Documenting Community-Based Arts and Funding Inequities

Posted by Sonia Manjon, May 14, 2014 0 comments

Sonia BasSheva Manjon Sonia BasSheva Manjon

The discourse, documentation, research, archiving, and communication about community cultural development are indeed vast and deep. Within this multilayered, diverse, and complex field of community-based art are artists and organizations that represent the diversity and complexity of communities and neighborhoods in the United States. The urgency for documentation, archiving, and communication are, at times, limited to those organizations that represent a more mainstream paradigm. The creation and introduction of multifaceted arts institutions is important to the building of community based arts organizations with social justice and cultural equity foci. Art institutions that address a holistic aesthetic perspective that embrace the complexities of their cultural communities are rooted across the country.

Art institutions that emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement included as part of their vision and mission the art of meaning and art for justice and social change. Examples of cultural arts organizations in the study by Marta Moreno Vega and myself, A Snap Shot: Landmarking Community Cultural Arts Organizations Nationally (2012), represent a limited example of the kinds of organizations that emerged during this time period. These institutions differ from those grounded in a Eurocentric aesthetic and focused on one artistic discipline. Incorporating the Civil Rights Movement’s principles to end segregation and foster human and cultural rights, these multi-disciplinary organizations used the aesthetic spectrum of their cultures to develop artistic expressions that gave a voice to the voiceless.

The organizations in the Snap Shot study play a vital role in the cultural arts field highlighting institutions that reflect the aesthetic spectrum of excellence grounded in the international community perspectives that nurtured their growth. The study is a call to action to support and protect vital community based organizations that reflect the diverse cultural fabric of the nation. Although the organizations in this study are a small sample of the cultural arts organizations that reflect the rich tapestry of racial and cultural groups, they are major contributors to the cultural life of the nation. These cultural organizations also represent important pillars in the infrastructure of historically underserved and under-resourced communities of color and poor white rural sectors.

The study, Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change by Holly Sidford (2011) documents that Eurocentric aesthetic guided the standards for funders, both public and private, who have overwhelmingly supported organizations that adhere to this criteria while drastically underfunding cultural arts organizations that use an aesthetic reflective of the demographics of the nation. Even more distressing is the imbalance reflected in funding patters of philanthropic organizations.

Sidford’s report notes:

There are more than 100,000 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in the U.S. today, including thousands of groups dedicated to artistic traditions from African, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, Native American tribal cultures and groups serving rural communities and other underserved populations. The distribution of funding does not reflect or respond to this pluralism. Groups with budgets greater than $5 million represent less than 2 percent of total population of arts and cultural groups, yet in 2009, these organizations received 55 percent of all contributions gifts and grants.

In the report Regrets of a Former Arts Funder, published on Blue Avocado (, John Killacky, who worked and wrote about the San Francisco Bay Area, laments his role in funding “small amounts of money to as many organizations as possible... with support not tied to the marketplace”. He describes the Bay Area as a region with “no cultural majority” and “no equity in arts funding”. Killacky further elucidates, “In hindsight, many funders did not feel equipped to judge quality outside their own world views and experiences”. He included himself in this analysis. He further states, “...there was not a lack of artistic excellence – but what was missing were the multiple perspectives in philanthropy needed to judge excellence in culturally specific organizations”. This created separate tracks for cultural arts organizations, “a kind of affirmative action track with far less resources”. He further explains, “By creating this separate track, we may have unintentionally entrenched a two-tiered caste system”.

References by both John Killacky and AB Spellman, former director of NEA Expansion Arts, noted that the 501 C3 model requiring board of directors with substantial financial resources and a network with access to wealth and supporters continue not to be realities for community based artists and their organizations. The report by Sidford affirms the perspectives of Killacky and Spellman: “Many of the top recipients are encyclopedic institutions that house or showcase works from around the world, but none of them is rooted primarily in non European aesthetics, or founded and run by people of color.”

An important and immediate next step is the ‘landmarking’ of community cultural art institutions using historical narratives and case studies to document and publish a profile of these organizations, their history, where they are now, their principles and values, and the artists, activists, and community organizers who have emerged from their mentorships. Without ongoing documentation, the importance of these vital and vibrant organizations on their communities may go unappreciated and misunderstood.


Back to the Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation & Archiving is generously sponsored by Drexel University Online.

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