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A moment for arts and social change

July 06, 2021

Museum_of_Chinese_in_AmericaMacKenzie Scott's latest $2.74 billion round of grants made big news for the outsized impact one donor can have on the nonprofit sector and for its focus on tackling inequities. Also notable was the number of arts and cultural groups among the grantees — more specifically, organizations created by and for people of color who work every day to put arts and culture at the forefront of social transformation. 

This support indicates a sophisticated understanding of the primacy of cultural expression as a place of engagement with one another and society at large — essential to transformation for the common good.

Scott said the grants to organizations "from culturally rich regions and identity groups that donors often overlook" were aimed at "empowering voices the world needs to hear." As co-chairs of the Mosaic Network & Fund — which funds and promotes arts and cultural groups of color in New York City and is one of the beneficiaries on the list — we couldn't agree more.

These groups have been tireless in their efforts to showcase aesthetic excellence, preserve diverse cultural traditions, and advance social change, despite being resourced at a level vastly incommensurate with their importance. For example, Ballet Hispánico, a fifty-year-old contemporary dance company that performs classical and contemporary works, trains young dancers, and functions as a source of pride and identity for the community from which it arises. The smaller Mama Foundation for the Arts provides a vital training ground for youth gospel singers. Institutions like these are cultural markers that lift up the voices, stories, and experiences of Americans whose contributions are minimized in or excluded altogether from artistic canons.

Then there are groups such as the First People's Fund, which is investing in Native American artists and culture bearers to preserve handed-down traditions while acting as economic anchors for their communities, and the Museum of Chinese in America, which challenges false, harmful stereotypes to more fully tell the stories of Americans of Chinese descent. These groups bring to light overlooked or misunderstood facets of American history and culture. 

Still others have missions that intentionally fuse art and activism and incubate artists within the heart and soul of their communities. The Laundromat Project — whose early art projects were set in neighborhood laundromats — intertwines art making and community building, supporting creative leaders who rally neighbors around common causes such as housing and health and wellness. And Harlem-based Firelight Media develops documentary filmmakers of color and produces films about communities of color, often reaching national audiences.

These groups are ideal conduits for gathering and broadcasting the thoughts and ideas of people whose voices are scarcely heard. Art and culture tell us who we are and help us organize to tackle the urgent issues of our times, such as mass incarceration, immigration, and climate change.

Creating and presenting art is always a labor of love, but Scott's gifts remind us that artists and the groups that nurture them are an important investment. If we are to tell the American story fully and in all its richly textured splendor, their work is vital.

Equally important, it's time for all of us to join Scott in giving long overdue, meaningful recognition and support to African-American, Latinx, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Arab-American, and Native American arts organizations that are essential to the vibrancy of our society. While we cannot all make gifts as large as Scott's, we must recognize the transformational role each of us can and must play to ensure that the arts embody the voices of all communities.

(Photo credit: Museum of Chinese in America)

Maruine_Knighton_Kerry_McCarthy_Mosaic_NYCT_PhilanTopicMaurine Knighton and Kerry McCarthy are co-chairs of the Mosaic Network & Fund in the New York Community Trust.

 

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