Does ‘art apartheid,’ unequal arts funding, exist in Houston?
Ensemble Theatre

Is there art apartheid in Houston? Well, if “apartheid” is a reality where inequality based on race reigns, then a look at Houston’s art scene suggests art apartheid has resided in the Bayou City for a good minute.

“Though I prefer to use the term ‘Economic Apartheid in the Arts’ because the arts exist within a larger environment, ‘art apartheid’ does exist in arts funding,” said Michelle Barnes, executive director and co-founder of the Community Artists Collective.

Michelle Barnes

Case in point: the comparison of contributions brought in by two of Houston’s largest art institutions.

In June, the Alley Theatre received $25 million in matching grant funds from an anonymous donor. The gift was the largest in the 75-year history of the Alley. But even their gifts over the decades that have come nowhere near the record-setting donation have consistently dwarfed the donations received by Black-owned artistic venues.

According to ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer, the Ensemble Theatre, for example, received $1,176,809 in contributions in FY2020, the year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 2020 numbers weren’t far off from 2019 ($1,300,946) or 2018 ($1,093,099), numbers that are nowhere near the Alley’s matching grant, which does not account for other donations and contributions received by the Alley.

Since 2013, the Ensemble’s largest contributions came in 2017 when they took in $1.3 million. The Alley Theatre’s largest contributions during that same period came in 2014, when they brought in $22.7 million.

“Frustrations, criticisms and periodic outcries from the sector of the arts community that includes small and mid-sized organizations, as well as individual artists urging policymakers to address the decades-old funding disparities, are the result,” added Barnes about how the arts community, especially the Black arts community, has responded to a huge gulf between funding realities.

Writer, director, producer actress and educator Norma Thomas agrees with Barnes.

Norma Thomas

“Historically, ‘art apartheid’ has existed here,” said Thomas, founder and co-owner of NT Studios and Conservatory. “I cannot speak fully to how it presented itself, but I have been a part of some conversations with those who have sought funding a lot longer and to a greater extent than I have.”

Thomas added that she does see efforts to bridge the art funding divide, mentioning the work of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

“Strides have been made to level the funding field. There are increased opportunities for individual artists to receive funding. There are efforts to ensure that historically underserved zip codes are given opportunities to receive funding,” shared Thomas.

Barnes has seen this shift too.

“The historic inequities upon which the distribution of public funds have been built also explain the recent efforts to provide infusions of funding from sources other than Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) and attend to funding dedicated to BIPOC-led organizations and artists’ projects. The changes to the funding system seem to be moving in a more equitable direction thanks to the support of our community-based organizations and other artistic/cultural programs and to the (current) leadership, sensitivity, advocacy for and value of a ground-up approach on the part of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the Houston Arts Alliance,” stated Barnes.

Barnes and Thomas are referring to donations over the past few years to artists and art organizations, many of which are led by Blacks and other people of color.

It was recently announced that the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) is awarding $90,900 in grants to nine individuals and nonprofit organizations focused on promoting cultural tourism and resilience in the city, with funds awarded through City’s Initiative, a competitive grant program administered by the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) and funded by a portion of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax.

MOCA also announced it awarded $35,000 in grants (also administered by HAA and funded in part by the city’s HOT) to 14 individuals and nonprofit organizations that have reimagined their work in the digital realm. These works include streaming services, virtual reality, and digital curation to deliver manifested live concerts, theatre performances and literary concepts in online-only platforms.
“The digital focus of this grant program provides an opportunity for innovation that opens Houston’s vibrant arts and cultural community to a global audience,” said Turner. “Our history of investing in the creative economy and our artists is an integral part of who we are as an international city.”

However, even with the funding offered by MOCA, the chasm still exists between predominantly white artistic venues and BIPOC ones.