Consider: Underserved Reflects Funding, Not Number Of Orgs Serving Community

Hat tip to Artsjournal for linking to an American Theatre article about the inequities in arts funding citing a Helicon Collaborative study which found “..58 percent of arts funding goes to 2 percent of big-budget arts organizations.”

Those of us who have worked for smaller arts organizations are probably familiar with the sting of seeing the dominant large arts organizations in the community consistently garner a large portion of funding.  The opening of the American Theatre piece relates a particularly sharp sting adding insult to injury for an organization which saw another group get funding to present the programming they specialized in.

….St. Paul’s much bigger Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, which received $86,039 to present Notes From Asia, “a series of performances, films, conversations, and an exhibit that will highlight arts and culture of Eastern Asian communities for East Asian, Asian American, and broader audiences.”

Reyes felt this as a blow, since that description isn’t far off from the kind of programming Mu does. Why give the grant to a larger, non-culturally specific theatre? Said Reyes, “There are these assumptions that they can do this culturally specific programming because they’re the Ordway, and we somehow don’t have that capacity to work with a community that we have been working with for 25 years.”

The statistics cited from the study that were most unexpected were the large number of organizations serving communities of color:

More specifically, the study found that organizations focused on communities of color make up 25 percent of all arts nonprofits but receive just 4 percent of all foundation giving.

The study notes that these funding disparities are out of sync with a nation in which 37 percent of the population are people of color and 50 percent are low-income.

I think the common idea of many conversations is that there are no organizations doing work that resonates with communities of color so it falls upon more mainstream arts orgs to provide the programming.

That 25% is out of 41,000 organizations by the way. That is a lot more than I would have guessed. I would suspect that they don’t have large budgets or capacity, but that doesn’t disqualify them for support.

In fact, wonder if the term “underserved community” isn’t more a reflection of funding directed to a community than number of extant entities providing services.

As I was reading about these particular stats, I remembered Ronia Holmes’ post Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why“, that I wrote about last Fall.

Disinvested communities are not devoid of arts and culture. In America particularly, communities who historically have been excluded from the table have responded by building their own tables, using whatever resources could be scraped together. Marginalized communities have established organizations that don’t treat them or their cultural output as deviations from the norm to be celebrated for diversity, but as fundamental components of society. The organizations they created, and continue to create, are replete with artists, leaders, decision-makers, and workers who look like and are part of the community they serve, who share similar lived experiences, and have a deep understanding of what programming will truly resonate.

I encourage you to read Holmes’ full piece because I think she is quite incisive on the matter- critical of current practice, but sympathetic about what motivates that practice.

When I originally read Holmes’ essay, I didn’t imagine that there were as many organizations out there as the Helicon Collaborative says there are. My first impulse is to advocate for greater funding to help them gain greater visibility and potentially have greater impact in their communities.

However, I am also mindful of what Holmes wrote about larger established arts organizations making overtures to welcome disinvested communities:

“And they fail to hear this critical question: “Why should we abandon our own table for a small chair at yours?””

Enabling the underfunded 25% to achieve greater impact and visibility is all good, it just can’t come with expectations that they abandon or reconstitute the tables they have constructed for themselves.

I don’t necessarily want to see places like the Ordway lose funding. Except that it seems non-profit funding is often a zero sum game. I have heard people of color speak enthusiastically about the Ordway’s programming and partnering with their communities.

If you think about it though, if more mainstream arts and culture organizations are given funding to break down barriers with underserved communities that don’t frequent their programs, shouldn’t the organizations that have developed in those communities considered underserved be provided reciprocal funding to break down barriers with audiences that frequent mainstream arts and cultural organizations?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Consider: Underserved Reflects Funding, Not Number Of Orgs Serving Community”

  1. Perhaps the big players should only be given funding for equal collaborations with the small players? That would cause them to reach out to their fellow organizations in a cooperative way, rather than a competitive one. I think that Nina Simon has had a lot to say about this approach.


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