Latino arts organizations tell funders: ‘Here we are’

Back in 1996, the late playwright August Wilson delivered an address at the annual conference for Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for theaters in the U.S. Entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson’s speech (later released as a book) took aim at racism and Eurocentrism in American theater, particularly when it comes to funding in the arts. “Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth,” said Wilson. “The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.”

That dynamic is still present, and it also affects funding for Latino arts organizations. But on May 16, leaders in Latino arts in Chicago got together for “Quienes Somos—¡Aqui Estamos! (Who We Are—We Are Here!), the Chicago Latino Arts and Culture Summit.”

Sponsored by the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, the summit brought together representatives from 22 local arts organizations (including the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, the International Latino Cultural Center, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance) with decision-makers in the foundation world to address the chronic issues of underfunding and other structural challenges facing them.

Wendy Mateo, co-artistic director of Teatro Vista, echoed Wilson’s 26-year-old observation during the summit by noting, “We have to work double to get a fraction of what predominantly white institutions have historically received. We are often forced to partner with these institutions because it raises our visibility or gives us the credit we need. But what happens when we partner? The larger institutions mine us for their new audiences. They don’t give us an equitable portion of the box office. They apply for our grants. They think the credit is enough. Funders, please stop redirecting funds that should go to marginalized artists through predominantly white institutions. We don’t need the credit, we need the funds.”

I checked in with Mateo, as well as Mike Angell, cofounder and director of the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, and Carlos Hernández Falcón, executive director and founder of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, to get their perspectives on why the summit was necessary and what they hope the next steps will be.

Angell, whose foundation has been in operation since 2011, says, “Our performing arts program focuses primarily on classical music and theater. Several years ago, Teatro Vista submitted an application, which we funded. They were the first [of the Latino arts organizations]. So we got to know them. And not long after Myrna Salazar [cofounder and executive director of CLATA] and Carlos Tortolero [founder and president of the National Museum of Mexican Art] came to tell me about CLATA, which had formed just recently. [CLATA produces the annual Destinos Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.] And so it’s through them that we got to know more of the Latino theater companies, and it was such an eye-opener and a wonderful thing. And so we’ve been funding the Latino theaters in Chicago, most of them, for several years now.”

Angell notes that his foundation had previously held small discussion groups with Latino arts leaders prior to the pandemic. “I was speaking with a number of groups and I mentioned to them that it was my wish that arts groups would come out of the pandemic with big plans, because I was fearful that the public was too accustomed to going without live arts performances. And then I realized if I’m going to be asking others to go big, what can we do that’s big? So the idea came out in March of 2021 to expand the luncheon to a full-day event that went beyond a pleasant social gathering to something whereby the leaders of more of Chicago’s Latino arts groups could get together, network, discuss topics of interest to them.” Angell shared the idea with Audra Yokley, program officer for the performing arts at the foundation, and the summit took off from there.

The summit provided breakout sessions on “Racism and the Latino Community,” “Fundraising and Technical Support,” and “Advocacy and Media Presence.” 

For Mateo, one crucial need filled by the event was building more bridges to other organizations. “I was an independent artist for so long in this community and always looking for a place to call home,” she says. “And the way that we would create our artistic home was really by our collaboration, that we created across community with people, with artists, with different partnerships or producers. Lorena [Diaz, co-artistic director for Teatro Vista] and I both were excited in our [new] roles that we would be able to do that on this level. We want to be able to create collaborations across organizations, because if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we cannot survive alone. We can’t survive without our community. We can’t survive without our audience.” She adds, “I’m excited about creating solidarity, not only across multiple disciplines in the Latino community, but outside of the Latino community, creating strategic partnerships with Black organizations, uplifting them, making sure that there’s amplification of that.”

Founded by Hernández Falcón 25 years ago, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance has provided support for music performance, studio arts training for youth, and much more, including, as Hernández Falcón notes, “an archive program that stores and researches the Puerto Rican community in the midwest, through the digitization and preservation of historical photographs from our community.” He led the breakout on fundraising and tech support.

“To run a nonprofit organization, you have to wear many hats,” he notes. “For Latino and other organizations of color, to me, it’s like three or four times more of a challenge than other mainstream institutions, because we have been just so marginalized by funders. While we’ve been receiving support by funders, over the years, you know there’s just a big gap. Much of the money that goes to the arts organizations in Chicago and throughout the country goes to mainstream white organizations.” 

Roughly a third of Chicago’s population is Latino, and it’s growing, as illustrated by data shared during the conference by Dr. Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago. So that makes it even more vital that arts organizations that reflect the diversity of those communities receive equitable funding.

“We’re trying to advocate and demonstrate that we’re here,” says Hernández Falcón. “And the idea here is that we need people to learn that and to dig deeper into who we are as part of the cultural fabric in Chicago, as a cultural community in Chicago. There’s two things going on here. Number one is that there are rich individuals, there are well-funded foundations who think about art as being Eurocentric, who think that is fine, right? ‘That is what I fund. That is how I am programmed. Those are my values. That’s what my heart thinks about when I fund art.’ And what we’re trying to do here is to change that mind frame and say, ‘Look, there’s a broader community out here in Chicago that’s not just the Art Institute or the Field Museum.’” 

There may be hopeful signs; the National Museum of Mexican Art received a record-breaking $8 million grant last year from billionaire MacKenzie Scott (ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has pledged to support “smaller arts organizations creating these benefits with artists and audiences from culturally rich regions and identity groups that donors often overlook.”)

And in terms of Angell’s hope that Latino arts organizations would find ways to come back big, it’s worth noting that Teatro Vista’s current production, Somewhere Over the Border, Brian Quijada’s acclaimed new musical about his mother’s trek from El Salvador to the U.S. in the late 70s, has one of the biggest budgets in the company’s history, and will be filmed as well for livestreaming later this year, so it’s accessible to wider audiences. Mateo notes that the stories of Central Americans are sometimes overlooked by people in the U.S., as are other intersectional identities. “We’re working to build solidarity amongst organizations. Blackness is alive in Latine culture. Indigeneity is alive in Latine culture, and we need to recognize that intersection.”

“Make an investment in our organizations, and you’re gonna get a bigger bang for your investment, because your funding is gonna go right into the Chicago communities,” says Hernández Falcón. “The future of our communities are the populations that exist in Chicago, and the Latino community is thriving. And we can make Chicago communities bigger and stronger by supporting the arts and in our case, supporting the Latino arts.”

Closing the House

Even as Latino arts organizations were envisioning a stronger future, one longtime Chicago company announced it was closing up shop. House Theatre of Chicago, founded 21 years ago by a group of theater grads from Southern Methodist University, made its mark with epic storytelling and physical productions, often utilizing and/or deconstructing “hero’s journey” narratives. Some of their hits included The Sparrow, Death and Harry Houdini (featuring magician Dennis Watkins, whose long-running The Magic Parlour has been at the Palmer House for several years), and The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan.

The Tragedy of King Christophe at House Theatre ended up being the last production in the company’s history. Credit: Michael Brosilow

In a May 31 press release, House board president Renee Duba said, “Thanks to the hard work and patience of so many—as well as the Shuttered Venue Operating Grant funding we qualified for—we were able to rise from the challenges of the initial pandemic hibernation and point the company in a new direction. . . . However, our strategic assessment looking to the future made it clear that we did not have the financial momentum or audience/donor support to continue beyond this fiscal year. We chose instead to maximize our current year programming and to honor all present commitments and partnerships with a thoughtfully planned exit from the Chicago theater scene—and a wealth of pride in what The House Theatre of Chicago has accomplished.”

Original founding artistic director, Nathan Allen, left during the pandemic in 2020, and the company, aiming to move in the direction of more diversity, brought on Lanisse Antoine Shelley in March of 2021.

Shelley produced two shows for House: The Snow Queenthis past winter, featuring Shelley’s own adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, and the just-closed The Tragedy of King Christophe by West Indian poet and activist Aimé Césaire, which focused on the story of a general-turned-tyrant in post-revolution Haiti. (Shelley was born in Haiti and adopted by parents in the U.S.) 

In a May 31 Chicago Tribune article about House’s closing, Chris Jones quotes Allen as saying, “We were a unicorn in that we operated on 70% earned income and attracted audiences who didn’t go to the theater. . . .  In many ways, that was our kryptonite. When we couldn’t sell tickets in the pandemic, we were toast. Smaller companies had a far better chance than us of making it through.”

Whether that imminent toasting was made clear to Shelley when she was brought on board is in question. Jones also quoted former company member Josh Horvath, who told him, “She brought to us a company that would be more inclusive, one that would get rid of the ‘white bro’ culture, dive into digital productions, uplift other artists outside of the theatrical realm, and foster more community outreach on the West Side of Chicago,” and expressed his belief that the board owed Shelley “an apology” for lack of transparency about the financial situation.

When I interviewed Shelley just after she took the position, she told me, “From the very beginning, from the very first interview and even in my first proposal, I told [the board] who I was. . . . Which is an artist, a woman who is passionate about diversity and inclusivity, and passionate about a global experience, because that is my perspective. That is where I will be drawing my inspiration from. And from the beginning they said, ‘Yes, we see you and we are interested in that vision.’”

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