The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted African Americans, infecting and killing them at higher rates across the nation. But black Americans are also experiencing the economic brunt of COVID-19. (June 1)

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The coronavirus pandemic has shown Keesha Dixon something she already knew: that Black arts organizations are resilient. The executive director of the Asante Art Institute of Indianapolis knew her team couldn’t shut down. It had to be a rock for students whose school routine had been upended and who had watched Black people die at the hands of police.

“Being able to quickly assess the hand that we were dealt and then looking at where we are, what we need to do and who we’re doing it for — well, that’s just a matter of us continuing our work,” she said.

But often, the impact of widespread crises on Black arts organizations and the solutions they come up with aren’t measured in a data-driven manner that’s tailored to them. They differ from mainstream white organizations in how they culturally enrich their communities, many times with scant reserves and fewer donor resources.

Now, two scholars at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are addressing that by spearheading a study of Black arts groups around the city. Through a survey and analysis tool, they are assessing the pandemic’s impact, learning how groups have pivoted to serve their audiences and — importantly for recovery — helping them find funding on a playing field that favors white-led organizations.

The results of their project will become public in early 2021 through a to-be-announced digital platform that also will help Black arts organizations share resources and tell their stories of resilience.

Performers wore masks to perform “The Color Purple” in the Indiana Performing Arts Centre production. (Photo: Photo provided/Marci and Christy Photography)

“This is really focused on the contemporary moment,” said Joseph Lennis Tucker Edmonds, an assistant professor of Africana studies and religious studies at IUPUI.

“We were talking about (Hurricane) Katrina and September 11 and other moments and saying … let’s not miss this opportunity this time to really tell a story about how public and social crises not only impact everyone but have a unique and particular impact on Black organizations.”

‘Building our audiences during all of this’

When the pandemic forced Indiana Performing Arts Centre and KaidyDid Productions to cancel a planned May production of “Aida,” the group knew it couldn’t afford to slow its momentum and risk losing relevance. So over the summer, using virtual auditions and Zoom, they started to piece together a cast for “The Color Purple.”

As government restrictions on entertainment began to lift, callbacks comprised a few people sitting in chairs in opposite corners and then rehearsing just one scene at a time. Not until shortly before the production did the masked performers convene. “The Color Purple” played to reduced audiences at the Athenaeum from Oct. 16 through Nov. 1. It was to have a second run this month, but they had to cancel because of the reduced capacity measures announced by Gov. Eric Holcomb. They’ll resume the show in March and tour it in Fort Wayne and South Bend.

“We are a completely small-based theater company that’s kind of making its move and building its name, building our audiences during all of this,” artistic director Dee DuVall said.

Indiana Performing Arts Centre and KaidyDid Productions, which have merged, are among the arts organizations that Tucker Edmonds and Lasana Kazembe, an assistant professor in the School of Education and Africana studies, are studying. The others include the Asante Art Institute, Iibada Dance Co., Kheprw Institute and Freetown Village. They’re documenting the ways the groups are problem-solving for shows like “The Color Purple.”

The Asante Children’s Theatre started in 1990 and, since then, has expanded into the Asante Art Institute. (Photo: Photo provided/AAI Staff Photographer)

Indiana Performing Arts Centre and KaidyDid, which were founded in 2005 and 2011 respectively, program works that have deep roots in the Black community, like “The Wiz,” and provide acting and other stage opportunities for people of color. The center started as a youth program and quickly changed its model to also put on adult musicals to sustain itself, executive director Trina Dingle said. 

Likewise, the Asante Children’s Theatre began in 1990 and recently changed its name to the Asante Art Institute to encompass the number of adult alums who wanted to teach and perform in its shows. As its makeup has become more intergenerational, the institute now includes the children’s theater, an “artrepreneurial incubator” that teaches participants to funnel their theater work into a resume builder and a space for conversations about issues that affect communities of color, Dixon said.

The institute has adjusted its classes to be virtual, which she said offers a foundational rock when children have been uprooted from their pre-pandemic school routine. What’s more, Asante has performed “Journey in Search of Justice” with a small and socially distant cast of older kids. The one-act play, written largely by founder Deborah Asante, tells stories of Black people who sought freedom and new opportunities in the 19th century and then parallels those experiences with a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest.

When George Floyd died in May, Asante reached out to its students, staff and families, Dixon said.

“To see it in real life at the hands of a police officer and not see it once but over and over and over and over again and on any device that (kids) have access to — nobody stopped to think about what this repetition of this vicious act, this atrocity, would do to young children,” Dixon said.

“We use the arts to heal all the time, and we use the arts to prepare children of color to deal in the white world. But now, we have this trauma going on and it’s not only the child, but it’s their parents, it’s their grandparents, it’s their cousins and everybody in their circle, their sphere of influence, that has witnessed this. And how are they coping?”

