues of recent immigrants to New York City. Productions combine professional actors with new immigrants to “foster a dialogue between cultures that stimulates creativity and strengthens and integrates immigrant community members through the performing arts.” I also admired the KowTeff School of African Dance and its commitment to teaching and sharing African music and dance traditions to new generations.

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But while The Laundromat Project shines as one of the examples of minority-based organizations succeeding with mainstream funding, ID Studio Theatre, KowTeff and many of the others toil away with strong missions but limited administrative skills and resources. Is the answer to not support them, given their fragile state? Of course not. The answer is to help them organize themselves in more sustainable ways and become more embedded in the communities they serve, finding nontraditional funding sources that get them the recognition and support they deserve on the basis on the value they deliver.

For ID Studio Theater, the answer was not to help them build traditional productions in traditional theaters, but to create shows-in-a-box that can be delivered and easily mounted in non-traditional spaces for non-traditional audiences, all with social service partners. And for KowTeff, we took the position that they should limit their participation in parades around the city — it’s a lot of work for virtually no money — and instead focus on neighborhood-based education programs that build community pride, purpose and support for these vital cultural traditions.

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My favorite arts venue in New York City is the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which was founded in 1973 by poet Miguel Algarin and his associates “to furnish the information and the vision to empower the underclass to join the mainstream and reinvigorate the American temper.” This is a strong organization with wonderful programs — from dramatic theater and Latin jazz to poetry slams and hip-hop shows. But all they started with was that amazing mission and a deep connection to their community. And that’s how they got to where they are today.

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