There’s a large, diverse, and vibrant multicultural dance community in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a long-time capacity building specialist and resource equity advocate, I’ve worked extensively with Bay Area cultural artists and culturally specific arts organizations. They include Charya Burt, Kyoungil Ong, Naomi Diouf, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, CubaCaribe, Bisemi, Halau ‘o Keikiali’i, Cunamacue, and many others. I connect artists and arts organizations with resources such as grants funding, space, and professional development opportunities. I advocate for resource equity by working with funders to create equitable funding guidelines, speaking on panels such as Grantmakers in the Arts and Dance/USA, and connecting funders with culturally specific communities.
Funders, artists, arts organizations, and arts advocates have long grappled with these questions – What does it take to support the large, diverse, culturally specific dance communities in the Bay Area? What are the key factors to help these dance communities thrive? I will share common challenges of culturally specific dance communities, and solutions to address these challenges. This article will not address the needs of all culturally specific dance communities, but focus on my work with cultural artists and culturally specific arts organizations rooted in traditional cultures, often in immigrant communities.
Landscape and history of culturally specific dance communities
The passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act brought large waves of diverse immigrants into the United States. Many immigrant artists settled in the Bay Area from regions as diverse as Cambodia, Liberia, India, Iran, and Senegal. During the 1970s, culturally specific dance was practiced widely, but was largely limited to classes and performances in church basements, living rooms, and community centers, taught on the side by individuals who had migrated to the area seeking a better life for themselves and their families. In the past four decades, the Bay Area’s culturally specific dance community has grown from a grassroots collective of cultural artists to the largest multicultural ethnic dance community in the United States. We now see a community of established, professional culturally specific dance companies, directed by nationally recognized teachers. The first generation of dancers have become our elders and culture bearers. Despite this dramatic artistic growth, many cultural artists and cultural arts organizations have tremendous difficulty accessing financial and other resources, and have fragile organizational infrastructure. Many cultural arts organizations support high-caliber artists, yet have either no paid staff, or lack the professional staffing infrastructure to adequately support the artists. While the root causes of these challenges are complex, creating culturally relevant strategies to secure grants funding and developing professional administrative staff can go a long way towards building organizational sustainability of culturally specific arts organizations and career viability of cultural artists.
What does it take for culturally specific dance communities to secure grants funding?
1. Develop professional grant writers dedicated to culturally specific dance communities
The number one question I receive from artists is – “Can you recommend a grant writer?” My grant writing colleagues and I are inundated with grant writing requests that we do not have the capacity to support. Many cultural artists cannot offer the hourly fee of seasoned grant writers. The seasoned grant writers often do not have room to accept new clients. Most importantly, the cultural artists and arts organizations rarely find the seasoned grant writer who have the cultural competency to craft compelling grant applications that fully articulate the depth and nuance of the culturally specific dance organization’s work.
To increase culturally specific dance communities’ ability to access grants funding, we need to create a professional development program to train grant writers from culturally specific dance communities to support their own dance communities. These grant writers can be artists who would like to prepare their own grant applications, dance community stakeholders who would like to do grant writing part-time, or emerging arts administrators who would like to work as full-time development professionals.
What does this grant writer training program look like?
Since grant application deadlines are usually once a year, the ideal training program is a year-long training program with a small cohort of culturally specific grant writers. The program will include small-group workshops, followed by sustained, intensive hands-on grants coaching by seasoned grants coaches, such as myself and Kevin Seaman. The program participant will learn about grants research, grant writing, creating compelling work samples, funder engagement, creating organizing systems for grants related materials, and refining the skill to work with cultural artists to craft compelling grant application language.
Often artists and arts organizations contact me because they would like to access grants funding and find the grants seeking process mysterious and confusing. To be successful in grants seeking, artists/arts organizations need to possess the following skills:
- Grants readiness – ability to assessing your own grants readiness, and draft a list of grants that are the best match for you
- Grants calendar – an annual calendar with all of your grants application and report deadlines, upcoming action items, and dates for funder engagement communication. This manages the countless grant deadlines in a chronological fashion
- Grants narrative – ability to tell your story in a cohesive fashion and edit your text quickly, as word count varies from one grant application to another
- Work samples – ability to prepare compelling work samples that complement your narrative
- Budget – ability to prepare clear budget notes that address potential panelists’ doubts
- Funder engagement – funder engagement is a year-round process; this involves inviting funders to events, calling funders to discuss proposed projects, getting panel comments, and letting funders know about your major accomplishments and announcements
- Ideally, ability to score your own application according to the scoring criteria
I propose a grant writer training program that helps the participants master these skills. This professional development program can create a career pathway for stakeholders in culturally specific dance communities, and bring crucial financial resources to support these communities. More importantly, this program will foster a community of development professionals from culturally specific dance communities, who are deeply dedicated to supporting these communities.
