Unbossed & Ungoverned

Dear Friends,

I’ve been thinking deeply about the work of Black Art Futures Fund, and all of the ways the project moves through the world, all of the ways in which we are seen or unseen, what assumptions come with those perceptions, and so forth…and the influences to the wider field—mostly unattributed, but we know the conditions under which we dreamt up such a thing as BAFF.

In 2015, I was a Development Director at Weeksville Heritage Center, and trying desperately to continue down the roads of my predecessors there, as well as attempt to chart new pathways—thinking about how to move people and resources to a Black space with so much culture and history in New York City. I considered it at the time to have been my dream place to work. I had arrived. I had energy and vision.

Meeting after meeting though, with major funders, were often met with a type of exasperation. That’s the only way I can describe the vibes. Many of my colleagues at small Black arts spaces know what I’m talking about. Questions about why was the institution still small; still struggling with fundraising and the identified financial difficulties. It was only the second year of operation since the organization had taken up residency in a newly-constructed 19,000 square foot facility, and even though it was a city-owned building with its famed nominal rent, the reality was that it still cost us approximately $10,000 a month then to keep its awarded LEED Gold Certified lights on, much less sufficiently staff it (where are the panels and the stories about life post-building-campaign? I have a few gigs worth of stories).

I know now the impossibility of the task before me then: right-size an institution who had to triple its budget just to pay a utility bill in an environment and a time that did not normalize the idea of institutional racism, did not have wide public language and dialogues around funding inequality with money moving as a result; an institution who had been told again and again despite its legacy as a neighborhood museum—community members donated items in the 70’s and 80’s on a hope and vision that one day they’d have a place that truly was a reflection of their contribution to society—Weeksville was told by funders who had resources to change its life and the people who worked there that it was “too small” then for some of the requests me and the Executive Director at the time were making. Just to thrive. Just to be able to do the thing that Joan Maynard set out to build back in the 70’s. It was not lost on me, and I continue to remind folks that Studio Museum of Harlem was founded the same year. What divergent paths. What drastically different futures.

When the bank balance ran out again (within its walls, we had to normalize this occurrence and understand the forces beyond us), and with no entity to save us, no emergency fund, no rallying cry, no initiative—our hours and our salaries were reduced. Some of us were laid off. Others of us were furloughed to approximately 20% of our salary. All of us mourned—it had felt that just as we were getting our collective groove, the rug was pulled from under our feet.

I did not at all want to go to the institution I landed at afterwards, but because we understand now the generational wealth disparities and health disparities, I will tell you all that I had a mother who was only then a few months post-stroke, who had suffered right-side paralysis and aphasia, and my father had turned to be her full-time caregiver. In turn, I had to travel home to South Carolina monthly and send money home monthly because generations of folks depended on my singular salary. The same old story of Black America. Anyways. I left Weeksville. I had to. Whatever happened after at that white cube art space where I landed is a story for another day. But when I was pushed out 10 months later, Black Art Futures Fund was started, with friends who I had invited to award, to celebrate, to invest, to create a whole ecology around the small Black art spaces that move with our collective futures in mind, in spite of access to funding.

We have been able to do it, and continue to do it, I think, because BAFF is not an official organized entity, though of course to do radical work there is an underpinning of organized efforts. We are not a nonprofit organization, not a foundation. I used to call us a foundation-in-training, but that’s not our ministry, not right now. Some days, I call it, an amoeba. Not quite giving circle, maybe close to mutual aid, but more. Unbossed & Ungoverned. We shift and shape to the needs of the time and field, and in 2017, we needed more people to raise their hands and say they believed small and community-based Black arts organizations deserved to be with us in the future and that individuals like you and me working collectively could make it happen. See below for just a portion of the folks who’ve joined us in the efforts!

Through the process, intricate networks of support wrapped around these groups, and, at the risk of sounding sappy, friendship and love fueled and continue to fuel us. What is ungoverned, that is formed without ceremony or law presiding over, is exactly the connective tissue that allows us to operates in the ways each moment we face—even 2020—asks us to, and to believe in the possibilities of the Blackest artistic future possible, with small arts organizations having more of what they need at the center of it all.

In Black Love,