As if it is no surprise, of course I’m one of those folks who insists that every month in America is Black History Month—that any day ending in Y is an occasion to celebrate the contributions of Black folk, and that my particular lean is the cultural and artistic contributions of Black folk.
The first day of February I was in a familiar, yet now foreign space: a movie theater. Being married to a Black independent film curator will present you with many opportunities to sit in front of a screen. His Luminal Theater was selected to program satellite screenings for Sundance Film Festival, and we had the opportunity to do it in my hometown in the shadow of my grandparent’s old neighborhood—my own first Black cultural space.
Here in Columbia, SC there’s a small theater just behind a nearly-empty shopping mall where I bought my first jean jacket from GAP, having paid cash I earned waiting tables at Applebee’s. Luminal Theater was able to partner with the existing theater to present socially-distant, in-person viewing experiences for Sundance, and for free. How many folks outside of Park City, Utah can say they saw Sundance for free in their backyard?
The last film was the documentary AILEY, about famed dancer and choreographer and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I am such a fan of the company and was treated to a large screen viewing of archival footage of Mr. Ailey himself—heard his voice, heard from people who, too, loved and were moved by him. The contemporary spotlight was on one of my favorite choreographers, Rennie Harris, whose piece Lazarus was a moving visual depiction of Black life and celebration. It’s not an exaggeration to say I was mush watching it, the convergence of of it all—Black culture in my neighborhood, Mr. Ailey and his historic contributions to dance and ways of seeing the Black body. The whole of it.
What struck me was the story of sad and great and Black love that Mr. Ailey had given us over his whole life and beyond—at such an expense to himself. What a testament to what it means to be Black in America: no matter what, until his very end, Mr. Ailey never thought he could measure up to this American project that made him, and yet (maybe a recurring theme this month and all months?) he still gave us—undeserving—beauty, and ways of seeing ourselves in song and dance. The moments of light: wading in the water, the Black body, flying.
At least the turn of a new year gives us a chance to re-imagine the stories we want to tell about ourselves and our work, the journeys we want to take into our futures.
One of the stories I am choosing to lean into for 2021 and beyond is to remind myself that the work I do shines when I let my artist self be more visible.
Work, and the idea/drudgery of it asks that we hide portions of ourselves that didn’t directly relate to a job description. My colleagues at Red Olive might get caught up in things quote-unquote not related to work and drop it. I would urge them to go back to the story they were telling, remind them that I believe it’s all related, and to relish in the places the mind wanted us to go for that moment.
Even as a consultant-collaborator, I am trying to embrace what it means to show up, wholly, for an engagement. In a non-work conversation with the team at For Freedoms, I had mentioned my own material creative practices in poetry, music, and quilting, and I could see they saw me differently. There had opened up new possibilities. Later, for a funder’s meeting, the team asked me to open the space with poetry.
At first I balked. It wasn’t the work of fundraising! We only had 30 minutes with Ford Foundation, I reminded them. They insisted we make space for art, and even my art, and so I read a poem to clear the way for the conversation that was to follow.
In introductions, the team had named me the resident poet not our fundraising consultant. And I realized that small gesture helped send a message more than a statement. The funders could see and experience For Freedoms as a team of artists. It happened similar to this at a Black Art Futures Fund learning call this month: I was leading the conversation about year-round fundraising and storytelling, and as an aside I mentioned my collection of poetry—I was continuing to consider the art I make as an afterthought—and a request was made that I share some poetry before we closed the session.
So I offer this new year opening newsletter with a few questions: Where are you not telling the whole story of the life you live in order to do the work you do? How can showing more of yourself give way to new visions?
In this newsletter you will find our 2020 Impact report for the whole of the Red Olive Creative Consulting Universe (a more full story), an expansion of Olive’s Classroom to include a course by our colleague Sharbreon Plummer, and an announcement of Black Art Futures Fund Cycle 5.
Let’s lean into the whole of it, together. We’ll get there.
In another life, I was a board chair of an arts nonprofit in Brooklyn. On my way to meet the ED for our monthly meetings, I’d meditate on what discoveries I wanted to share, what new thinking for our work together.
