The apollo theater in harlem is one of 20 arts organizations funded so far by the America’s Cultural treasures initiative. Felix Lipov/shutterstock
The apollo theater in harlem is one of 20 arts organizations funded so far by the America’s Cultural treasures initiative. Felix Lipov/shutterstock

At some point over the summer, the fate of the arts sector shifted from “uncertain” to “existential.” With government aid running out and the likelihood that in-person events may not safely resume for another year, some organizations are beginning to realize they may not make it after all.

The outlook is especially dire for Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led arts organizations, which historically lack robust cash reserves, wealthy board members and deep-pocketed funders. Surveying the rapidly deteriorating landscape, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and his team decided they needed to act. As Margaret Morton, the director of Ford’s creativity and free expression team told me, “We have one shot before things get too deep.”

Ford’s one shot looks more like a moonshot—a two-pronged, $156 million-and-counting initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, focused on helping arts organizations led by and serving BIPOC arts groups survive the pandemic, while laying the groundwork for long-term sustainability. The initiative’s first national component provides $81 million in operational and general support funds to 20 organizations, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and the Apollo Theater in New York City.

Ford’s $85 million commitment catalyzed $80 million in additional giving from funders like Bloomberg Philanthropies ($10 million), the MacArthur Foundation ($5 million), the Alice L. Walton Foundation ($5 million) and others. Ford’s contribution will come from its bond offering earlier this year, which raised $1 billion to increase the amount of money it distributes temporarily.

Next year, Ford will launch the second wave, $35 million in funding for organizations in seven regions, with matching support from local foundations. Ford will announce another foundation joining the initiative that will focus on rural organizations, according to the Washington Post.

“The heritage that these Native American, Latinx, Asian and African-American recipients are stewarding is the fabric of our American culture,” Morton told me. “That’s the beauty of this investment—to make a difference at this time when the country is struggling to invest in culture bearers who dignify who we are.”

“If We Don’t Help Them, They Will Be Gone”

Morton said that the initiative stemmed from Walker’s passion for the arts and concern for BIPOC institutions. “Those of us at Ford and Darren know that arts organizations of color are undercapitalized,” she said, citing the foundation’s long-standing support for groups like the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Walker further laid out his thinking to Geoff Edgers at the Post. “The Getty and the National Gallery of Art are in their own bubbles,” he said. “Yes, they’re concerned about finances, but as one of them said to me, ‘This is terrible, but we can raise the money.’” However, “when you get to the medium and smaller arts organizations—that don’t have endowments, that don’t have rich boards, that don’t have huge amounts of operating cash flow—those organizations are panicked. If we don’t help them, they will be gone.”

Morton echoed Walker’s statement, telling me, “We were concerned that unless we take action in the way that we did with the COVID relief fund, it could be really devastating” for BIPOC organizations. “Darren’s vision,” she explained, “was to go to those other foundations that love the arts equally and understand the issue of underfunding.”

Ford also secured gifts from donors like Barbara and Amos Hostetter, who gave $10 million in personal funds. Barbara, who told the Washington Post she has been moved by the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, then approved $5 million more from the family’s Barr Foundation. “We have a growing awareness that we haven’t had,” she said. “And I include myself in that. I think we’re learning a lot about racial injustice. It’s top of mind, and now’s the moment.”

Looking Beyond the Pandemic

Morton described the initiative as a “lifeline” to keep organizations afloat and retain staff. But Walker and his team have other, more long-term considerations in mind.

Morton said the initiative aims to raise recipients’ profiles “so some who were never funded before can be seen.” This sounds like intuitive stuff, but BIPOC organizations have had difficulty getting in front of community foundations and regional funders. Funders understood this was a problem before the pandemic, and it explains why Hewlett, MacArthur and the George Gund foundations revamped their grantmaking strategies to boost outreach to organizations serving communities of color.

The first round of America’s Cultural Treasures grants are unrestricted and spread over four years, giving recipients breathing room to “reimagine what they will be in the future with safety, and not worry about fundraising,” Morton said.

Ford didn’t limit grant amounts based on the organization’s budget size, a move that reflects a growing consensus across the arts funder community that this practice has disproportionately harmed organizations of color. Maurine Knighton, director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s arts program, alluded to this link in a recent chat, telling me, “Oftentimes, funders are looking for a balance sheet that has more assets than an organization of color might have. That’s because, broadly speaking, an organization of color may not have the kinds of fixed assets that a larger organization will have.”

By not tying funding to an organization’s budget, Ford’s grants, which range from $1 million to $6 million, are the largest ever for some of the first round recipients. Ballet Hispánico, for instance, will receive $4 million, more than half of its $7 million annual budget. Grantees will also receive up to $100,000 for organizational capacity building, particularly in key areas including digital strategies.

“We hope that organizations will be able to contribute to their reserve fund,” Morton said, “or do scenario planning around a hybrid model while they’re dark.”

A Regionally Focused Phase Two

Ford will launch its second phase in Q1 or Q2 of 2021, focusing on organizations based in seven geographic regions. Each region has a corresponding philanthropic partner that will select regional grantees and match Ford’s commitment.

The partners are the Barr Foundation (Massachusetts), Getty Foundation (Los Angeles), Heinz Endowments (Pittsburgh), Houston Endowment (Houston), MacArthur Foundation (Chicago), Joyce Foundation (Chicago), McKnight Foundation (Minnesota), the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation (Los Angeles), Terra Foundation for American Art (Chicago), and William Penn Foundation (Philadelphia).

Morton said partners are already putting together concepts to structure funding and determine how they would invest Ford’s $35 million in matching funds. Ford’s press release says it hopes to “add regions as more donors join this effort.”

While it’s too early to say how many grants will emerge from this phase, Morton anticipates that we may see funding flow to art spaces and individual artists who have seen their supplemental income dry up during the pandemic.

America’s Cultural Treasures is a time-limited initiative consisting of the completed first phase and next year’s second, regionally focused phase. Ford will continue to fund diverse arts and cultural organizations through its creativity and free expression program under Morton’s leadership.

Meanwhile, many of Ford’s first round of grant recipients are still pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming. “Our program officers have been in touch with the grantees over the past week,” Morton said. “Many of them were crying.”

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