Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide

Sherwin Resurreccion helps Katie Bradley with her hair.
Sherwin Resurreccion helps Katie Bradley smooth out any stray hairs before the two take the stage during Mu Performing Arts presentation of Flower Drum Song at Park Square Theater in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Second of two articles.

Randy Reyes recently had a frustrating experience applying for a state grant.

He's artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, an Asian-American theater company. Mu wanted to use the grant to bring theater into neighborhoods populated by Hmong, Laotians, Chinese and others.

That application was rejected. But the same granting agency — the Minnesota State Arts Board — did give money to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts to put on a Pan Asian music and dance festival.

The Ordway's application claimed that it "will be collaborating with Twin Cities performing arts groups and organizations, including Mu Performing Arts" — but that collaboration never happened, said Randy Reyes.

He described it as an "irony" that a large organization had used Mu's name to get a grant while Mu itself had been denied a grant for the purpose of "trying to engage with that same community."

Such engagement, Reyes added, isn't just a special initiative for Mu. "It's our mission," he said.

The State Arts Board records its grant deliberations. The tape makes clear that the review panel considering the Ordway's application had taken note of its purported collaboration with Mu.

"I mean, they did point out that they're reaching out to Twin Cities performing arts groups like Mu," says one panelist on the recording. "It's a little general, but there are some specifics."

fob fresh off the boat
Randy Reyes with Michael Sung-Ho and Meghan Kreidler in Mu Performing Arts' production of "FOB."
Michal Daniel file

Mu Performing Arts' experience is far from unusual, said research consultant Holly Sidford. In fact, it reflects national trends.

Five years ago, she conducted a national study of how donations — private and public — were made to arts and culture nonprofits. The results were startling. Two percent of all arts nonprofits in the United States got more than 55 percent of funding.

Sidford is now finishing up a new, more in-depth report. The news is no better. The disparities "haven't changed much, and in some indicators they've gotten worse," she said.

Sidford looked at several metropolitan areas. In the Twin Cities she found that the 23 largest arts and culture nonprofits, including Minnesota Public Radio, get 77 percent of all private and public donations. Not a single one of those institutions is run by and for people of color.

"I love those big institutions, I spend a lot of time in museums and theaters," Sidford said. "They're great, but they're a tiny part of the ecology.

"And even though they serve larger numbers of people than any of the smaller organizations do in a given year, in aggregate, the 405 institutions that are sharing 23 percent of the money serve at least as many, if not more, people than that top tier."

The Twin Cities continues to diversify culturally, and an increasing number of nonprofit organizations are geared to serve its diverse communities. But the vast majority of philanthropic support is still going to major institutions that serve a majority white and upper-class audience, like the Minnesota Orchestra, the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center.

Sidford pointed to the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States as a significant contributing factor in the disparity. The rich are getting richer, she said, and they are making larger donations to arts organizations that reflect their personal interests. Foundations are recognizing the problem and moving to fix things, but progress is slow, she said.

"The fact that more than 85 percent of foundation presidents in the arts are white, and three-quarters of foundation staff are white, suggests to me that that is one of those structural problems," she said. "All of those people are qualified for their jobs. I'm sure they're well-meaning, but their perspective is limited by their experience."

Arleta Little is an arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. Previously she ran the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. She chose to move into philanthropy because of her own experience running a culturally specific arts organization.

"I think the inequities in arts funding reflect the economic inequities we see in our society as a whole," she said.

While larger, mainstream organizations receive the bulk of arts funding, she said, smaller organizations — particularly those working with and led by people of color — are kept in a perpetual survival mode. Little is part of a "racial equity funders' collaborative" that is just beginning to work on changing systemic problems.

"There's a lot we can do within ourselves, but I think philanthropy is more comfortable with the idea of change as something that's happening 'out there,' and the issue of arts funding very specifically is about changing what's happening 'in here' as well," she said.

At a time when racial tensions are regularly making the news, Little said, it's vital that people of different races and cultures have the same opportunity to create and experience art.

"The arts are our expression of identity and representation of our culture," she said. "They help us to understand who we are. And who we are is changing."

Perhaps funders can take a lesson from the Minneapolis-based Headwaters Foundation, led by David Nicholson. The organization focuses on building long-term change by directly funding disenfranchised communities. And it involves close to 100 community members in making the decisions.

"We believe that communities are uniquely positioned to have the solutions," Nicholson said. "That's why having people most affected is essential. It isn't just about getting the dollars to these communities that are deserving. That's the charity mentality. We're into change, not charity."

Nicholson said that philanthropy, at its core, is about money and power. And most foundations, while well-meaning, are reluctant to give up their power — especially to people of color. Nicholson said that despite statistics showing increasing diversity, funders fail to imagine a future that differs significantly from the present.

Nicholson looks back to the 1960s, when visionary leaders came together to create lasting institutions like the Guthrie Theater.

"Twenty years from now, we want not only the Guthrie but we want Theater Mu to be a world-class regional theater that people come to," he said. "That's what we want. And the best way to get there is to actually invest in Theater Mu now. And to continue over the next 20 years."

In order to do that, all funders — private and public — will need to significantly change the way they give.