Because I moved back to my hometown in South Carolina a year ago this month and my work continues to be remote (like so many of us), I no longer have long, quiet stretches of a commute to think, to watch the sidewalk pass me by, to dream. This is a small reminder for all of us to try to build that back in, even if our commutes are from the living room to wherever our computers find us.
Anyways, for two consecutive meetings I limped my way to the restaurant where we’d meet. By the third meeting, I almost skipped in and sat down and exclaimed that we had been seeing a particular problem the wrong way.
“It was like the pain in my hip,” I explained. “I had been massaging and massaging my hip to no avail. Finally, I moved away from where I felt the pain was, and moved more towards my back, and the tension was released.”
This body work—that pain can be referred to or shows up at a place different from its source, has been a great business and consulting epiphany. Last year, when I added team members and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why things still felt off kilter, I realized I kept splitting the atom into smaller and smaller pieces. I thought I needed more folks to do fewer things, but it turned out to be the opposite: I needed to invest more in fewer members and renegotiate how we worked together. The pain wasn’t in capacity = more people. It was capacity = the right people, working deeply.
That meant I had to give up some power, another pain point. As I urged my clients to “let the experts expert.” We’re still finding our groove, but I have to tell you, the pain of figuring out the alchemy of a distributed consulting team has certainly subsided.
Of course there is so much pain that is so acutely located these days. Some of it no amount of massaging may loosen its grip on our psyche. I’ve been grieving my father’s death since 2018, and when I joined the fellowship of folks who had lost someone, had already known the immense sadness you carry with you daily, I was given a glimpse of hope by a friend. She said, grief/grieving is a verb, a continuum. It changes, but it’s always there. We may never shake loose what we have carried the last nine months together, but like my epiphany in the restaurant — that a pain I thought would never leave me, had healed by focusing my attention to other parts of my body — I am hopeful for a deep and restorative healing for us, that it may come soon.
Finally, this last monthly message in 2020 is to say we have a new team member this month, Damaris Dias, a woman I worked with at Brooklyn Community Foundation, who has come to the Red Olive Universe. You can read about her below, but I am so excited to continue to build with y’all well into the future.
Please let us know how we can dream with you in 2021.
The past few months I have been reminded of the ways in which folks on the ground have the power to claim the future they need, and the ways in which working against the grain will get you still on the other side of something if you keep at it.
In the Radical Fundraising Discussion Club last month, we talked about the Flywheel Effect, how a singular continual push in the same direction with the same intention will eventually give way to inertia, and suddenly—Georgia can be a Blue state. Or how ,when we lead all of our storytelling with WHY we do, instead of WHAT we do, millions will be inspired to take action.
Because of increasing national and even international collective belief in the power of small and community-based Black arts organizations, Black Art Futures Fund was able to support 11 more organizations across the country this fall with gifts ranging from $2,000 — $7,500, directed by the boards of BAFF. Please check our social media for updates on who funded what. It’s an exciting list.
Y’all, we are turning the corner on an unprecedented year. So many, too many, losses. A friend was here and we were talking about Kwame Brathwaite’s Black is Beautiful exhibition here at the local museum, and now they are gone. I wish that there were fully-hopeful words I could share with you that I too believed, but more days I am at a loss of even that.
We can still create community though, and that keeps me. Red Olive sponsored two Drive-in movie experiences in my hometown of Columbia, SC, and explicitly worked with The Luminal Theater to ensure that it was for a part of town that has seen significant divestment and is 20 minutes away from any named “Cultural District’. The Luminal Theater showed The Wiz and The Last Dragon and each film was preceded by a short film by a local Black filmmaker and Q&A with Luminal programmers.
When we started setting up for the Drive In, well before the listed “doors open” time of 6:30pm, cars were already peppering the parking lot, some of them coming from as much as 2 hours away, and some “just up the street”. Many with their kids and their snacks, angling to be front and center, unfolding their lawn chairs and blankets to spread out in the back of their pick-up trucks. And, they were almost all Black faces in their cars in the crowd.
