Penumbra is the largest theater representing African American experiences in the Twin Cities
A recent Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) piece examines the unique fundraising challenges faced by culturally specific and ethnic theater groups. These theaters present work by and about particular groups. Two local examples are Mu Performing Arts, representing Asian American experiences, and Penumbra Theater, representing African American experiences.
As art funding starts to rebound, most individual donors continue to support large, culturally western groups serving audiences who are whiter and wealthier than the American average. This trend, along with the reduction of foundation, government and corporate support for theater, has placed many culturally specific theaters in jeopardy. To survive, small arts groups must expand revenue sources, diversify funding and do a better job of networking with individual donors.
As Minnesota’s population diversifies, engaging diverse individual donors continues to be a challenge. According to MPR and Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the average white theater company gets 60% of its funding from individual donors. That compares to (less than) 26% of funding that Penumbra receives from individuals. Two factors are cited as contributing to the gap: available wealth in the theater’s community and the history of philanthropy within the culture.
Another factor contributing to the decline is the diversification of offerings from mainstream theaters. As large theaters start to embrace multicultural programming, they attract support that may traditionally have gone to small ethnic theaters, which may have trouble competing for grants against large, more established groups. And, even with a shift toward more mainstream multicultural theater, criticism about a lack of representation from women and communities of color on America’s stages continues, as a backlash against the Guthrie’s 2012-2013 season showed.
However, Penumbra has also demonstrated that there is hope for building and diversifying fundraising capacity. After cutting staff and suspending programming indefinitely as a result of a major 2012 budget short fall, Penumbra focused all its energy on raising the $340,000 needed to keep its doors open. According to MPR, by the end of 2012, the theater had raised $359,000 from more than 1,400 individuals, corporations and foundations. To grow future sustainability, Penumbra is now developing a new business plan and examining ways to maximize revenue streams.
Culturally specific theaters are worth supporting. They provide ethnic and minority communities with a place to express their cultures using their voices. In addition, they bring another group’s individual and shared experiences to broader audiences. Funding diversification is key to making these theaters sustainable.
For more on a similar topic, read a post I wrote a year ago for Philanthropy Potluck on the need for arts giving to contribute more to the common good.
-Kaitlin Ostlie, MCF administrative assistant