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Arts leadership for communities of color

by John L. Moore, III

July 23, 2012

Last fall, in successive months (Nov and Dec. 2011), two of Charlotte’s long time leaders had opinion pieces appear in two of the city’s influential information vehicles. Hugh McColl (former CEO and chairman of Bank of America) wrote about cultural investments and new arts leadership for Charlotte Viewpoint  while Harvey Gantt (former Mayor of Charlotte) spoke about creative leadership for the Charlotte Observer.

It was interesting, somewhat poignant, and possibly happenstance, that these two local giants of civic pride had communicated similar thoughts within a month of each other. (Gantt used the term, “outrageous aspirations” in his piece, and McColl used the term “communicate urgently” in his.) Ultimately both are saying, “step up boldly” because the times are different. This city is not the same as it was 20, or even 10 years ago.

I came to Charlotte from Washington, D.C. in 2000 in the midst of a career leading and managing arts organizations. Once here I experienced a bit of a culture shock. Of course, the Charlotte metro area does not easily compare to metropolitan Washington, especially from an economic, political or even racial standpoint. Yet here, the lack of a broad base (or even semi-broad base) of organizations of color, seemed to be an acceptable norm. For me it was acutely galling.

Why is it that the only substantive organization (And I’m mindful that the Afro-American Children’s Theatre and Second Ward Alumni Association were alive and operating then) serving the African American population, or any of-color population, was the organization I worked for at the time, the Afro-American Cultural Center?

Accepting that theory and discovering supportive facts sufficient to answer to the question involves some complex considerations, and in many cases, may provoke argument. Several intertwining factors cause(d) the situation to be what it is/was in Charlotte such as: leadership (charismatic arts leaders, and enlightened funder/philanthropist leaders), inequity/imbalance in the public and private distribution of funds, and apparently, wide ranging perceptions of what is important, therefore worthy.

To be fair, this is not an isolated picture. In two cities that I currently travel to and have lived and/or worked in previously - Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, Pa. specifically - the struggle to develop and maintain healthy vibrant organizations of color is also an ongoing dilemma. However, the difference between those two cities and Charlotte is the number of individual artists and organizations that exists in each, a longer history of working with of-color populations, and the meaning/impact of much earlier immigration on each city’s social/political construct.

From a broader national research based perspective, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released a study in 2011 by Holly Sidford (Robert Bush of the Arts & Science Council served on the Advisory Committee for it) that examined arts, culture and social change. Many facts about the history and business of funding arts and cultural organizations were brought forward such as:

  • Every year, approximately 11 % of foundation giving – more than $2.3 billion in 2009 – is awarded to nonprofit arts and culture organizations. At present, the vast majority of that supports cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition – commonly called the canon – and whose audiences are predominantly white and upper income. (page 4)
  • To exert leadership on behalf of underserved populations, NCRP's Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best recommends that foundations provide at least 50 percent of their grant dollars to benefit people from marginalized communities, including but not limited to lower income communities, communities of color, disabled people, women and girls, those who live in rural areas, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. (page 6)

Another national view on arts and culture as it affects artists and organizations of color comes from The Association of American Cultures (TAAC, on whose Board I sit). The organization was founded in 1985 to provide leadership in achieving equal participation in policymaking, equitable funding for all cultural institutions, and elevation in multicultural leadership and essential networks that impact cultural policies.

TAAC’s signature program is the Open Dialogue, a biennial symposium for leaders from around the country to come together to engage, network and re-connect. At OD 2010 in Chicago (the 12th biennial and the 25th Anniversary of TAAC), two key points were made:

1.) Engage established leaders to help build the next generation of leaders

2.) In the economic downturn, there have been major decreases in foundation and corporate support to people and communities of color

Many in the City of Charlotte respect rankings and charts, using them as measuring sticks for how the city compares to others in a host of other communities. Because of that fact, I did some research and found a survey that the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance did in 2009.

The study looked at arts funding for five cities (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and Charlotte). Charlotte was No. 2 – behind San Francisco – in per capita support/funding of the arts. Further in my beloved Washington, D.C., the lead agency for support of arts and culture, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, received funding (revenues) in FY2010 of $7.9 million. Comparatively – although it’s hard to compare these two agencies – the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte had total revenues of nearly $15.1 million in FY 2010. (ASC 2011 Annual Report, page 9)

So, from my abbreviated analysis and data comparisons, I conclude that the citizens of Charlotte-Mecklenburg broadly value the arts and support of artists and arts organizations.

Yet the Harvey B Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture (the institutional successor to the Afro-American Cultural Center) is still the only “substantive” of color organization (meaning institutional status, rooted enough in a community – through Board, donor, and other stakeholder factors - to withstand most socio-political vicissitudes) in Charlotte and environs. Further, the Gantt right now, is the only of color organization to receive unrestricted operating support from the Arts & Science Council. (Source: Cultural Partners tab-page on

If, as Hugh McColl posits in his CV opinion piece, “support of the arts is as much an economic question as a cultural one,” then the only logical conclusion we should draw is that we have to have more - and stronger – artists and arts organizations of all stripes, colors and persuasions in Charlotte. The “New South”, with Charlotte as one shining example, is experiencing a continued change in demographics, but the cultural and economic policies and decisions need to catch up with this change.

We are evolving towards a kind of “tossed salad mosaic” in metropolitan Charlotte and there are a handful of color organizations rising up (such as: On Q Performing Arts, Art Si, Carolinas Latin Dance, LATIBAH Collard Green Museum, and others). Yet, we still have many people – including those who have the means to help make more change happen more quickly – who are slow to embrace a more enlightened view towards what is good for the broader community. When enlightened philanthropic leaders (even if they are enlightened with self-interest) meet and merge with charismatic, visionary, and committed cultural leaders, we all benefit. Sometimes immediately.

When Charlotte changes from the inside out and not from the outside in, our good work in the community will see quicker results, and longer term and lasting benefits.

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Tags: arts, leadership, charlotte, nonprofits, arts and science council

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