This is a long way to introduce a Red Olive initiative—Nurturing Neighborhoods—but I am excited to share more and infuse the South and South East with more residential cultural Black experiences, for the people who may need it most. A deep, communal work.
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.
The same weekend we lost Chadwick Boseman, many of the folks in my life—mostly writerly—also mourned Randall Kenan. It isn’t lost on me that both are Black men, exceptional storytellers, from the South, and only a generation apart. Randall specifically died at nearly the same age as my father (that is, below 60) who, on September 14, will have been gone from me for 2 years.
One of the narratives that has emerged from Chadwick Boseman’s life was how he had worked so hard, had given us so much even as his body was failing him. I can’t look at any movie of his now and not see behind him the specter of death, how he tried so hard to give us beauty—light like a candle—until the wick went out. I can’t imagine for Randall there weren’t moments in August when he wasn’t preparing his lectures for his upcoming semester at UNC. I can’t help but remember our days when I was 20 and searching for words to write about my own Black Southern family, and he had set aside time outside of his course load to urge me to push my pen…what reading lists were being conjured for his students? What audiences were waiting to gather around his new book If I Had Two Wings (y’all I’m reading it now, and I’m convinced he knew the time was nigh)?
My father, Thomas W. Dameron, Jr. (a story teller in his own right), believed so fervently in the ways in which his life would continue beyond what seemed a minor inconvenience and had requested only 5 days leave for an outpatient shoulder surgery. For his hospital stay he packed his work computer, and for months after I fielded calls of work left undone.
That same month Daddy left I begged my colleagues and clients to let me work. I wasn’t dying, per se (though I am Black in America), but something ingrained in me would not let me be idle. I continued to volunteer, continued my board chair service in some fashion, in between cropping photos for my father’s obituary I was tasked with designing and his eulogy I was to give. I joke about it now, but, I say I lost 3 months of my life—it was such a blur—blinded by grief and pushed by the inertia of work.
I feel it now, 2 years later. What it meant to work through it all. We will see it, later, what it means that we pushed ourselves, made justifications for avoiding a type of necessary rest and reflection (those of us who could) for all of the moments and losses piling up over the last few months.
When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he urged me to choose a way to make money that had no room for subjectivity. He trained me to be an engineer, and more and more I find days I am so thankful for that training, to have equal commands of both sides of my brain. One of our last convos was his own acceptance of how maybe, times had changed. I was almost a year into running Red Olive full time (“quitting my real job”) and Daddy said something to the effect of being glad he was wrong, and that I had found a way to use my words, my brain to take care of myself. It was like a relief had settled over him, and I swear it was the beginning of our goodbye.
Also not lost on me is my immense privilege in this moment. That Daddy, like my sister, would have been an essential worker all these months, and that despite how he could have jeopardized his own health and my mother’s immunocompromised health to continue the cycle of barely having enough to pay bills to get by to work, etc. etc. etc.—I am a lucky one, with my degrees, with my intellectual work, my artistic work; someone who gets to decide this month to honor my Daddy by taking time to rest, and by doing so, will seek to honor the lost loves, artists, and storytellers of my life so that I can continue to do the necessary work for as long as this world will have me—certainly, I hope, longer than white supremacy has planned.
So, a story to say I’m taking a break for the remainder of the month, but the work continues. Please reach out to my rockstar team this month if you need us (email@example.com). Otherwise, let’s as many of us try to make it to wherever the other side of this is, whole and together.
This month’s update shines a light on Black Art Futures Fund, the philanthropic and Black arts advocacy arm of Red Olive Creative Consulting.
BAFF was designed to act as an intermediary for small Black arts organizations across the country and the people who want to invest in their futures.
Through our multiple entry points—volunteer application readers, advisory board, donors, collaborative learning volunteers—we imagined a platform within a larger ecosystem that could belong to and be held by many people at once, but with Black arts organizations at the center of it. One could come in and choose one level of engagement or all of the above, or we could work together to think of new ways to explore this necessary work. It has been an honor to dream with a community, and now watch that community expand. Thank you, and welcome!
