Kickstart This: Why The NEA Is Irrelevant To Artists of Color

by Guest Contributor Tiffany Bradley, originally published at BlackEstinienne

Kickstarter header

One of my friends thoughtfully shared a link with me about Kickstarter’s impact on indie artists: “Kickstarter Expects To Provide More Funding To The Arts Than NEA.” To which I squealed, “NEA funding is a pretty low bar!” Not to disdain the valuable work of the National Endowment for the Arts, but their impact on individual artists is negligible, and on individual artists of color…minimal. To assume otherwise is to misunderstand the role of the NEA.

The NEA funds organizations, not artists. People create art, teach kids, and perform. Institutions showcase these artists, give them space to grow, and a platform to share their vision of the world. But institutions are gatekeepers and serve the interests of structural inequity.

Last fall, panelists John Killacky, Dr. Susan Cahan, and former NEA Deputy Director for Programs A.B. Spellman shared their experiences with a group of culturally specific arts organizations in NY. For those of you that don’t speak arts manager, “culturally specific organizations” are those that focus on a non-white culture (i.e. people of color.)

A lot of ground was covered between these three leaders, but the best was a historical perspective on these organizations. Cahan outlined their growth as a “gesture of integration that was really a form of segregation.” To get funding, artists of color had to form organizations and partner with [older, whiter] nonprofits. Spellman pinpointed the detrimental effect: “a part of the trap is that you aspire to institutionalize yourself.”

And shockingly, artists of color weren’t as good at institutionalizing themselves. As funding guidelines required that grants be readministered through white-majority institutions, culturally specific organizations did not have the support to build stable infrastructures of their own. Which led us to the “only one Ailey” phenomenon: while people of color make most of the art in this country, we only have a handful of powerhouse, internationally recognized arts organizations. There are a ton of brilliant artists and arts organizations of color scraping by, but our cultures deserve much more.

Which brings us back to the crowdsourcing explosion. Things we can be sure of: the funding model for the arts privileges older, larger arts institutions, which have historically excluded artists of color. (After the link: only 10% of arts grantmaking explicitly supports communities of color or underserved communities.) While these legacy institutions are working hard to diversify their offerings, it’s slow work. And it leaves artists dependent on gatekeepers again.

Crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter cut through all this mess. As cultural consumers, we can vote with our wallets. And cultural entrepreneurs that look and act like us can finally move their projects forward. So how do we support artists of color?

Stop caring what the NEA does and open your wallet.

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  • RVCBard


    I just came back from Fire This Time’s panel about an artists’ response to Trayvon Martin, and we talked a great deal about how the current institutional model does not serve artists of color or our communities. We also talked about the need for new ways to bring art to the people that don’t simply replicate what White-dominated institutions do.

    I’m a playwright who produces her own stuff, and so far my funding has come exclusively from donations, most of which come from within my community.

    BTW (since it seems apt): if you’ve got one minute and one dollar, please support the $1 Play Project and spread the word.

  • 3xAmazing

    I’d like to see continued coverage of POC kickstarter projects here on Racialicious.  I donated to African American Superhero, and would love to give more.

    • Anonymous

      How’s that project coming along?