How to Build Resilient Black Arts Organizations

What will it take for Black arts institutions — culturally specific institutions led by Black arts professionals — to not only survive, but to thrive and continue to be vital resources for the communities they serve?  What will enable Black arts organizations to be resilient over the long haul?

The simple answer is money.  The complicated answer is more trust from foundations, donors, and boards.

One of the hurdles Black arts leaders have to cross is that of race. The May 2020 Bridgespan Group study highlighted that funders still don’t fully understand the role that race plays in the problems they’re trying to address. They also discount the role race plays in the ways that they identify leaders and institutions to help them solve those problems. Put more plainly, we’re still dealing with bias, even from well-meaning funders. That bias makes it more difficult to fundraise.

This added difficulty in finding funding makes it harder for Black arts organizations to be resilient.  Resilience, according to BSI Group, is the ability of an organization “to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”  Resiliency is something that I’ve thought about a lot.

For three and a half years, I ran Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn while dealing with issues of precarity, including being staggered by the financial crises in 2013 and 2016 that each caused temporary shutdowns and furloughs. Soon after I arrived in the fall of 2017 we were seeing cashflow issues that led to another crisis in 2019. This last one almost closed Weeksville for good. However, thanks to a well-executed crowdfunding campaign and broad community support, Weeksville raised over $720,000 from a combination of community, donor and foundation sources. We were able to keep the doors open, the staff retained, and begin a strategic planning process that put us on a path to stability. And, through a confluence of factors, I secured the organization’s status as the first new member of the NYC Cultural Institutions Group in over 20 years, meaning that Weeksville is just one of 34 arts organizations that have permanent line items in the NYC budget.

The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York (June 2019) (photograph by Epicgenius via Wikimedia)

As much as that’s an incredible success story, it’s not a replicable path to sustainability for any organization, let alone a Black one. After all, why should an organization have to go to the brink and gamble on their ability to turn out community and institutional support as a way of ensuring their survival?  There’s too much at stake. 

The Bridgespan Group report goes on to note “The unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts. The stark disparity in unrestricted assets is particularly startling as such funding often represents a proxy for trust.” In my experience, this lack of trust plays out in several ways:

  • Lower unrestricted funding levels, meaning Black arts institutions remain in struggle mode even as they’re still expected to fulfill their missions with fewer resources than their white counterparts.
  • We rob programmatic dollars to fund general operations because those dollars have been more plentiful. But this leads to a nasty, downward financial spiral.
  • When we get into financial trouble, a foundation once told us, “You’re having trouble again? We just gave you money.” Side note: In the case of Weeksville, it turns out the funder in question gave us less than $100K over a four- or five-year period. It may have been a lot for them, but given our budget was around $1 million or so annually, those grants didn’t cover a lot of our expenses. I also wonder whether this question would’ve been put to a white institution?
  • Lack of funders’ trust (lower support) leads to organizational self-doubt. This is why, in my case, a committed community board of a 50-year-old legacy organization was exhausted, couldn’t see a way forward, and was considering merging. 
  • Lack of trust and money means you can’t hire the full staff you need, so Black executive directors are required to be good at everything: executive leadership, programming, community engagement, fundraising, budgeting, and finances.

This breakdown all leads to real world impacts. Funders form perceptions about Black arts institutions that Black arts leaders are always fighting against. “There’s perception vs. reality,” notes Newark Symphony Hall CEO Taneshia Nash Laird.  “There’s a perception of lack of capacity, but there is a lack because we’re under resourced. There’s a perception of limited expertise, but there is a reality, because you can’t develop people if there’s no money” [for training, conferences, etc].

Most importantly, lack of money often constrains thinking. When faced with limited resources, practicality kicks in. It’s hard to have expansive visions of the future when the day-to-day is tight.  Money allows everyone to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to where there’s space to speculate.  “One thing that’s not about the money — but money impacts — is having the space to dream big,” notes Kemi Ilesanmi, executive director of the Laundromat Project. “How do we have the headspace and gumption to dream big?” 

There are some bright spots. The Studio Museum in Harlem, as an example, has an exceptional, longstanding director, a sterling reputation among both artists and professionals in the field, and has started construction on a new, purpose-built building for which it raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Weeksville Heritage Center surpassed last year’s fundraising goals and is on the way to do the same this fiscal year. Likewise, Vedet Coleman-Robinson, executive director of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM) highlights the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in Florida, now in the midst of a capital campaign for a new building, as well as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture

It’s true that the philanthropic world has made progress in funding Black arts institutions, with foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the New York Community Trust and the MacArthur Foundation, leading the way during this past year of racial reckoning. But what happens when the dollars stop flowing because the attention of the philanthropic world turns elsewhere?

The Bridgespan report reminds us that racial inequity is built into philanthropic norms. The report notes four challenges Black arts leaders have connecting with the funding community: getting initial connections; building rapport; securing support; and, most importantly, sustaining relationships over the long term.

This means the philanthropic sector has work to do to deeply examine and root out the bias that causes these disparities in funding between Black organizations and white ones.

So how can Black arts organizations move towards greater resiliency? I suggest three areas of focus.

Continue to build community. The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts executive director Amy Andrieux succinctly points out the difference between Black and White arts organizations, “We’re not building audiences, we’re building community.”

What Black arts organizations have typically done better than our white counterparts is build community. Because of the disinvestment in our communities broadly, Black arts institutions have had to not only provide access to arts and culture, but also be a place that offers community services.  Sometimes before we get to the art and culture, we have to help address the immediate needs: Think food distribution, coat drives, job training, as well as being a place of refuge and gathering. Even more important, in order to have credibility among those our organizations serve, we have to be IN community with them; that is, there has to be a mutual feeling of trust, belonging, safety. 

It’s that community — people who know, appreciate and support the mission of the organization — that forms a foundation of sustainability. This real engagement must come through proving value. In my first year at Weeksville, I was able to double visitor numbers thanks to more aggressive marketing and the introduction of new programs, including a literary series and an artist-in-residence program.  Robust programming drove word of mouth that vital things were happening at our institution, which helped expand attendance. All of this was to build the case to both funders AND the community that we weren’t coasting on our legacy, but rather were worthy of their continued attention and support. 

Invest in leadership for the long haul. More importantly, boards have to invest in organizational leadership. Long tenures matter because they give a leader time to get to know an organization and the foundations that support it. Ilesanmi has been the Laundromat Project’s leader for eight years. Thelma Golden has led the Studio Museum for 16 years. And for new leaders, it can take two to three years to fully grasp the ins and outs of an organization. And there’s often the need to change the institutional culture and attitudes of both the board and staff. It’s doable, but it takes time. And given all roles that Black arts organizations often have to perform in their communities, moving towards long-term resilience simply takes longer. Boards have to understand that and be in it with leaders for the long haul.

Build fundraising boards. Community boards are important, particularly when organizations are just getting started. They provide a critical stamp of approval among the people the organization serves.  But as organizations and their budgets grow, they need to bring on Black folks with money and connections to money. The challenge, notes Newark Symphony Hall’s Laird, is that “high-capacity Black folks tend to not consider being on Black boards, especially the boards of Black arts organizations.” Whether this is about awareness or perceived prestige, it hinders the ability of an institution to build long-term resiliency.

It is not a question of worthiness or business savvy on the part of Black arts institutions. Our organizations can absolutely thrive, but they need the trust of boards and funders to give them the runway to do so.

For three and a half years, I ran Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn while dealing with issues of precarity.Read MoreOpinion, Black Arts Organizations, Weeksville Heritage CenterHyperallergicRead More

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