BAFF certainly has emerged as our sexy wing—we get to give money, support orgs, advocate for orgs, move philanthropic needles, be responsive to the real needs of our grantees, and more.This effort is also an important compliment of the work we do at Red Olive, an agency dedicated to moving people and resources to arts and culture nonprofits so that they can continue to do their own righteous work.
I name this now to call out the ways in which Red Olive and BAFF exist in the same, we’ll call it, universe together with other initiatives, existing and to come. But for now, some BAFF updates!
In the last 3 months, we have moved $66,500 in two rounds in May and June of emergency general operating grants to 18 small Black arts organizations, many of whom have an average organizational budget of $242,000. Thank you.
BAFF is special to us, because we believe in being “more than a grant” and we are very clear that while a $5,000 check can be impactful, it won’t change the life of the organization. So we look for ways to stand in that gap, and offer a year-long collaborative learning environment for grantees to engage with professionals and volunteers and experts in the fields of organizational development, fundraising, communications and beyond. We hold space for cohort learning, network building, and cannot wait to get to know these groups closely, and in more depth, so that we can report out to you all, our beloved community, what all we’ve journeyed together and what challenges and triumphs small Black arts organizations share for the communities they dedicate themselves to—Black people, Black artists, Black culture bearers and those who love us.
I’ll end with 2 quotes: a quote from Ashleigh Gordon, Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a 2019 BAFF grantee, and we were so proud to learn, their first institutional funder, and Sylvia Jung, Development Manager of Grantmakers in the Arts who was a 2019 volunteer application reader.
Being part of the Black Art Futures Fund cohort has been a blessing to say the least. In addition to the financial support, I have received a wealth of knowledge from regular co-learning sessions. Plus, personal guidance from DéLana if/when needed. All I had to do was ask. I found I was able to not only carry the newfound knowledge I learned from her and the sessions to my board, but I was also able to bring my board to our co-learning sessions (a pivotal, “ah ha” inspiring moment for my Board Chair who left the meeting fired up and ready to take charge!). BAFF has truly shown its deep level of care and consideration every step of the way, from providing time and space for professional development to financial support (pre and knee-deep-in-the-thick-of-things COVID-19 era). Thank you for your presence. You’re truly an invaluable asset to the Black arts community! —Asheleigh Gordon
When I applied to volunteer as a reader for Black Art Future Fund’s 2019 grant cycle, I was eager to learn about the work of small Black arts organizations nationally. After working in nonprofit fundraising for over a decade (and being born and raised) in New York, I was surprised by how few of the New York City based Shay Wafer Legacy Grant applicants I knew about – in particular, organizations like viBe Theater Experience. viBe is an organization and Toya is a leader that intimately, and with care, love, and respect, centers the girls, young women, and nonbinary youth of color they serve. As a product of New York City public education, I know how important the work viBe is doing, and how important it is to me. Many of my friends, like me, have become donors to viBe to ensure they continue and expand the ways they can positively impact the youth and young folks they serve. –Sylvia Jung
Let’s continue to build the Blackest Artistic Future there is possible, together.
Three Junes ago, I left my full-time job as Development Director at The Drawing Center, a visual arts space in New York City. I was there not even a full year—and, honestly, still overstayed my “welcome”—out of some tired feeling of responsibility to “the work” and not wanting to “burn bridges,” I left… quietly, without fanfare, without any recompense for the ways in which I had sacrificed whole parts of myself to an institution that did not care about me, in the way that too many workplaces fail to care for their Black employees.
I continue to say of those 11 months —without hyperbole—that I felt many nights I was going to die as I laid down to prepare to return to the stress of my workplace environment the next day. I had gained almost 45 pounds over the course of my tenuous tenure. I had cried over too many whiskey and ginger ales to too many friends at too many bars over things like: constantly being second-guessed in my work; made to feel completely worthless; gaslit over racially-insensitive artwork that I was being asked to promote and fundraise for; at almost every turn reminded that my Blackness at the leadership table was a decoration, a window dressing in the beginning era of “museum diversity” (that summer the Mayor had threatened that if institutions didn’t diversify, funding would be cut). As I had been recruited, brought in for interviews, and hired and I was told repeatedly, explicitly and through executive actions, that I “did not understand the art world” (maybe I wear that statement now, with pride) and that the whole of the institution had “taken a risk” by hiring me.
