Black Theater: Survival Through the Black Community © Pt. 5

Challenges to Sustainability

There have been many studies conducted to identify the challenges theaters and arts organizations have in obtaining sustainability. Four areas present the biggest challenges for arts organizations in general (Bowles 1993; Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland 2015; Eisenberg 1997; Whye 2004).

1. Donor support

2. Audience development/engagement

3. Funding

4. Governance

In an interview with Holly Sidford, President of Helicon Collaborative, she shared that funding and donor support is easier when there is a “machine” behind it, a regional theater company of heft with upwards of $1 million behind it. “…That money comes from... foundations and individual donors. And the individual philanthropy is the most important thing. Because it’s the individual donors who will get you through the downturn in the other two areas. And that's what most successful non-profit organizations in this country, irrespective of the aesthetic, have done. They have built a broad base of individual donors who have sustained them” (Holly Sidford Interview 2015). She also goes on to share that historically organizations of color have not been able to achieve that level of efficiency. While there have been many efforts over the years from foundations to increase organizations of colors’ capacity to grow and sustain themselves, once those initiatives have run their course, “…the weaknesses started to show themselves again, in part because building a base of individual donors takes decades; it’s not done overnight. It's certainly not done in a community that you are serving, [that is] primarily not a wealthy one,” (Holly Sidford Interview 2015). This speaks to Black theater’s legitimation and its infancy in the American theater landscape (Voss et al. 2016).

Since the early 1980’s funding and advocacy organizations have studied African American audiences, Black theaters and Black communities.. As posited earlier, Black theaters have the additional and unique challenges which includes systemic racism, defined as when the way a society is structured systematically ends up giving advantages to some and disadvantages to others which contributes to economic disparity and ultimately failing communities.

Economic Disparity and its Effect on Black Theater Donor Support

"Organizations that are committed to remaining bold and adventuresome artistically give their audiences and their communities a reason to continue investing. What I have seen is that theaters that retrenched artistically during the recession have seen a softening of their subscriptions and ticket sales," (Bowles 1993).

The Middle Class in America is shrinking. (Pew Research Center 2015). There are many contributing factors to this, but looking through the lens of the Black community and therefore its effects on Black theater, it cannot be understated African American experience a disparity in income wealth disproportionately to Americans at large (Kochhar and Fry 2016; Anderson 2012). Black theater has suffered as well. African Americans have a long standing history of donating to many organizations other than the arts (i.e. churches, community centers, education) (Bowles 1993). In an economic environment where many households are single income and/or the income is below a livable wage, if an African American family is going to donate their hard earned dollars, that money will go to organizations they believe will directly benefit them.

Black theater, at first blush, appears to not meet this criteria of giving. This is not true. According to Nielsen, in 2013 African American buying power was $1 trillion dollars.(Nielsen 2013). This is 13% more buying power than the Asian American population and only 6% less than the Hispanic population in America. In fact, from 2005 – 2013 the African Americans earning $75 K or more a year increased by 5% and Black median household income increased by 2.3% (Nielsen 2015). The purchasing power of African Americans is strong and has been co opted by every cultural community outside of the Black community. From a sampling of the Black theaters aggregated for this thesis, 32% of their earned income came from donated contributions (“” 2015). Taking pages from the tactics of the Black theater forefathers (Hay 1994), today’s Black theater has the opportunity to engage this audience with new, innovative and relevant themes. But to assume that the African American donor pool is only comprised of financially struggling African Americans would be an erroneous assumption. There are only two African Americans on the Forbes Top 400 Wealthiest Americans list (Oprah Winfrey #211 and Robert Smith #268), but in 2014, the number of African Americans making $200K and over rose from .5% in 1990 to 2.0%. Further, in 2014, just under 11% of the African American population made between $100K and $200K (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 2014). The fact of the matter is; the numbers are a sad representation of the disparity of wealth in America. However, they also demonstrate that there is wealth within the Black community. Wealthier African Americans donate to a great many charities, including the NAACP, 100 Black Men, Black fraternities and sororities to name just a few (Kitt 2014).

These organizations have direct effects upon the Black community and are supported for their missions. Wealthy African Americans’ philanthropic desire to reach back and support the communities from which they came, remains to be an inconsistently tapped resource by Black theater. By producing quality work and engaging the community on a level beyond developing the audience, wealthier Black demographics will be incentivized to elevate donating to Black theaters as a priority, rather than an afterthought.

Programming designed to meet the organization's’ artistic needs as well as the communities’ needs is essential to maximizing the African American donor pool (Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland 2015). The Helicon Institute was commissioned to conduct a research project by the Paul G. Allen Foundation to ascertain what common factors were present in successful arts organizations. They found one commonality in successful arts organizations they coined “Bright Spots”. These were organizations that were active community leaders with high levels of community engagement and are focused on how their “product” affected and influenced the community as they were on the “product” itself (Helicon Institute 2012). Vera Whye, in her dissertation, “Perspectives on surviving and thriving in Black Theatre: What works?,” discusses the importance of Black middle and upper class communities to, “assert (their) cultural power” on the behalf of Black theaters (Whye 2004:76).

Economic disparity is evident and a challenge for the sustainability of Black theaters. However, in integrating itself into the Black community in an intrinsic and inextricable manner, through

  1. Assessing a community’s needs,

  2. Being a voice for the community and

  3. Acting as a leader for the community,

not only does the Black theater have the capacity to strengthen its existence but it also has the capacity to strengthen the community’s existence.

#Race #Theater #Black

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