Urban Wire Three Ways Philanthropy Can Help Preserve African American Culture
LesLeigh D. Ford
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In response to incidences of racial terror in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Brent Leggs and his colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the nation’s largest campaign to preserve African American historical sites.

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has since raised more than $20 million dollars from individual donors, nonprofits, and national funders. The fund supports museum collections, efforts to fund local preservationists and preservation professionals, and a leadership forum designed to nurture preservationist leaders in local communities.

The project offers valuable lessons for those invested in the sustainability of African American museums and cultural spaces and shows how social movements can catalyze philanthropy to support African American arts and cultural institutions.

Institutional efforts are often inspired by activists

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, which opened in 2016, is the nation’s most prominent institution dedicated to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.

The museum opened its doors to much acclaim, thanks to investments from public and private sources. Yet the inspiration behind the NMAAHC has a long history that often gets overlooked.

Black Civil War veterans first started a campaign to establish a memorial for the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to “depict the Negro’s contribution to America in military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry etc.”

The legislation that authorized the creation of the museum was first authorized in 1915. In 1929, a national commission was established to develop the project, but it lacked the necessary funding to be successful. Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, these same veterans gathered together and organized a “committee of concerned colored citizens” to build a monument.

Today, the $540 million project has an operating budget of approximately $44 million. The museum received donations from prominent people, including Oprah Winfrey, Robert F. Smith, and David Rubenstein, and philanthropic commitments from major national donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Today, the NMAAHC is testament to the long history of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and efforts across several transformative social movements: Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Arts, and Black Studies. Ultimately, these movements helped preserve African American culture through formalized institutions.

Smaller museums are also important

Smaller, less well-known, and less-resourced museums, historical sites, cultural institutes, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have existed for decades, and in some cases, centuries.

Many of these institutions were established at a time when support and funding for African American–led organizations were severely inadequate. Still today, many African American museums lack the financial resources needed to meet their operating budgets, sustain and develop leadership and curatorial talent, improve operations, and maintain and grow their collections.

There is a long history of social movements catalyzing new, critical forms of art and creative expression and setting the stage for the founding of new museums and cultural institutions. Movements including Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Arts, Black Studies, and Black Lives Matter helped advance social and political change and laid the foundation for the African American museums to be established in the United States.

These movements have dramatically altered the museum and cultural landscape of arts institutions in the US. To ensure these collections, archives, visual artists, and scholars are supported, on the museum side, more work can be done to strengthen the programs and operations and the pipeline of Black museum curators, educators, and leaders.

Three ways philanthropy can continue to support Black culture

A prominent 2014 study of philanthropy (PDF) showed that, proportionally, annual grant dollars for African Americans has decreased over time. Only 7.4 percent of total philanthropic giving in the United States was dedicated to people of color.  

A database on funding to African American museums doesn’t exist, but based on the trends in giving to African Americans, we can reasonably assume that grantmaking for arts, cultural, and historical archives and collections similarly disproportionately benefits mainstream, white-led museums and cultural institutions.

With these disparities in mind, funders and nonprofits can invest creatively to ensure that African American collections and archives are preserved and cultural organizations sustained. There are three key examples of this work already underway.

1. Form diverse coalitions aimed at a common goal

In July 2019, the Johnson Publishing Company, the Black-owned publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, threatening the preservation of its archive, a treasure of 20th-century African American history and culture.

In response, a foundation consortium including the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation acquired the archive and will share its offerings across leading cultural institutions including the NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute.

This effort shows how funders can build strategic coalitions to support museums, collections, and preservation efforts focusing on diverse forms of African American artifacts, photography, music, literature, virtual archives, and other mediums.  

2. Support museum professionals

Over the past 10 years, several key investments have been made to develop and support curators, museum educators, and administrators of color:

  • The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation added a $3.25 million investment to the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program. The program provides two-year fellowships and in-residence summer academies at six national museums.
  • The Walton Family Foundation established the Atlanta University Center for the Study of Art History & Curatorial Studies to establish a pipeline for African American students attending HBCUs to develop the skills and networks necessary to pursue careers in art museum leadership.
  • The Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation established the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative, committing $6 million dollars to diversify curatorial and management staff of art museums through a suite of offerings, including career development solutions, mentoring, and fellowships.

More coordination among funders can strengthen the ecosystem of professional development and educational programs that African American scholars and museum professionals are eligible for and able to apply to.

Philanthropy can expand efforts to support current and future African American museum professionals through supporting people already in the field and strengthening the pipeline through paid internships, scholarships, and training. Professional development is also crucial for those pursuing careers as curators, historians, educators, archivists, directors, conservators, and graphic or visual designers. 

3. Focus on equity

The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust invested more than $6 million dollars to support justice-focused arts programs in New York City and Durham, North Carolina. Through a partnership including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, and 19 other arts and cultural organizations, the initiative built a community of practice and connected arts organizations across New York City.

Funders can strengthen the connections between social justice, equity, and investments in arts and culture through their investments in collaboratives that allow organizations to set their own peer-learning agendas and at the same time, invest in strengthening their arts and educational programming.  


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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Civil rights laws and regulations Race and equity in grantmaking
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy