Historic Ford Foundation Grant to Revitalize Harlem Stage

As my father used to say, "Son, if you want to make money, don't be an artist."

Well, that's not entirely true. He didn't give much in terms of career advice, but his theoretical lesson surely hits home for all artists, musicians, and dancers out there. In any other profession, it's understood that getting paid is part of the deal. Not so in the arts world. Many non-profit organizations simply lack the cash flow to pay their artists. It's an unfortunately common phenomenon.

So, when we stumble across news of organizations receiving funding to help them not only build a sustainable future but also pay artists, it's reason to rejoice. In this case, the Ford Foundation awarded a $1 million grant — the largest gift in its 30-year history — to Harlem Stage, the non-profit arts organization dedicated to producing dance, music, and theater works by performing artists of color.

In fact, details of this announcement can serve as a case study for nonprofits trying to emerge from debt and create a sustainable model moving forward. The grant will revitalize Harlem Stage in four key areas by enabling them to:

  • Create a sustainable financial model. Currently the organization is facing a $500,000 budget deficit. It will use the funds to shore up its finances and set up a capital reserve fund.
  • Commission new works. Part of the capital reserve fund will be used to produce new works from local artists, dancers, and choreographers.
  • Pay artists. Until now, Harlem Stage "paid" artists by providing free practice and staging space. The funding now allows the organization to provide real financial backing for commissioned works.
  • Establish new revenue streams. The financial backing also will enable artists to take their work on the road. As such, Harlem Stage is exploring ways in which it can take a percentage of tour-related profits, thereby creating a new revenue stream while also expanding its brand and reach.

Ultimately, this gift slightly diverges from the Ford Foundation's recent history of giving. For example, as noted in IP's guide to the Ford Foundation, much of its grant dollars go to larger organizations (such as the Smithsonian) as part of its Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces program. When viewed through this lens, the comparatively smaller Harlem Stage doesn't fit this mold. On the other hand, the foundation's gift makes perfect sense. After all, its primary mission is promoting the arts — particularly dance — in underserved communities.

It's worth repeating: This is the Ford Foundation's largest private gift in its 30-year history, so we can clearly deduce that Harlem Stage made a tremendously compelling case that funds would be used to create a sustainable financial model that produces new works and pays performers.