Building a Stronger ALAANA Arts Community: Keeping an Eye on Systems

By Janet Brown, President & CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts and Angelique Power, Program Director, Culture, The Joyce Foundation, and GIA Board Member

Grantmakers in the Arts is committed to promoting racial equity in arts philanthropy and increasing support for African, Latinx, Arab, Asian, and Native American (ALAANA) artists, arts organizations, and communities. Our statement of purpose for this work, published in March 2015, comes after five years of internal discussions, workshops, articles, and forums led by a small learning group consisting of social justice funders and those concerned with social justice. Our use of the term racial equity is deliberate and reflects a new shift from using language about “diversity” and “inclusion.”

We recognize that at the core of the racial inequities in arts philanthropy is structural and institutional racism, which has skewed all systems and put non-Eurocentric populations at a disadvantage. GIA asks that funders, art leaders, and researchers take this historic context into consideration and join us in working to counteract those systems that have contributed to ALAANA artists and organizations being excluded from the pipeline of institutional funding.

There has not been a great deal of research in the area of best practices in supporting ALAANA artists and arts organizations, but many funders are currently considering and pursuing this topic. That is why we are always looking on with interest when a new report becomes available. Recently, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland released a report with recommendations titled Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies. We applaud anyone who researches ALAANA arts organizations in the spirit of identifying barriers and introducing pathways to success — which we believe this report intends to do. The report has interesting information on the history of these organizational movements, which is critical to add to understanding our collective art history. It lists interesting statistics, like the fact that 60 percent of white organizations’ revenue comes from individual donors while 6 percent of ALAANA organizations receive the same amount of funding from individuals.

And yet, this report does not take a systemic look at these issues, and so it lacks the real understanding of the barriers faced by many of these organizations to surviving and thriving in the nonprofit marketplace. While research often benefits from honing its pool of subjects, this study, many argue, is weakened by its narrow focus solely on African American and Latino museums, dance companies, and theater companies. Also, the recommendation that we should have fewer ALAANA arts organizations as opposed to shifting funding patterns is absolutely wrong and at odds with what we believe at GIA. We recommend more grants for longer periods of time, preferably as unrestricted general operating support, to more ALAANA organizations, not fewer grants in larger amounts. Under good leadership, investing in an organization’s administrative capacity over time will provide the human resources needed to cultivate individual donors and other sustainability strategies.

At GIA, we agree with the recommendations that all ALAANA groups are extremely important to the cultural mosaic of our country and that all would benefit from an “investment in management education and effective staff leadership” and “a priority of great art rather than new buildings.” These two recommendations coincide with GIA’s racial equity and capitalization goals for all nonprofit arts groups — not just ALAANA groups.

The report calls out the many ALAANA organizations that have closed their doors due to debt. What is truly discouraging is how little debt it took for these organizations to discontinue operations. In 2013 and 2014, GIA conducted Conversations on Capitalization and Community workshops for funders in fourteen cities. In each city, we did an analysis of how large, midsize, and small arts organizations were capitalized. In half of the cities, our analysis showed that large institutions (with budgets over $10 million) had systemic debt and were in a financial situation of negative liquid assets.

Funders in the room knew exactly who the organizations were and how long they had been carrying their debt. For some organizations, it was many years, and it was in the millions. Most were large Euro-centrically focused institutions, which had long established themselves within the financial power structure of a community through the generosity of influential supporters. Obviously, for the African American and Latino arts organizations examined in the DeVos report, carrying debt was not an option. As it is for ALAANA people, access to the benefits of the financial system was elusive for these groups. This is one result of how structural racism plays out in our nonprofit arts world.

GIA hopes that institutional funders will be proactive in changing the lack of opportunities for ALAANA artists and organizations by creating intentional programs that deliberately build operational stability. How do we create a culture of support from individuals to foundations for ALAANA organizations that allows them to grow their adaptive capacity? How do we rethink the “best practices” developed in the 1960s to reflect the changing dynamics of our communities? What if collectively the best minds in the sector worked actively to nurture ALAANA artists and arts groups?

After the publication of our statement on racial equity, GIA received praise for our framing of this issue away from diversity and squarely on equity. For us, this is only step one. We now have to engage in the “work.” This means looking internally at our operations, policies, and systems to see where inequity exists, and creating systemic interventions. GIA’s next step in 2016 is an audit of our own organization’s internal documents and external communications to improve our clarity in policy and practice. We will then commission a literature review and launch a research project to better help us frame and understand these issues and opportunities. That review and research will serve as the foundation for a workshop that we will develop for local communities of funders, which will be available in 2017.

The road to ending racism and creating equitable systems is critical and complex. We are using as our map a mandate to look at historic inequity, systemic racism and root causes. A part of the work is speaking up when the focus lands on the symptoms and to urge us to do better, to aim higher, and to see the big picture.

We are holding ourselves to this standard and know you, our thoughtful GIA membership are as well. More to come.