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Culturally specific theaters face funding challenges

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Penumbra Theatre Company
Marvette Knight and Cedric Mays grace the Penumbra Theatre stage in St. Paul, Minn., in this file photo of a performance of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Culturally specific arts organizations, like Penumbra, face unique challenges when it comes to achieving fiscal stability.
Photo by Ann Marsden

Culturally specific theaters face unique challenges when it comes to maintaining fiscal stability.

Last fall, a severe budget crisis brought St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre to its knees. In December, a successful public fundraising campaign got the esteemed African-American theater company back on its feet.

Penumbra's financial ups and downs aren't unique; other minority theaters have struggled even as the state's population grows more diverse. Still, said playwright Dominic Taylor, these theaters are vital, because they offer a wide range of perspectives — from Asian-American to Latino.

"There is a connection between theater and life," said Taylor, also a University of Minnesota professor. "Culturally specific theater's central to understanding not just cultural questions, but who we are as Americans."

Culturally specific is the art-world term for companies that present work by and about a particular ethnic or cultural group.

"Culturally specific theaters are like culturally specific restaurants," Taylor continued. "They give us the mental and intellectual spice in our lives. Without them we are all greatly diminished."

But the theater business can be feast or famine. And Taylor worries about companies that fall into the "ethnic" category. The concern is warranted, said Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Having spent two decades working with culturally specific arts organizations, Kaiser's an expert on the unique challenges such theaters face.

"They typically receive most of their funding from government agencies and foundations and they receive very little of their funding from individual donors," said Kaiser.

Mu Performing Arts
Kurt Kwan and Sherwin Resurreccion appear in this file photo of the Mu Performing Arts production of Cowboy Versus Samurai. The Asian American theater, like other culturally specific arts organizations, faces specific fundraising challenges that mainstream groups don't.
Photo by Michal Daniel

That's a problem, Kaiser continued, because foundations, with their often-changing guidelines and giving levels, are much less consistent with their contributions than individuals. As for government grants, when the economy stalls, they dry up.

"Arts organizations of color have been really limited in their fundraising efforts and this has meant that so many of them as less well funded and therefore smaller than other arts organizations," he said.

Kaiser says the average white theater company gets 60 percent of its funding from individual donors. The typical minority organization sees nowhere near that.

Chris Widdess, managing director of the Penumbra Theatre, said her company takes in 26 percent of its funding from individuals.

Penumbra Theatre is one of the leading African-American theater groups in the country. A few years ago, Widdess said, Penumbra was getting just 4 percent of its contributed income from individual donors.

"The amount of wealth within various cultures is much different than within the white community," she said. "And the history of philanthropy within those cultures is different."

There are, of course, local and national arts grants designed specifically for minority groups. Rick Shiomi, artistic director of Twin Cities-based Mu Performing Arts, said these were blessings in the early 1990s, when his Asian-American theater company was starting out.

"We were actually in a slightly advantageous position," he recalled, "because the whole idea of diversity and all that was finally coming to the Midwest and so there was a lot of initial support."

This philanthropic focus on multiculturalism, said Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser, eventually resulted in mainstream theaters bringing more diversity to their own stages.

"What you've ended up with is some very large theater companies doing some great work by African American or Latino playwrights, which is wonderful," said Kaiser. "But some of these larger organizations are very difficult to compete with. So that's actually represented a very big challenge for organizations of color."

At times, Kaiser admits, the obstacles for culturally specific theaters can appear insurmountable. But, at the end of the day, he's an optimist. And he's got history to back him up. Over the years, Kaiser's helped transform numerous debt-plagued arts institutions, including New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"The first step is to be less reliant on institutional giving," he said. "We worked extremely hard to build an individual donor base [for Alvin Ailey] and that did allow us to grow to be the largest arts organization of color in this country."

For culturally specific companies, changing the way they raise money won't be easy. The University of Minnesota's Dominic Taylor, who's worked with Penumbra, hopes the theaters are up to the task.

"The challenges are many," he said. "But I also think the end game is so important. And I think the end game is for us to have this great work."

And the way Taylor sees it, great work is often the result of great struggle.