Every time I called out injustices against myself or my department (fully-staffed by people of color:the other Black woman I hired, and a Filipino gentleman), I was ignored, or told that I was overreacting or “reading too much” into things. Once, we were told that during the 40-minute seated portion of a fundraising gala, we would not have a plate or a literal seat at any of the 30+ tables we had personally set and made placeholders for; that we would not be welcome to sit among the 1500 guests we had handwritten addresses for invitations to. When I brought up the optics of it all—that the only institution staffers who were not white would not have a dinner place setting,— was met with eye rolls and resistance.
We pulled up anyways, in the back corner, and toasted our contributions to the highest-grossing fundraising event the institution had seen in its then 40 year history. We had great pours and nice portions of food because of course we treated the catering staff like human beings and it was then I understood that after this massive lift I would begin a new fight: two weeks later, or 10 months in, I was told it would be time for me to complete a performance review. I did not have—despite being deemed a “risky investment”t—a 90 day review, or a 6-month review, and I had checked with folks who had been there for years, and they had not had annual reviews before.
Knowing my boss didn’t want me in the office and that I didn’t want to be there (because truly, I wanted to live), I didn’t fill out the review and mentioned that I would support staying until the end of the fiscal year. So that was that. I had a little over a month left, and a few more paychecks to figure out my next move: throwing myself full-throttle into Red Olive, and, I didn’t even know it yet, making room for Black Art Futures Fund to form within me.
It didn’t soften the blow when my position was posted at a 46% increase over my salary offered at hiring, for the same work, while inheriting the solid team I had helped develop. Despite my success after my departure, and despite the fact thatI now cannot imagine a full-time job that would bring me back into the office, in some ways I still feel as though I left defeated. White supremacy will do that to you. Strip you of every fiber of confidence in yourself and your years’ experience despite your commitment to excellence in the workplace against the odds and in the face of all forms of racial terror.
It’s become so clear to me that we have had art in this world all this time in spite of an environment that was hostile and life-threatening to so many of us. Red Olive and Black Art Futures Fund stands in solidarity with Black culture workers across the United States who are speaking out after days, weeks, years of enduring erasures and violences toward their personhood, their important and necessary contributions to the field at large. Speaking out to secure their future as a no longer invisible, no further maltreated, workforce.
As we celebrate our 7th year as a firm this summer, Red Olive will continue to think of ways to push the conversation forward, and continue to advocate for the workers, the doers, in all of our engagements, which has been a core tenet of our work. Black Art Futures Fund also moves to position our work to highlight the people who, especially for small Black arts organizations, do so much of the culture work while under- or unpaid. This is the work of today. This is the work ahead.
Of course I know charitable giving can happen year-round, but I have to admit, I got caught up in the energy and inertia of the #givingtuesdaynow movement on May 5, 2020—a new initiative with the energy and branding of Giving Tuesday to raise funds for the nonprofit sector impacted by COVID-19. I was so excited to be able to participate in and with my hometown, also, and contributed largely to Columbia, SC – based groups: the Riverbanks Zoo, Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, the Richland County Library, Historic Columbia, and a memorial scholarship fund set up in honor of Landrum Washington, a middle school band friend of mine who died in a car accident at 22, just before college graduation. In South Carolina alone the state raised almost $10M! All those folks on one day joining together to consider what they could do. It felt good to have a task that I could complete, and that could feel like it did some good. I encourage y’all to do it now, if you are able.
In a conversation with a client recently, I talked about capacity and what we can do. While I was explaining, I thought about Brooklyn-based Southern Black poet Patricia Spears Jones, and her poem “Living in the Love Economy,” published in 2009 in Kweli Journal. In the poem, she says:
I can do two major job applications a day…”
And later: “What I can’t do is parse the future.”