How the survey will make it easier to ‘tell their story’

The survey by Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe covers the questions that would be expected of an instrument that evaluates the state of the performing arts during the pandemic — assessing revenue loss, additional expenses, and financial assistance. It also tailors its queries to the specifics of how Black arts organizations function differently than their white mainstream counterparts.

For example, the survey asks whether groups have had hurdles in the process to apply for funding, if they have the capacity to go virtual and how they are collaborating with other peer groups.

“If these anchor institutions are not doing this work, there aren’t any other institutions that fill in this gap. This is not being filled by the public schools, this is not being filled in oftentimes even by religious organizations,” Tucker Edmonds said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for them to write the grants, tell their story, make a justification for how they’ve been impacted and to talk about, most importantly, their reach and their impact.”  

Kazembe and Tucker Edmonds’ initial phase also will sharpen the questions so that the survey can spread to examine more topics and include more regions’ organizations. IUPUI’s Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy has been helping with the design and data analysis. 

The financial difficulties of the pandemic have exacerbated the pre-existing need for grant dollars. Tucker Edmonds said few Black arts organizations have endowments. Often, he said, their operating budget is made up of 40% in grant and external foundation funding; 30% to 40% from ticketing, programming and fundraising; and 10% to 20% in individual giving and donations.

Nationally, two percent of cultural institutions — those with annual budgets of more than $5 million — receive 58% of contributed income, according to the 2017 report “Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy,” which pulled together data from a variety of national measurements. It comprises research by Helicon Collaborative and support from the Surdna Foundation.

Ninety percent of groups have a budget of less than $1 million but receive 21% of the total gifts, grants and contributions. And cultural groups that primarily serve communities of color receive 4% of foundation arts funding.

“The value of doing a study like this, it will bring to light: Hey, here is clear analysis on perceptions, needs, things that need to change to create a healthier ecosystem for these organizations,” said Clayton De Fur, senior community leadership officer for the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

‘That obligation to write these grants (is) an absolute necessity’

Dixon became involved with the Asante Children’s Theatre after her son joined in the early 1990s, letting her see firsthand how much of an impact the program and its high-quality training made on kids. Dixon remembers how a couple walking out of “The Motown Story” during the 1994-95 season said they thought the kids would lip-sync.

No, they were singing, Dixon said. They had learned the choreography and history behind the songs to perform that well.

But more than 10 years passed before the theater was incorporated and had enough resources to regularly apply for and manage grants. Dixon said Dave Lawrence, who was with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, and Brian Payne, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, helped put the theater on the path to build infrastructure with a board of directors and nonprofit status.

Having personnel with the skills and knowledge of their organization’s books makes a major difference. Funders often require detailed, in-depth applications that smaller organizations can find intimidating. While the IUPUI survey will support them, it will also be a message to funders to rethink how they collect information and make decisions. Black arts organizations often have to make a choice between devoting staff time to teaching or writing time-consuming grant proposals.

“You need people who have the capacity to be able to write in a language where you tell your story in a clear fashion. That requires a set of skills,” Kazembe said. “You also need to have someone who understands numbers, who can understand how to put together not just a budget, but a budget justification.

“We’re in a COVID era. Now fast-forward (to) where you have to let people go, you have to lay off people and the rent’s due. All of a sudden, your ability and that obligation to write these grants now becomes an absolute necessity.”

In an effort to uproot systemic racism, CICF has been reshaping its equity framework to give organizations by and for Black and brown communities a higher level of and more consistent support, De Fur said. The foundation is working on changing the grant application process to more closely follow this set of goals. CICF isn’t a formal partner for the IUPUI project but has been in discussions with those involved about equitable funding and voiced its support for the issue.

Part of CICF’s shift comes from recognizing that lean organizations can have trouble growing with grants that are sized to be a ratio of their operating budgets, he said. That has continued to feed inequities.

“If your organization’s budget is $200,000, you can’t get more than a $15,000 grant or something like that, those types of setups make it really hard for organizations to build their own capacity,” De Fur said.

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‘This has changed their world just being part of a theater family’

The wake of the summer’s social justice protests have, in many cases, spotlighted the work that Indianapolis’ Black arts organizations have long been doing to serve their communities. The organizations and scholars also hope that the fresh awareness and the survey results will lead to funders tailoring equity grant parameters more specifically — for example, to programming that’s dedicated to preserving Black history and social legacy — to even the playing field.

For their part, Black arts organizations in Indianapolis are seeing more demand and understanding for what they provide. Dixon said veteran families are returning and new families are signing up for Asante’s programs. Likewise, DuVall sees the continued need for the Indiana Performing Arts Centre’s work.

“I can give you testimony and examples and people … where this has changed their world just being part of a theater family or reaching dreams, or (being) given an opportunity that they didn’t think could exist,” DuVall said.

Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or [email protected]. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.

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