January 2020: Starting with Why

Dear Friends,

While I look to January as the start of a new year and a time for intention-setting, I am reminded that the start of the year is also a great chance to tell again the stories of why we choose the work we do.

Recently, over coffee with Ken May, the former Executive Director of the SC Arts Commission, I had the opportunity to say it plain: My personal mission, at its core across projects, is first in service to the preservation and sustainability of Black arts and culture, both artists and orgs. I gestured with my hands a core, as though cradling my mission like a cup. Pulling my hands wider apart I said, then: small arts organizations of color. Pulling my hands wider still, I concluded, and finally: small arts & culture at large.

I had embodied the idea of the Golden Circle, Simon Sinek’s framework for his approach to leadership. Here’s an image: 

The WHY: our raison d’etre

The HOW: value proposition; differentiation of services from others

The WHAT: products/larger industry

Many leaders often start outside with WHAT, the visible aspects of running a business or an organization, then go in towards the core, the gravitational pull of the center.

Simon argues/advocates that we go from center out. Start with why. Then, he says, “The WHY [can be] offered as the reason to [invest/get involved] and the WHAT serves as the tangible proof of that belief.”

When I think about the initiatives I’ve launched, they are largely vehicles to move resources (human, financial, intellectual, volunteer) to Black arts organizations and their artists. This year, I’m exploring what other resources—

Land & Housing?             Employment?             Technology?

can I move towards the WHY of it all?

Just last month we went to bed on 2019 hopeful for what a new year would bring us and woke up on the precipice of another unending conflict in the Middle East, a tough and long election year, and fires burning in the distance, creating an impact that will reverberate for generations.

I don’t have an answer for any of that, except an even larger internal imperative to urge us all to continue to hold and believe that art (and here I am specifically arguing for Black art) remain a part of the future we all fight for.

What would it mean to journey through all of this and leave the beauty—the stories and storytellers—behind us?

In solidarity,


2019: Deep Listening, Intentional Building

Dear Friends,

In June, I decided to take my own advice. For years, I’d hear Red Olive Clients and Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) grantees speak about capacity and their organizational limitations. I’d say something to the effect of, “You don’t have to do it alone,” and we’d explore ways to invite support to help them achieve their mission-based programs and fundraising goals.

But what would that look like in my own everyday practice?

I tested what it would mean to invest in team DéLana R.A. Dameron (Red Olive & BAFF) in order to grow & work with more organizations who need support most.

Here was my hypothesis: adding team members could change the way I (now we) work for the better. It turns out—the changes would be exponential.

Part of my work as a consultant, and even with BAFF grantee learning calls, is deep listening for the “real problem.” Often there is a stated need (“we need to raise more money!”) but, with a little digging, we uncover the deeper need (“we need more people who think like fundraisers on our team”). For myself, that inquiry was similar: I needed to streamline the processes for BAFF in order to raise more funds to grant to small Black arts organizations, and I needed to figure out a way that I could better address or support the real needs of my clients. That meant that I needed more folks who thought like fundraisers and exceptional arts administrators on my team. This year we welcomed seven Advisory Board members to the Black Art Futures Fund team, and already their contribution and energy has allowed us to skyrocket more than halfway towards our ambitious $50,000 Cycle III goal.

As someone whose work experience started in the educational space, I lean towards mentorship. I brought on several team members for project-based and long-term support. In total, six women worked with me to support small arts in the second half of 2019! What was most exciting is that half of them had not thought about arts administration or fundraising as a work thing they could do, let alone something that, if done with the organizations we so love, could be work that could bring them so much joy.

Being a team that is distributed across projects (Red Olive & BAFF) and states (New York City, South Carolina, Virginia) meant thinking differently about work. It also meant thinking differently about the ways we can support our organizations.

We listened more deeply and heard the “capacity” need rise up, and began to test the idea of what it might mean to lend capacity to an arts organization in the areas of fundraising and development, especially when an organization is going through a deep transition. We began working with two clients as their Interim Development Agency, managing their grant proposal and reporting portfolio, executing cultivation events, and supporting their end of year fundraising efforts.

I continue to look for more ways to leverage our growing knowledge base for arts administration, especially in developing and employing arts fundraisers of color in 2020 and beyond. Thanks for journeying with us, and I hope we can continue to build together for the artistic future we all need, especially now.

In solidarity,


Small Ship, Big Sails: Asset-based Storytelling

Dear Friends,

We’re here. The end of 2019 is upon us. While we at Red Olive are working with almost 15 groups across the country to tell their organization’s story in order to garner financial support for the arts & culture we so love, I want to take this moment to hold space for the administrators who make it all possible. Make the work seen. 

Because Red Olive’s mission is to be a critical fundraising expert firm to small arts & culture organizations, it never ceases to fascinate me the lengths to which the administrators—interim & permanent executive directors, the editors-in-chief, the all-volunteer staff with no official title or compensations, the board members who step in during times of critical transition, etc—put the needs of artists before their own. 

