"Be A Lion" from the Atlanta Black Theater Festival. Photo Credit: Francesca Lowe
“Be A Lion” from the Atlanta Black Theater Festival. Photo Credit: Francesca Lowe

“Welcome to the Colored Section / Welcome to the Negro Leagues / Sign your name on the black list and know this / It’s American History.” — Donnie, “The Colored Section”

Atlanta, Georgia, is a Black arts mecca. Much like Harlem during its Renaissance, Black artists have flocked to the ATL eager to flex their creative muscles among other talented Black artists, musicians, writers, dancers and thought leaders.

In the midst of this wealth of Black creativity, white culture bandits loom, ready to pilfer that art and repackage it for their own gains. Even more concerning is that, while the Black arts community remains the heart and soul of the city, funders rarely acknowledge their contributions with coveted philanthropic dollars.

From 1619 to the present day, this country has taken the best of what Black people have given. From minstrel shows to the stolen catalogues of artists like Little Richard, even the co-opting of the uber-popular “Renegade” Tik Tok Dance, the cultural ecosystem continues to deny Black artists fair compensation and investment. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequities.

Black artists are resilient, always finding innovative ways to produce their work that satisfy their inherent need to express both joy and trauma. However, the time for reparations is well overdue.

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently released a report and hosted a webinar on equity in arts funding in Atlanta. The study revealed that over 10 years, 27 foundations awarded 96.2% of their grant dollars to white-led organizations, with just over 1% going to Black-led or Black co-led organizations. In a city where Black people make up more than 50% of the population, these numbers reveal an arts ecosystem rooted in white supremacy.

Last May, co-author Heather Infantry lit up social media when she brought attention to this gross inequity in local arts funding. An Atlanta resident and arts advocate, Heather called out the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta’s (CFGA) inequitable grantmaking practices, throwing a harsh light on its 27-year history of granting to primarily white organizations.

Anyone who has ever touched down in “the A” knows that the city is bursting with Black art, including the burgeoning Tyler Perry studios, the omnipresent music scene, murals and street art that rival any city, and the bevy of Black art and dance studios through the metro area. With so many opportunities to support Black arts, why is funding for Black-led programs so ridiculously low?

Determined to get answers, Heather galvanized the Black arts community. With representation from over 70 Black arts organizations, she made the case to CFGA’s board, CEO and vice president that the foundation needs to live up to its new focus of “equity and opportunity” and prioritize investing in Black arts. Heather called out the lack of diversity on CFGA’s review committee and nonexistent connections with the Black arts community. She asked the foundation to ensure that at least an equivalent amount of remaining funds in the 2020 grant cycle be given to Black arts groups and application requirements be modified to qualify a larger pool of Black applicants.

The pressure from Heather and others led to the recent announcement of $1.15 million in awarded grants to 28 Atlanta-area arts organizations, of which 23 were Black-led. Those organizations received a total of $1,082,392 (87% of the total) in grant funding. Moving forward, the CFGA will convene a task force of Black arts leaders to ensure that the Black experience and Black voices are included in their grant process. While these solutions seem simple, their impact will be tremendous.

Atlanta is not alone in this fight. Across the country, and globally, Black artists struggle to fund their visions—often to no avail. While we have a long way to go, starting this conversation is a good first step. The proof will be in the numbers as we move forward.

When those who have access to resources fail to fund the Black arts, society as a whole loses. We lose the richness of the full Black experience, as opposed to the pieces cherry-picked for exploitation and profit. We lose significant parts of the American story—parts that, while often painful, allow us to shape ourselves into the more perfect union we hope to be.

Black arts, like Black lives, matter. If we value Black arts as we claim, then we must be willing to look—to really look—at how our investments have been meted out by race and invest the necessary resources so that Black artists are free to create without financial constraint.

Heather Infantry is arts & culture champion for the TransFormation Alliance. Nicole Williams is communications consultant for Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC).