A Troubling Report on African American and Latino Arts Organizations

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October 12, 2015; Los Angeles Times

 

A new national study from the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management is chock full of mini-case studies and insights about arts organizations of color. The study examined the nation’s 30 largest African American arts groups by budget size (including theater, dance, and museums) and the 30 largest Latino nonprofits in the arts, then compared them to twenty of the largest “blue chip” mainstream arts groups.

The report found “the majority [of the institutions of people of color] are plagued by chronic financial difficulties that place severe limits on what can be produced, how much can be produced, how many artists are trained, and how many people are served.”

The median annual spending for the big arts groups on the DeVos list was $61.1 million in 2013, compared with a $3.8 million median budget for the 20 largest African American and Latino arts groups, which had difficulty in recruiting private individual donors. In fact, the median percentage of the budgets covered by individual donations was five percent, contrasted to 60 percent for big mainstream arts organizations. (The study called this out as the single most important statistic in the report.)

In terms of assets, only the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Museum of Latin American Art stood apart from their peers, with respective endowments of $55 million and $23.8 million. All the rest had endowments of less than $10 million; most had no endowment at all.

The study has led its author, Michael Kaiser, the former president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the head of the DeVos Institute, to advance the troubling opinion that the field of African American and Latino arts organizations may need to be cut down to only the most sustainable.

“It’s not politically easy or palatable, but it’s a potential solution that does need to be considered,” Kaiser said. “I am concerned that so many organizations are just holding on, with so little resources that they can’t create the size and quality of work that draws more donors and audiences. They get sicker and sicker. If there can’t be more funding, some funders will have to make choices.”

Other recommendations may be more broadly palatable, including a remonstration that the arts groups and their funders should stop trying to build new facilities and focus instead on their cultural offerings, and the suggestion that better-funded mainstream companies should share their wealth by co-producing with the companies led by people of color. One example of this, he says, is the Kennedy Center’s collaboration with the Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company to produce all 10 plays of August Wilson’s “cycle” of dramas about the African American experience.—Ruth McCambridge