Arts organizations that are founded by, with, or for communities of color—or “arts organizations of color,” as we are calling them—play critical roles in their communities. They provide creative outlets, preserve cultural heritage, offer social support, and serve as gathering spaces. They steward the legacies of artists that have helped shape their communities and nurture new talent that could shape them for generations to come. They advocate for their communities, inspire conversations, and help the broader public understand their communities’ desires and the social and political barriers that confront them. They are diverse, multi-faceted, and ever-changing.
Despite these contributions, arts organizations of color have long been overlooked and underfunded. Policymakers working to revitalize communities of color might focus on basics such as housing and employment, but they frequently ignore the ways in which the arts could support those efforts. Funders looking to nurture culture and creativity may support large, established, predominantly white arts organizations, but they often neglect the smaller organizations that may be closer to their communities and more responsive to their needs.
This lack of support means arts organizations of color must meet herculean goals, often with small groups of enterprising staffers working on shoestring budgets. There may be little time to pause, reflect on the work, and consider strategies to strengthen it. Arts advocacy organizations have tried to change this picture, they tell us, but they are frustrated because funders and policymakers often underestimate the value arts organizations of color provide to their communities.
Structural factors, not least systemic racism, likely explain the chronic underinvestment in arts organizations of color. Unfortunately, there are few systematic, empirical studies about these structural hurdles, how they affect arts organizations of color and their work, or how such organizations could overcome them.
How We Are Tackling It
Wallace launched a new initiative in 2021 to help address the underinvestment in arts organizations of color and to investigate the question:
How do arts organizations founded by, with, and for communities of color define and develop their organizational well-being and that of their communities?
The initiative provides grants to arts organizations of color across the country to help advance their organizational well-being. Researchers are documenting how these organizations define their well-being, how they work towards it, and how it relates to their communities. We are funding this research to help illustrate the contribution arts organizations of color make to their communities and to strengthen the case for greater support for such organizations.
The initiative is proceeding on three tracks:
1. Support for a Small Group of Relatively Large Organizations. Eighteen organizations with annual budgets of more than $500,000 are devising and putting in place new programs, practices, or systems intended to strengthen their operations. We are maintaining close contact with these organizations, providing financial consulting and technical support, and convening forums in which they can share ideas and experiences with each other.
Our partners at the Social Science Research Council have embedded research fellows with several organizations to document the organizations' histories and their evolution. A separate research team will study the 18 organizations' work and draw common themes that could help to understand the sector at large.
2. Support for a Larger Group of Smaller Organizations. We are working with networks of arts intermediary organizations to award grants to scores of arts organizations of color with annual budgets of less than $500,000. Researchers are documenting the ways in which these intermediary organizations regrant Wallace funds to illuminate how such organizations could adapt grant programs to make them more equitable and inclusive.
3. Support for Research Projects that Could Benefit Arts Organizations of Color. We are funding several research studies that were proposed by arts service organizations and others invested in a thriving arts ecosystem serving communities of color. We are funding these studies to help address key issues, questions, and needs in the field and to produce data, tools, analyses, and other products that could support the sector.
Through these three efforts, we hope we can help draw more support for arts organizations of color by documenting the contribution they make to their communities and to the American arts ecosystem.