2. One-on-one technical assistance to support grant applications
One-on-one technical assistance provides highly effective support to the applicant during the grant application process. Once cultural artists/arts organizations decide which grants to target, they often feel baffled by the guidelines and application questions. The folk and traditional artists, in particular, struggle with the Artist Statement, as they practice art forms shared by cultural collectives and cultural traditions that are passed down from one generation to another. This technical assistance can be provided by these entities:
- Funders – San Francisco Arts Commission, California Arts Council, and Dance/USA, Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program have been great at providing technical assistance to applicants. This support can include 15-45 minute one-on-one technical assistance sessions that applicants can sign-up for online, or contacting program officers to schedule the individual sessions. The applicants have the opportunity to ask funders individualized questions about their projects and receive guidance that’s customized for that applicant. I have found this type of opportunity extremely useful in helping me articulate my project in a compelling fashion. As a coach for Dance/USA Fellowships to Artists Program, artists have given me very positive feedback about the effectiveness of this one-on-one technical assistance.
- Artist service providers – This technical assistance can also be provided by an artist service program, such as World Arts West’s Artist Support Service Program and Bisemi Foundation’s Cultural Artist Incubator Program. World Arts West’s Artist Support Service Program provides hands-on grants coaching for culturally specific dance companies seeking fiscal sponsorship. I help the applicant with grant narrative, work samples, and budget notes, as well as overall grants strategies for the proposed project. I have been an artist development coach for Bisemi, both in 45 minute coaching sessions during Bisemi’s Professional Development Workshops, as well as sustained one-on-one coaching where I meet with the cultural artist over a period of 4-6 months. This type of support allows the grants coach to help the artist/arts organization target specific grants, think about multiple sources of funding for one project, and how to leverage one grant towards another grant, and efficient usage of narrative and support materials for multiple grant applications.
- Individual coaches – Artists and arts organizations can hire individual grants coaches to strengthen existing staff’s skill in grant writing and other grants related skills.
3. What can funders do to support grantseeking from culturally specific dance communities?
- Post past successful grant applications on funder’s website
Crafting the grant narrative from scratch often feels daunting for cultural artists and cultural arts organizations. Sample applications can be especially helpful for the emerging grant writer. Here are two examples –
- Cal Humanities – calhum.org/funding-opportunities/humanities-for-all/
- NEA – arts.gov/foia/reading-room
- Post archival grant webinars on the funders’ website
For the cultural artists and cultural arts organizations who are not experienced with the grantseeking process, they require a long time to prepare each grant application. It’s helpful for these potential applicants to review past grants webinars before the guidelines are announced, to get acquainted with the grant requirements. I find the Q&A section of webinars especially helpful, as this often answers my potential questions regarding the application requirements.
- Post grant application questions on the funder website
Often a potential applicant needs to create an account on the funder’s website in order access the application questions. Having grant application questions readily available (e.g. word doc) helps the potential applicant decide whether they want to apply to the grant or not.
- Provide one-on-one technical assistance during application period
- Support professional development programs to train grant writers and other arts administrators to support culturally specific dance communities
Grants such as CCI Quick Grant and California Arts Council Professional Development Grant currently support professional development effort of artists and arts organization staff. Many funders would like to diversify their grantee pool. If funders invest in grant writer training programs for culturally specific dance communities, this will result in more equitable funding practices and create sustainable development support in culturally specific dance communities.
Many culturally specific dance communities have financially under-resourced dance organizations that are trying to support high-caliber artists. Often these artists are culture bearers of communities that are preserving their cultural traditions despite political persecution, genocide, global migration, and other challenges. Traditional artists are also creating contemporary, cutting-edge work addressing social issues of today. Training grant writers from culturally specific dance communities to support their own communities will go a long way to strengthen the culturally specific dance organizations and a large number of cultural artists in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There are cultural intermediary organizations that already serve these communities, such as World Arts West, Bisemi, CubaCaribe, and Oakland Asian Cultural Center. The philanthropy sector needs to partner with these cultural intermediary organizations to design grant writer training programs to serve culturally specific dance communities. Expertise from artist service providers, such as Dancers’ Group and Intersection for the Arts, would also be deeply informative. This support ensures cultural equity in our ever increasing multicultural American landscape.