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Allegations of Racial Bias in Arts Funding, Part I

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Buffalo has become a city plagued by the fallout of fiscal crisis. And last week, as the debate over down sizing the Buffalo Common Council heated up, tensions spilled over into racial accusations. But some in the arts community are saying that racial prejudice was a part of their reality -- long before the city's financial woes.

In a three part series, WBFO takes a closer look at some apparent inequities in local cultural funding. Part one has the story of two very strong, local women artists -- with one visible difference.

Talented, strong, and stubbornly independent, Ani DiFranco has vocally belted her way to the top - on her own record label - on her own terms. And DiFranco has extended that fierce determination to her home town. DiFranco defied industry standards, and some would argue common sense, choosing Buffalo for her now successful company, Righteous Babe Records.

But across town, on the Elmwood strip, is yet another feminist success story. Some have described Lorna C. Hill as small but mighty. Indeed, the petite Artistic Director of Ujima Theatre is ferocious on behalf of the arts, children and the African-American community. Twenty-four years ago, the Ivy League scholar turned her impassioned talents to art, building Ujima from nothing into one of the mainstays of Buffalo's theatre community.

Lorna Hill and Ani DiFranco something else in common -- a church. They both want to renovate the old Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church into a multi-use arts center. Hill's proposal to the city came first in 1997. But last year, it was DiFranco's company that was given the option for the project.

Why? Hill says it's because there is one difference between the two women, and their proposals -- color.

"It's very insulting to me that she was ignored for racial reasons, that is absolutely not the case, and I am not going to dignify those charges," said Mayor Anthony Masiello. "But the fact of the matter is our development people, our planning people, and those who looked at her proposal, while they thought it was a good one, it just didn't meet the particular needs that we had at that time."

Mayor Anthony Masiello reacted strongly to Hill's charge that racial bias was the reason her proposal was not accepted. But Hill says her plan -- which would have created public space for children, minorities and the disabled -- was never seriously considered. She says the proposal "vanished into thin air," after she presented it to Joseph Ryan, the former City Planning Commissioner. Ryan admits he handled the situation poorly. But he says Hill lacked a solid business plan. And, bottom line, he says the city couldn't afford it.

"There was going to be a major city commitment required," said Ryan. "And, the determination was made that there wasn't enough money in the cultural sector of our community to fund the portion that Lorna was trying to bring to the table."

But Hill, who manages a quarter million dollar annual budget at Ujima, says both conclusions are wrong.

"One...that I was asking the city for money, and two...that Ujima was completely incapable of raising any money," said Hill. "Be mindful, I didn't ask the city for a dime. Two years after I laid that proposal on the mayor's desk, Ujima company spent $250,000 to put an elevator into our building. By the way, that $250,000 could could have been put on the roof of the Asbury Delaware church."

City officials now say they will contribute money to the project -- lots of it -- an estimated $2.3 million as part of the deal with Ani DiFranco's company. Righteous Babe Records would kick in another $1.3 million to renovate corporate office space. Funding for the remaining roughly $1 million of actual church renovations is still in question. Joe Ryan acknowledged that final phasing of the business plan presented by Righteous Babe is incomplete.

"We're not certain that the people who are the preferred developers right now are capable of doing it either," said Ryan. "We're still a long way from a done deal."

Scott Fisher from Righteous Babe Records declined a phone interview but confirmed details of the deal that Mayor Masiello defended.

"We are continuing our negotiations and conversations with that interested party," said Masiello. "They are a very viable party here in Buffalo, somebody we want to keep here in Buffalo, New York. A very important part of our city - and hopefully it will work out."

Hill says that attitude -- that a white owned company is more viable than a long standing Black company -- is insulting and racist. Common Council member Charley Fisher agrees that it is a clear example of what he called "unintentional racism."

"Many groups with far less ability, skill and track record have been funded for all kinds of nefarious projects," said Fisher. "And we took their idea and their concept and gave it to someone else."

Lorna Hill says she respects Ani DiFranco and her efforts. But she says the city should be investing in the community.

"All these years later, the building is still empty and still decaying. At the end of the day, what we'll have in the building is a private concern in space available to rent to the public," said Hill. "And the same people who were disenfranchised and under-represented prior to this whole fiasco will continue to be disenfranchised and under-represented. And it doesn't seem to bother anybody."

In part two of the series, we will take a closer look at just who gets what in the local cultural community -- how and where public and private money is being invested.