What I love about these lines are the simple truths. The control, and the surrender. What I can do, what I cannot. Most days, that’s been hard for me to admit. What I can do today. What I cannot do today. What guides me is a constant inner inquiry, and standing in my truths: here is what I can control. Here is what I cannot control.
Last month, we learned what had been suspected: Black Americans and other racial minorities were among the highest-impacted populations of the devastation of the virus. In South Carolina, as of May 1, 53% of deaths were Black. 52% of the confirmed cases, Black. This month, the New York Times continues to reminds us that water is wet, and that “race is still a factor in who gets what” with regards to philanthropic dollars. What can I do? I can write about it. I can call out these injustices when I connect the dots. I can make appeals. I can make some donations. I can help a nonprofit organization think deeply about the way they articulate need in this moment.
What I can’t do is cut the millions of dollars of checks needed right now. But I can make more appeals. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with philanthropic partners across the country in the past few weeks—some hard, for those that fall into the category of not considering Racial equity, even in moments like this, & other conversations are hopeful. Through outreach to some philanthropic colleagues, two small Black arts organizations that we were unable to fund at Black Art Futures Fund, (because the need was so much greater than our pot) were later funded.
Is it a long term fix? Who knows. I hear Patricia Spears Jones, again: “What I can’t do is parse the future.” So much of this is still yet to be uncovered. So much of this is asking us to wait, and be patient, to consider our capacity for today, and today alone.
My planning self wants so badly to know what the future holds, to be able to work with my clients to fundraise against it. It wants so badly for me to exist future-forward, and to be able to stand on my two feet and say with my clients what is possible, and certain, instead of asking “What can you move forward into the future without?” But that is increasingly becoming the hard question these days.
Patricia writes, and I nod, “The Love Economy is complicated.”
I have been thinking about and writing about, and in my consultancy meetings with small arts organizations, wrestling with folks on Simon Sinek’s challenge to start with their WHY—the pivotal/central stories that mobilize people and resources to help organizations achieve their missions. At its core, this gesture is rooted in the organization’s ability to answer the “Need” question on a grant application, or when seated in front of a major donor. To be able to answer WHY an organization exists, and WHY it is in need of funding and support and WHY it does the programs it does the way it does, might offer up a clear pathway to stewarding the resources necessary to continue forth. That was in the last world. That was before COVID-19 completely upended our understanding of safety and security, before it distanced us from each other, and the art that keeps us.
In the last few weeks, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, I have witnessed folks begin to prepare either 1) how they should respond if they were in a position to offer support to the arts + culture field, or 2) how they should respond if they found themselves in a position requiring that support. And now we’re here. Week after week: new layoffs. Furloughs. Whole departments slashed. Employees given a week, a day, to understand that they would no longer receive a paycheck from their place of employment. Whole groups sacrificed for whatever attempt the organizations sought to “salvage”—for what? For whom? For a tomorrow none of us are sure of?
If the raison d’etre of an organization starts with WHY, as Sinek argues, I want to argue here, in this new world, that maybe the how of it, starts with WHO. The people. Here’s my diagram. I argue we readjust the center. Especially now.
Keep People / Employees at the center.
I’ve been thinking about this increasingly when, during a podcast interview about my Red Olive Creative Consulting / Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) Multiverse (see what I did there?), I was asked who we serve and the interviewer quickly said you serve Black artists and arts organizations, right?. I thought about it for a second. That was true. But there was something more true: we also serve the volunteers who want to understand how philanthropy works, we serve the donors into the BAFF fund who, through some of our efforts get to stand closer to the multiple organizations we support by welcoming them into the wider community, and we serve the folks who make it all possible through direct client services to arts + culture organizations.People are at the center of it all.
