Phillips: Council Member asks why no black groups got Bloomberg grants

Austin City Council Member Ora Houston has a question for Bloomberg Philanthropies: Why weren’t any of the 26 nonprofit arts organizations that received sizable Bloomberg grants affiliated with African Americans or African American culture?

It’s a question she is putting in writing to Bloomberg Philanthropies, noting that Austin has several black arts nonprofits that seem to fit the public description for awarding grants: small to mid-size arts nonprofits.

“I was pleasantly surprised about the grants, but saddened that not one of the nonprofits was from the African Diaspora,” Houston told me. “Not Ballet Afrique – China Smith. Not the Capital City Black Film Festival – Winston Williams. Not Spectrum, the African American theater company founded by the late Billy Harden. Nada.”

Houston’s question follows Bloomberg Philanthropies’ announcement last week naming 26 Austin cultural groups that will receive significant grants as well as management training as part of a $43 million second-wave campaign to strengthen small to medium-sized American arts nonprofits. Austin was named alongside Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. to receive a second round of Bloomberg grants valued at $43 million, the Statesman’s Michael Barnes reported.

Bloomberg Philanthropies handsomely rewards 26 Austin cultural groups

In a conversation with Bloomberg Philanthropies this week, representatives said the criteria for grants started with the size of nonprofits’ budgets (between $150,000 to $3.5 million annually) to identify cities with “robust” small and midsized organizations. Bloomberg funders also considered frequency of the nonprofit groups’ programming, staff size, audience access and ongoing sources of local funding and support for the arts.

Austin had 160 arts groups that were eligible by budget range, but just 45 met all of the criteria. Two chose not to apply. Bloomberg Philanthropies then turned to local partners to help further screen nonprofits. They declined to identify those partners, but said they include folks in local government knowledgeable about the arts; people in the philanthropic community and foundation funders; and people who are known experts in the nonprofit world.

When I asked about whether diversity was part of their consideration, they pointed to four grant recipients that self-identified as ALAANA, a label trending in the nonprofit arts scene, including Austin. The acronym stands for African, Latinx (considered the gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina), Asian, Arab and Native American.

Using that term to identify arts groups covers the gambit of people of color, even when programming primarily focuses on just one of those racial or ethnic cultures.

Certainly, the label is politically and socially empowering, but it can be problematic in decisions regarding funding if it is used as a catch-all that makes it easy for arts groups as well as foundations to check off the diversity box.

It’s worth noting that ALAANA does not include “African American,” specifically, descendants of enslaved black Americans, who still are the largest population of black people in Austin and the nation. So, it’s possible in making funding decisions based on an ALAANA label to embrace cultural diversity, while excluding African American arts organizations.

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News of the grants, which are said to total 10 percent of each group’s budget, brought smiles to many local nonprofits, whose officials said they would use the money for immediate needs, such as rent or replacement facilities and equipment, operating expenses or marketing and development.

“I am pumped,” Jenny Larson, one of Salvage Vanguard Theater’s artistic directors, told the Statesman. “This funding could not have come at a better time for us.”

Houston said the 26 nonprofits that will receive sizable grants are fine, but there also are solid African American arts groups that have been struggling for years. And while the same is true for some of those designated to receive Bloomberg Philanthropies grants, she said many in the selected group are “legacy” organizations that have a long history of receiving funding through the city’s cultural arts contracts and funding sources. The latter group includes Austin Shakespeare, Center for Women & Their Work, Conspirare, Austin Film Festival, Austin Opera and Mexic-Arte Museum.

The other grant recipients are: Allison Orr Dance (Forklift Danceworks); Anthropos Arts; Austin Chamber Music Center; Austin Classical Guitar Society; Austin Creative Alliance; Austin Film Society; Austin Music Foundation; Austin Playhouse; Big Medium; Chorus Austin; Creative Action; Esquina Tango Cultural Society; Fusebox Festival; Penfold Theatre Company; Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance; Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklorico De Texas; Rude Mechs; Telling Project; and Vortex Repertory Company.

Part of the problem with several black arts organizations is their size. Bloomberg Philanthropies noted that they try to stay away from “teeny, tiny,” groups with infrequent programming.

Point taken. But for those groups, it’s a chicken or egg problem: They don’t host regular events and performances because they lack funding. Yet, they are disqualified from many grant programs because they don’t produce regular performances.

The good news is that Bloomberg Philanthropies said it is committed to supporting smaller cultural organizations, and appreciates the importance and needs of even “teeny, tiny” groups facing challenges in moving to the next level of operational success. Houston hopes that commitment happens soon.

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