MINNEAPOLIS -- Ten Minnesota arts groups are getting surprise grants of $500,000 or more as part of a new program meant to grow organizations rooted in communities of color.

The grants launch the regional, $12.7 million phase of a national Ford Foundation initiative that last year recognized St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre as one of "America's Cultural Treasures."

Minnesota is the first to roll out its regional picks. The McKnight Foundation is partnering with Ford and others to provide $7 million in new funding for Black, Indigenous, Latin and Asian American-led organizations working in theater and visual arts, music and the spoken word.

It's the largest grant that many of these organizations have ever received.

"It's a straight-up blessing," said Braxton Haulcy, executive director of Walker West Music Academy, a St. Paul institution that gives music lessons and hosts concerts. "It couldn't have come at a better time."

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The 10 organizations named regional cultural treasures are "the best of the best," said DeAnna Cummings, McKnight's program director for the arts, not only in their works but in processes they use.

Like its national counterpart, this program rethinks arts philanthropy, recognizing — and hopefully shrinking — the wealth gap between traditional, white-led institutions and organizations centered on people of color.

"There has been an under-investment across the country in organizations rooted in communities of color," Cummings said, "such that even the prominent and well-known organizations have existed precariously over decades."

The grants range from $500,000 to $875,000, distributed over five years or more. That money is unrestricted, meaning there are no strings attached — a coveted form of funding in the art world.

The 10 organizations — which also include Ananya Dance Theatre, Indigenous Roots, Juxtaposition Arts, Mizna, Pangea World Theater, the Somali Museum, Theater Mu, TruArtSpeaks and the American Indian Community Housing Organization Arts Program — have budgets ranging from $100,000 to $2.2 million a year.

"It gets us where we need to go, and it gets us where we deserve to be," said Haulcy of Walker West, which was founded by African American musicians the Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West. "We have been doing this for 33 years. ... There's no reason we should be struggling the way we have been struggling."

Haucly started at Walker West in 2018, the year the nonprofit posted revenue of $450,000 and an operating loss of $170,000, he said. Last year, the organization brought in revenue of $1.2 million and boasted a surplus of $50,000. Haulcy credits the turnaround to a broader vision and better marketing.

He has big plans for the nonprofit, including a capital campaign this fall. For complex reasons, Walker West and other Black-led organizations are "not well-connected" to wealthy donors, Haulcy said. Other nonprofit fundraisers "know how to shake the trees so the money comes down," he said. "We don't have that type of person. It's just Braxton trying to shake the trees and run the organization."

This new funding gives Walker West credibility in launching its campaign, proving to would-be donors that the nonprofit is a worthy investment.

"We're a community institution," Haulcy said. "We deserve as much money as the Walker Art Center. Why not? Why not."

Students at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul designated a regional cultural treasure by the McKnight Foundation gave a concert last August in Mears Park as part of the school's Summer Jazz Intensive Camp. Star Tribune / TNS
Students at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul designated a regional cultural treasure by the McKnight Foundation gave a concert last August in Mears Park as part of the school's Summer Jazz Intensive Camp. Star Tribune / TNS

McKnight is working with the 10 grantees on timing. It might make sense for one organization to get most of the money in the first year, another to receive a steady figure over five or six. The foundation wants to "share power in decision-making," Cummings said.

It's also discussing what happens after five years, she said, so organizations don't experience a funding cliff.

Up next, the foundation will announce another phase of grants — $5.6 million provided by the Ford, McKnight, Bush and Jerome foundations — focused on rural communities. While this week's grants are focused on the Twin Cities, the next round will extend into greater Minnesota, the Dakotas and Native nations.

Tish Jones opened her email to news that TruArtSpeaks, the spoken word organization she founded, was being named a "cultural treasure," a designation that would come with $500,000.

"I was floored," Jones said. "I was taken aback but also really humbled to be seen in such a way."

After the pandemic shuttered venues and George Floyd's killing spurred protests, "there was so much uncertainty," Jones said, made worse by funders pulling back.

“But we saw the artists and cultural institutions push forward, continuing to keep their doors open, continuing to make space," she said.

"They adapted their programming, adapted their approaches to make sure the community was still being cared for, to make sure the story of this place was being told with the people at the center."

Parents, neighbors and aunties helped and donated, making sure that TruArtSpeaks could continue its workshops, open mics and public gatherings. Some 25 people volunteered for each of its Village Project events — held last year at Arts-Us in St. Paul and Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis — which offered youth and families free meals, books, mental health services and body work. (The next event will be June 26.)

These gatherings gave Black people space to heal, said Jones, a poet and performer. "What we've found is we are a member of a community of people who refuse to fall."

TruArtSpeaks began 15 years ago as an artist collective steeped in hip-hop. In 2013, it began partnering with a federally registered nonprofit to receive tax-deductible donations. This year, it will apply for its own 501(c)(3) status.

Jones says she appreciates Mc­Knight's recognition of such groups. "There's typically a lot of red tape around receiving this kind of support."

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