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Allegations of Racial Bias in Arts Funding, Part II

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – As Buffalo has learned, hard fiscal times bring hard fiscal choices. But those choices are being made at all levels of local government, as well as by private organizations.

Labeled by municipalities as non-essential services, cultural organizations have been cut altogether, or put at the bottom of the priority list. And representatives of local minority arts groups say their organizations are pushed down even further. Part two of our three part series examining race and cultural funding takes a closer look at who gets what.

Despite tough times, funding seems to keep coming in -- that is, for some arts groups. Alleyway Theatre recently got another $50,000 grant from Erie County toward renovation of the Upper West Arts Center. And thanks to a $2 million commitment from the city and $300,000 of its own money already invested, Righteous Babe Records is close to finalizing a deal to renovate the former Asbury Delaware church into an arts center. That's good news for both of them. And for preservation. But it's a sore spot with many in the African American cultural community.

The Ujima Theatre's Lorna Hill says her plan to renovate the Asbury Delaware into an arts center, for the minority community, was ignored by the city. And now, Ujima faces more than $20,000 dollars of immediate, city mandated repairs on what was intended to be its temporary home on Elmwood. And Hill says that threatens Ujima's next season.

But she's not expecting a last minute rescue. And other members of African American Cultural community say she shouldn't. Langston Hughes Institute President Dorothy Hill, no relation to Lorna Hill, says that, long before city cuts, there were disparities in cultural funding.

"We run into financial problems, we do not get bailed out, as such," said Dorothy Hill. "And so, therefore, you have to make any concessions or eliminations that you have to do, then that's exactly what you have to do."

She points to Studio Arena as one example. The city is now considering giving the theatre a waiver on more than $57,000 of back rent. They also give Alleyway Theatre a break on rent. They pay $1 a year. But Dorothy Hill says when Langston Hughes asked for relief on a $120,000 debt owed to the city, they were told no way. Meanwhile, she says they're also struggling to complete nearly a million dollars of code upgrades inherited from the city. But black arts leaders say it's not just the city that seems inspired to only help what have come to be known as the area's cultural cornerstones.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Shea's Performing Arts Center, the Allendale, and Shakespeare in Delaware Park are a few that continue to get a generous helping hand. For example, the county Legislature recently stepped in with an extra $25,000 to save the Shakespeare troupe's season. Agnes Bain is executive director of the African American Cultural Center. She says the mainstream groups get perks, while black arts centers struggle just to survive.

"I'm prepared to know that any day I come in to work, if I have to mop the floor, I have to mop the floor," said Bain. "I had to teach two classes today. I mean we leave here sometimes at ten or eleven o'clock, when we have to get up again at eight o'clock in the morning to open the doors for programming to start."

Literally millions of public and private dollars have been poured into programming and enhancements for the area's major culturals. Smaller, minority projects, such as the Apollo, are funded, but on a much smaller scale. At the county level, the Cultural Resources Advisory Board makes recommendations for funding. Robert Skerker who heads the volunteer board explains their criteria.

"Obviously, the large organizations tend to receive more funding, but that's not necessarily just based on attendance," said Skerker. "There certainly is a relationship between organizations that are popular, and that receive a lot of public support in the form of private donations."

It's essentially a Catch 22 -- the organizations with the most support qualify for even more. For example, the County Executive has come forward with a proposal for additional emergency funding. Under the plan, the county would take over the city's roughly $700,000 cost for maintaining three facilities - Kleinhans, the zoo, and Shea's. Another $500,000 would be available to some roughly 57 other competing cultural groups. When asked about the disproportionate split, County Planning Commissioner Larry Rubin defended what he called an equitable process.

"Larger organizations have larger budgets, have larger needs," said Rubin. "But it's not a matter of determining who has clout, it's based on objective reviews, by very many people, to look at their needs."

Buffalo Common Council member Charley Fisher disagrees. He says the funding break-down at all levels is decidedly slanted. Minorities make up about half of the region's urban population, where most cultural organizations are located. Yet, according to Fisher, minority arts groups received roughly only 15 percent of the city's former cultural budget, and only about 1.4 percent of the county's total $5 million cultural budget. And that he says is telling.

"As we often say in government, the best intentions of government are expressed in a budget," said Fisher. "And there, if you look at the budget, we haven't done kindly to, may I say it, to people of color in the arts."

In the final part of our series, we'll examine the role of private funders, and take a look at some possible remedies to the funding imbalances.