A Way Forward: DeVos on the Uncertain Future of Diverse Arts Organizations

In September of 2015, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland published a detailed study examining the challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations. Diversity in the Arts: The Past, Present, and Future of African American and Latino Museums, Dance Companies, and Theater Companies provides an exhaustive qualitative analysis exploring the inner workings of these organizations, draws statistical comparisons with their larger "mainstream" counterparts, and includes recommendations to help these diverse organizations thrive in an increasingly competitive arts landscape.

It's a must-read if there ever was one.

The study continues to reverberate throughout the arts philanthropy world. Earlier this year, for example, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University published a report countering some of the findings of the DeVos study. We'll get to this rebuttal in a future post, but in the meantime, let's first try to digest some of the key takeaways from the massive DeVos study.

We'll begin by noting some of the deep structural discrepancies that exist between mainstream and African American and Latino — henceforth known as "diverse" — organizations.

Crunching the numbers: Mainstream vs. Diverse Organizations.

The study looked at key demographic data across both types of organizations. The differences are stark.

  • The average age of the mainstream organizations is 72 years versus 35 years for diverse organizations.
  • The 20 largest mainstream organizations have median budgets of $61 million; the 20 largest organizations of color have median budgets of $3.8 million.
  • The largest mainstream organizations attribute 59 percent of their budget to earned income compared to just 40 percent for African American and Latino organizations.
  • The majority of organizations of color do not maintain an endowment fund.
  • In some cases, there's a 10x disparity in executive compensation compared to mainstream organizations.
  • Boards of organizations of color are generally half the size of mainstream organizations. According to the authors, "this means fewer ambassadors in the community helping to generate funding."
  • Contributions coming from individual donors to the organizations of color was only five percent of total contributed revenue.

"The Most Important Single Statistic" in the Study

DeVos considers the lack of funding of diverse organizations by individual donors as "the most important single statistic in the study." That's because there is a finite number of institutional donors, and their gifts are generally limited in size. To make up for this gap, these organizations must rely heavily on government and foundation grants. But as we all know, that can be an inherently risky strategy. According to DeVos, during the Great Recession, arts funding from local governments fell by 18 percent; state funding dropped 27 percent between 2008 and 2012.

When Multiculturalism Harms Arts Organizations of Color 

The study suggests that individual donors don't consciously ignore diverse organizations out of spite or prejudice. Rather, many donors "would rather give money to a white theater doing a black play than a black theater doing a multiracial play," said Michael Dinwiddie, president of the Black Theatre Network. Diwiddie attributes this to "the perverse notion we have in this country that people are being reverse racist by creating their own cultural institutions."

These Challenges Transcend Dollars and Cents

According to the DeVos study, "a lack of arts education in childhood, not surprisingly, is the leading factor that shapes arts participation and consumption in adulthood." What's more, the authors tackle some of the other entertainment options vying for audience attention:

This proliferation of electronic options is particularly problematic for small- and mid-sized arts organizations... With lower real and perceived barriers to attendance, these electronic substitutes may prove especially attractive to African American and Latino audiences, who cite accessibility as a key obstacle.

(In a similar vein, back in November of 2015, we looked at a study by Createquity titled "Why Don't They Come?" It examined why individuals with lower incomes and less education tend to avoid arts events. The main culprit, according to Createquity, is television.)

What's to Be Done? 

DeVos points to many thriving arts organizations of color and provides concrete recommendations for those struggling to address these challenges and inequities. These recommendations include:

  • Building stronger boards whose members are committed to fundraising. This strategy dovetails with the need to broaden the donor base and focus on individual donors. DeVos points to the following success story: 

In 1991, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had a budget of $6.5 million, raised less than 5 percent of its contributions from individual donors, and was facing bankruptcy. A substantial board restructuring in 1992–93 resulted in a new board capable of powering the growth of the organization. Today, the Ailey organization has a budget of $35 million.

  • Offer more management education to plug skills gaps. 
  • Attract great leaders that can effectively navigate the trends buffeting the cultural sector. 
  • Resist costly capital expenditures. In a repudiation of the Bilbao Effect, DeVos argues that "successful arts organizations prioritize investment in great art — not buildings." 
  • Encourage responsible philanthropy that acknowledges changing demographics and the distinctive characteristics of organizations of color. Flexibility is key, underscoring an emphasis on general operating support and challenge grants, which "encourage the development of a larger family of donors, thereby contributing to an organization’s long-term stability." 

Once again, the DeVos study is an expansive and detailed piece of work. Our aim, here, was to draw attention to some of the more important findings, but in many ways, we've only scratched the surface of the report, which clocks in at a hefty 58 pages. Therefore, to borrow an old industry line, we strongly encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself.