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Allegations of Racial Bias in Arts Funding, Part III

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – The cultural funding scene is an intricate web, weaving public, private, and corporate support systems. The September 11th attacks unraveled much of that support for local arts groups. But with private and corporate support largely out of reach, African American arts groups say they were already dangling precariously from that support web.

Part three of our series on race and cultural funding explores how local leaders plan to rebuild the web, and pull minority arts groups in, to help make the entire arts community stronger.

For decades, the area's local African American culturals have been keeping black heritage alive. And providing a broader landscape for the entire community. But they also face unique challenges.

Black arts groups gets a much smaller slice of the public funding pie. And they are largely shut out of alternative funding sources. Minority arts leaders say corporate sponsors prefer to hang their banners over the stages and doors of more lucrative, mainstream culturals. In a collaboration with the Science Museum, The Langston Hughes Institute did secure a major sponsor for the national quilt exhibit they brought here in 2000. President Dorothy Hill says that's not enough.

"You can't always be bringing in a big, major quilt exhibit to get some sponsorship," said Hill. "Because we need sponsorship for the other things we do that are just as valuable."

Such collaborations are great for patrons. But usually do little for the minority groups that create them.

Ujima Theatre's Lorna Hill says there are special grants from foundations for cooperative, new ethnic initiatives. But she says only the mainstream groups seem to be able to collect.

Hill says the minority groups don't qualify because for them, ethnic programming isn't new -- it's their primary mission. For example, her recent collaboration with the Irish Classical Theatre got ITC a $75,000 Oishei grant. But when Ujima sought Oishei funding for hosting a Native American residency, they were denied -- reportedly for late filing. And, of eleven grants recently awarded by the Community Foundation, which Ujima also applied for, none went to minority arts groups. Hill says it's all part of an old problem, no one wants to talk about.

"Everything happening to us is the result of, I'm sorry, institutionalized racism," said Hill. "I am very tired of the accusation, when one says institutionalized racism - ugh, she's played the race card. I'm tired of that, because that has now become the exit from the discussion."

But with imminent changes on the horizon due to budget cuts, some are finally willing to talk. Erie County Legislator Lynn Marinelli, member of the community enrichment committee, says cultural funding is at a crossroads.

"Due to the cultural funding situations that are coming, this may be a year where the Legislature taking a closer look at cultural funding and how it gets done," said Marinelli.

But it's not only small groups that are hurting. The Buffalo Philharmonic now faces a roughly $1 million deficit. Minority arts leaders worry that the bulk of any extra funding will go to the so called cultural cornerstones, such as the BPO. City Arts Commissioner David Granville says he would like to see it directed to struggling urban arts groups.

"The city is most willing to work with the County Executive in identifying the areas of most need, and put the money where it is most needed," said Granville.

But money isn't the only issue. Agnes Bain with the African American Cultural Center says officials also need to be more responsive.

"If we are long term, established organizations, and all us are, and we certainly have a track record, we should not have to go through long terms of waiting, trying to get meetings with folks to sit down and talk about our dilemmas, and understand exactly how serious the situation is with us," Bain said.

A prime example she says is the way they were snubbed concerning this year's binational cultural tourism brochure. All local, major African American cultural events were excluded from the county subsidized brochure. Bain says someone on the committee told her you had to "pay to play." But Bain says they were never invited, nor told the rules of the game. Patrick Keyes is Director of Regional Cultural Tourism for the Arts Council. He says the oversight defeats their entire mission.

"Whatever was done, is obviously wrong," said Keyes. "I mean, I'm working on a whole program dedicated to promoting exactly those events. So, there was obviously a misconnect someplace, and that is inexcusable. But it's something we need to learn from, and move ahead with."

When it comes to moving forward, Keyes is way out front. The unique program he secured funding for promotion of African American theatre, cultural and heritage events in major cities all over the mid-Atlantic coast. And it also provides training to help black arts groups gear up for, and maximize on, the emerging cultural tourism industry. Buffalo Common Councilman Charley Fisher says the region needs to invest in its unmined gold.

"Our history begins with the words and actions we take today," said Fisher. "It's about doing this right. It's about treating the Lorna Hills of the world right today. And we got to find a way to do it. We got to be like the African proverb, a thousand spider webs tie up a lion. And we got to atone for our mistakes here and put an investment in the arts."

The rewriting of local arts history will be revealed in the coming months, as officials sort out the future of cultural funding.