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Beyond Equity as a Trend, Toward Real Change

April 25, 2018

By Maurine Knighton, program director for the arts, and Kerry McCarthy, program director for Thriving Communities at New York Community Trust

“This is… about righting a wrong.”

These words open a powerful new study from Yancey Consulting that looks at the state of African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) culture and communities. Commissioned by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The New York Community Trust, the report asks funders to disrupt a “dogged trend of disinvestment” and direct our grant dollars to communities of color in order to transform the sector.

Titled “What Are the Paradigm Shifts Necessary for the Arts Sector to Nurture THRIVING Institutions of Color,” the report is the result of interviews with ALAANA arts leaders, surveys, IRS 990 analyses and a literature review. Among its key findings:

  • New York City organizations of color are healthier than the national pool: 65 percent of organizations of color in the DeVos Institute of the Arts’ 2015 study of African-American and Latinx museums, dance companies and theater companies had deficits in 2013, whereas only 19 percent of Yancey Consulting’s NYC-based sample did in 2017;
  • One third of the organizations in the Yancey Consulting study cannot provide their staff with fair and competitive wages and benefits within their current operating budgets;
  • Only 12 percent of the groups surveyed by Yancey Consulting stated that they were sufficiently staffed;
  • Organizations with budgets of $3 million and higher demonstrated a greater ability to secure assets, such as real estate, than those with budgets below $3 million; and
  • Groups surveyed by Yancey Consulting reported a median of three months’ worth of working capital.

Many of you likely recognize that none of this is new. The philanthropic sector holds meeting after meeting on the subject. We often hear colleagues observe that attention to this issue seems to be cyclical, emerging every few years under the heading of “multiculturalism,” “diversity” or another related theme. Many funders now include language about the importance of “equity” in their grant applications, and some even request data from grantees about the diversity of their staff.

Nonetheless, funders often express frustration that their past efforts have been unsuccessful, and some even wonder aloud, “Why bother trying again?” On the flip side, after decades without progress, arts organizations are tired of being asked to participate in yet another study that doesn’t deliver results or reflect the perspectives they’ve imparted. They notice how funders can pay lip service to these ideals and still avoid enforcing benchmarks for diversity that help qualify or disqualify an organization for funding. They notice how funders can signal diversity as a priority while continuing to dedicate the bulk of their resources to support the same, largely homogenous set of organizations that employ and serve few people of color—reinforcing the status quo. Arts organizations are rightfully impatient for efforts that yield substantial, positive change.

The idea of equitable distribution of resources has again captured the attention of philanthropy. How do we make this moment different?

The report challenges long-held assumptions that have precluded our progress, then offers us guideposts for moving forward:

  • Move away from perceiving organizations of color as intrinsically challenged, and open up our apertures to fully appreciate their strengths and consider them more holistically;
  • Have the humility to appreciate that we don’t have all the answers and that we must be willing to truly listen in order to learn;
  • Accept responsibility for making change, rather than assuming we are not implicated;
  • Commit to collective action and impact, working together instead of individually; and
  • Recognize that current circumstances are the result of decades of undercapitalization, and we must take a parallel long view to seeing sustainable change.

Guided by the report, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the New York Community Trust’s programs to fund the arts are now taking critical steps to ensure that our approaches to grant making result in a pool of grantees that reflect the racial diversity of the place in which we live and work. For arts organizations to feel any substantial effect, however, this will have to be an effort among the entire philanthropic community through bilateral exchange and more concerted collaboration.

As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We ask you to join us as we map a bold commitment to action in our hometown—moving as a united front far enough to give arts organizations of color the real change and support they deserve to thrive.

This post originally appeared in Philanthropy New York's Insights section on April 24, 2018.