My team at Red Olive Creative Consulting is mighty fly, and creative and collaborative. If there was a different visual that depicted the ways in which my priorities are stacked, how I secure the base of a pyramid or hierarchy of organizational needs, it’d look something like this:
Last month, in a webinar on Philanthropy’s Response to COVID-19 hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts, I spoke about the different ways arts and culture organizations intervene in their communities, and why ensuring their survival is not only about capital “A” art. In the same week, a Foundation funder of a client, a Black arts organization, prefaced their potential canceling of years-long support with the argument that the foundation was in search of supporting “more pressing, critical needs” for the “more vulnerable” populations. Imagine that.
This moment right here, arguing for the necessity of culture, is something I’ve tried to wrestle with before the crisis, and I think my own central mission continues to be getting to the heart culture’s case for support in order to make it undeniable:
Only through the philanthropic sector’s investing in people, that is, allowing for a true realization and thrivability of the engine of the nonprofit arts + culture sector, will art prevail.People first.
In the exchange though, I reminded the representative of the Foundation that not only did my client serve explicitly Black artists, who live precariously above the federal poverty lines, but that also because of years of field-wide Philanthropic underinvestment (or divestment, or NON-investment) and restrictions on 10-20% of grant funds for administrative operations means that they were already a body of Black people working in an unstable environment, made more unstable through institutional funding racism, and if you’ll allow my generalization—they were Black folk who through historical and empirical data continue to suffer from the deep and vast disparities in wealth between white and Black households. If my white colleagues in the field are despairing right now, where are Black folks? What is below despair?
And, finally, I argued
Black arts organizations, and especially community-based organizations, serve a critical need to the people they employ, if they are so lucky.
(see: institutional funding racism and the razor-thin margins of general operating dollars). They can secure the bottom of Maslow’s cultural hierarchy of needs through the maintenance of a payroll. As a result of that one critical investment, organizations could help staff in the procurement of critical needs for each employee, and perhaps even a broader community: food, shelter, security…which then allows for the employees to show up more wholly in the workspace (even in the now virtual world, maybe especially now), be a contributor in the community of the organization, which then allows for room for THE WORK—however it is manifest in this COVID-19 -present and -post world. Even though I am speaking explicitly about small Black arts organizations, who need some spotlight, I am positive this can be applied to any organized body of employees.
But for the cultural sector, here’s the truth. None of this is possible without continued philanthropic partnerships.
None of this is possible without philanthropic partnerships, and when they revoke or change their commitments, as I am watching some do, it puts nonprofit employees at risk, and ultimately their ability to secure the future of the culture-makers who will, through art, help us make sense, thrive, and convene at this exact moment.
By readjusting the centers and securing the bases of these organizations through fearless, brave, and deep philanthropic gifts, community-based Black arts organizations can be fully realized: as centers of resource sharing and safety—even virtually—as the vulnerable populations (artists, nonprofit employees, contract support services, all) look to the organizations to provide beauty, meaning, sanctuary, respite, reprieve.
Certainly no group will emerge whole from this, or return to base operations prior to the global pandemic. But as I read the news and hear from my friends across the country about the ways in which their own security has shifted and how institutions and foundations with billion-dollar or million-dollar endowments continue to practice contrition at this moment instead of emergent, unprecedented generosity, I mourn. I get furious. I mourn some more.
How do we come back to a place that, in moments of crisis, have shown through sweeping actions and statements like, “funding the critical needs” and “more vulnerable populations” that maybe they don’t believe in culture’s true power, its ability to be an acceptable vehicle of service to the people they say they are now pivoting towards? And we can’t have culture without the people lifting it up?
How do we reframe our thinking about the art + culture field in this crisis moment, and yes, support the artists, and beyond the artists, remember the people…who are so often still artists, and the administrators, and the contract educators, and the fundraisers, the part time visitor services, the receptionists, the building maintenance crews, the invisible third shifters…and include them in the “vulnerable populations” worthy of funding? In the space for which we will fight for funding, for their critical inclusion in the path towards whatever tomorrow holds? And then, when we get to tomorrow, continue those commitments?
My refrain for these last few weeks when someone from the philanthropic sector has asked my advice on how to respond, and I say swiftly, and without hesitation: Cut the checks.