But shouldn’t art be the focus & get the bulk of the resources? Yes, and—. I think this question & positioning is a by-product of a dated philanthropic investment philosophy whose mathematical evaluation for a “successful” (read: “worth funding”) organization was one that did not spend more than 20% on administrative or “overhead” costs. So we’re trained into this mode of thinking that one must deny the self (or the armature on which good art is made!) in order that the art shines through. Imagine that. 

Last week I had the chance to view the HBO documentary The Apollo at a friend’s house. Present in the screening room were three generations of diverse folk. & maybe all of us were arts administrators in our own way: theater, visual arts, literature, communications specialists and editors, executive directors, producers, & then me. We bopped to the archival music. We cried. We smiled. We shared in critical community & space-holding after, well into the night. 

Of the Apollo Theater’s importance, Patti LaBelle said, it was a place that made artists feel like they were worth it, “not because we weren’t worth it, but because we weren’t allowed to be worth it [before the Apollo].” (emphasis mine) That stayed with me. From multiple entry points, it’s how I come to the work of Red Olive, of Black Art Futures Fund.

Also last week, with that statement echoing in my ear, I asked an unpaid arts administrator in our 1:1 coaching call what it would look like if they had adjusted the budget to include both the stated raises for artistic contributors, and maybe a stipend, at least, for the other folks like herself who make all of this possible: the creation of a space that made writers feel like they were allowed to be worth it. The call went silent for some time as she sat with it. While it was considered what it meant—to be allowed to feel like the unseen efforts of the administrators are worth investment, a budget line, a fundraising effort. 

One of the other pieces from The Apollo that stuck with us—all 3 generations—was that we had no idea that there was a time for which The Apollo went dark. Closed its doors. After a few false starts and short ownership, it went from a for-profit entertainment venue, to the space that is closer to being what we know today. But the message: our spaces we love and need so much could close. & what would it look like if we took care of them? 

What a world we could live in then! If the orgs we love remain sufficiently resourced, then the art we so care about can, too, be sufficiently resourced & nurtured & brought forth for generations to come. 

Our artistic futures are worth that investment & dreaming. 

In solidarity,


Finding Solice in Local

Dear Friends, 

Last September, when my father died, I had been in South Carolina for two months and stayed for a third month to be with my mother and continue to tend to his affairs. He had died two weeks before my 5th wedding anniversary, and by the time we got around to that my husband and I were too exhausted and paralyzed by decision fatigue to know how to mark the occasion. 

Once a ritual when I lived in Columbia, I grabbed a Free Times circular—Columbia, SC’s local newspaper of arts + culture happenings—and almost instantly we had an itinerary: Rosewood Arts + Music Festival, Palmetto Peanut Boil, Soda City Market, and, later that night, the season opener of the SC Philharmonic, a presentation of Dazzling Debussy, which as a flautist I especially enjoyed. 

From my 11 years in NYC, I admit, it was the first time that I had seen my city differently, taken seriously the potential of my hometown local arts scene, its possibilities. I still sometimes marvel about the ease with which I cracked open a briny, earthy peanut shell to reveal to my husband its rich delicacy, and then hummed along to Debussy’s masterworks in the acoustic halls of the Koger Center. 

When I returned to South Carolina this past September (as I do now, monthly) to mark the occasion of a year without my father, I turned again to the Free Times for solace, maybe distraction, community. I discovered this time a whole new world: The Color of Music festival, a Black classical music festival at Allen University, a historically Black university in town. In addition to hearing the ‘traditional’ Western operatic standards, we were invited to tune in a little deeper to Black traditions in the operatic mode, our heads nodding in unison as the soloist, Laquita Mitchell, tapped her feet and lifted her eyes to the heavens for the Negro Spirituals that closed out the one-hour set, testifying: “My soul is anchored in the Lord!” 

This year, again on our anniversary but back in NYC, the artist Chloe Bass celebrated her first solo exhibition, “Wayfinding” with the Studio Museum’s inHarlem series. We ventured to St. Nicholas Park, my old stomping grounds where I loved, and lived, and lost and found myself years ago.

What is all this other than an account of my arts + culture calendar in NYC and SC? I keep thinking of one of Chloe’s statements from the exhibition: 

The part of you that says, “I can share myself with another.”

-Chloe Bass

And I think this might be a long way to describe the weaving in and out of our lives, the work of culture. How, even in sorrow, it can offer solace, comfort. As we begin to turn more inward for the coming seasons, as the days get shorter (and, if you’re like me you might want to stay inside more) let’s find bright moments for art⁠—and here I argue of course and always for Black art⁠—to warm us through the cold, sometimes heartsick, nights. 

In solidarity,