SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Three Leaders Discuss Unique Challenges Faced by BIPOC Arts Organizations in a Time of Crises

  • Posted Apr 15, 2021

Research suggests that the field of nonprofit arts and culture has not been inclusive of communities of color. Dr. Zannie Voss of SMU DataArts explains, “There remains a significant gap in racial representation between both the general arts workforce and arts audiences, relative to the general population.” Among the largely white, Eurocentric arts organizations exist a number of organizations whose work is rooted in communities of color but who receive far less support, recognition and attention from funders and society as a whole.

For these organizations, facing inequity isn’t anything new. But the pandemic, recent acts of violence, and racial injustice have all laid bare the deep-seated issues that we, as a society, have ignored for far too long. Despite these challenges, 80% of BIPOC-serving arts organizations that we interviewed for a recent study reported that they were able to maintain financial stability throughout the COVID-19 crisis thus far. The resiliency that these organizations demonstrate may be attributed to key elements that surfaced throughout our interviews, such as clear strategies, adaptive capabilities, and the alchemy of high standards in the creation of work that is deeply meaningful to the local community.

Released in partnership with The Wallace Foundation, the full report explores what leaders of BIPOC-serving arts organization see as key to success, how the impact of the pandemic has highlighted systemic issues in institutional funding, and the innovative strategies that these organizations practice. Three arts leaders who participated in the study joined us again for a community conversation to expand on the findings and reflect on the events of last year, offering insights into lessons learned that can be used as we reimagine and rebuild the sector for a more equitable future.

Zannie: What is at the root of success? What is it that your organization does really well?

Steff Rosalez of Grandville Arts and Humanities shares what she thinks is actually most important to get right, which is to not just have a relationship with the community, but to be in relationship with the community. At all levels of the organization, leadership, board members, CEO, and directors, Rosalez stresses the importance of knowing the people coming through your doors; know them by name, why they’re coming, and what they have to offer. Through being in relationship with people, you see a value shift. Your organization can embrace its uniqueness by not trying to be something else or trying to match a service that another organization is offering. Rather, you are honoring the stories, the histories, the art forms, and the expression of the community itself. 

Secondly, Rosalez points out that it’s important to understand there is never one right thing. Being able to be wrong is the other part of being in relationship with the community. Institutionally, there is still a lot of work to do, so being able to self-reflect as institutional leaders is key to growth and stability.



Zannie: What are the takeaways or key strategies that you encourage other organizations to utilize when looking to deepen their ties with the community?

Snehal Desai of East West Players offers a recommendation to focus on building sustained, long-term relationships with communities through meaningful programming that deepens understanding of various cultures as well as delineating the uniqueness of cultural traditions. As Desai points out, “Particularly in the theatre world, folks will sometimes do an Asian American play as an Asian American monolith. So, it’s not even acknowledging whether it’s Korean, or Vietnamese, or Thai.” He argues that this type of programming is designed to flop because it fails to speak to the specific communities that the organization is trying to connect with. At some point after this programming doesn’t meet performance expectations, organizations may abandon these efforts completely, deeming them fruitless. It’s important for organizations to truly understand the communities they’re trying to reach, break apart the monolith, and commit to the community in a sincere way. Part of this is also recognizing any arrogance that may come with their expectations. Suddenly opening one’s doors to a new audience does not automatically equal a new group of supportive patrons. Expanding one’s support base takes time, patience, and active listening along with institutional self-reflection, as mentioned earlier.



Zannie: How is your organization faring right now in this environment? What has changed in your organization since late summer 2020? And, are there aspects in the strategic elements from the report that you’ve drawn on more during this time?

Demetries Neely of King Arts Complex shares that her organization has leaned heavily on its commitment to financial discipline to weather the economic turmoil of 2020. About three or four years ago, the board of King Arts Complex developed a fiscal policy that included more than simply diversifying revenue streams, but also focused on its endowment and asset protection. With the new policy in place, they were forced to make a decision about one of the theatre venues they had been renting. It was a beautiful, historic theatre that the community as well as the organization loved, but it had been a tremendous financial drain on the company. In 2019, before anyone even knew what to expect from 2020, they made the decision to walk away from the theatre. While it was difficult in the moment, it ended up being the best decision they could have made prior to the pandemic. It allowed them to pivot and allocate funds to renovate the building that they did keep while being closed to the public over the last year. When it comes time to reopen, they’ll be reopening with a newly renovated theatre. While luck may have been on their side for timing, this is a lesson in maintaining financial discipline, reducing risk, and always considering the unknown.


Steffanie (Steff) Rosalez is the CEO at Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities, leading community arts and humanities initiatives on Grand Rapids’ southwest side. She is actively involved in conversations about art, race, culture and community and does her work through a social justice lens. She believes that we can, and must, create radical futures together. Rosalez received her B.F.A. in studio art and communications from Hope College in 2005 and moved to Grand Rapids shortly after, in 2007. She has spent her time as a contributor to the city’s creative landscape through creating her own art and music, working with other artists and musicians on community initiatives, and staying actively involved in racial equity work. She is committed to shifting power whenever she can and pushing against white supremacy culture in all aspects of her work. Rosalez was recently recognized as one of Grand Rapids Business Journal’s “40 Under 40.” She is currently participating in the National Equity Project’s Racial Equity Action Leaders Fellowship and continues to make music as part of the synthpop duo, How To Live Together. 


Snehal Desai is the producing artistic director of East West Players, the U.S.'s largest Asian-American theater company and the longest-running theater of color in the country. Before this time, Desai was a freelance director working across the United States and the U.K. He is a member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) and serves on the boards of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) and Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Desai found a home at East West Players because he found it to uniquely stand at the intersection of artistry and social justice. As an artistic leader, he has sought to raise awareness on social issues that affect Angelenos by empowering through storytelling. A Soros Fellow and the recipient of a Tanne Award, Desai was in the inaugural class of TCG’s “Spark” Leadership Program. He was also the inaugural recipient of the Drama League’s Classical Directing Fellowship. Desai is on the faculty of USC's graduate program in arts leadership, where he teaches Executive Arts Leadership. He is a graduate of Emory University and received his M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama.


Demetries Neely oversees all operations of The King Arts Complex. Under Neely’s leadership, the organization’s reputation and brand have been strengthened with recognition for quality educational programming and highly successful signature fundraising events honoring community leaders. Neely believes everyone should have access to the transformative power of the arts and works to ensure high-quality artistic programming remains a right and not a privilege. Prior to joining the Complex, Neely owned her own law firm for four years. Before entering private law practice, she built a 22-year career at Nationwide Insurance, where she was an executive for 11 years. Neely is very active in her community and believes in paying back as well as paying forward. She is chair of the Burlie Neely Scholarship Fund and treasurer of the Ohio Bar Liability Insurance Company. She has a B.A. from Johnson C. Smith University and an M.A. and J.D. from The Ohio State University.

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Read the Report