My Visit to Penumbra Theatre

I have been anxious about the precarious nature of this country's arts organizations of color; it is ironic that while minorities are becoming a majority and playing increasingly important political roles, arts organizations of color are at a low ebb. So many are sick or dying. This cannot be good for the American arts ecology. We need the future Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico and Shen Wei Dance Arts.

But I was heartened by a recent visit to Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the largest and most important African-American theater companies in this nation. Founded by Lou Bellamy in 1976, Penumbra has been most closely associated with the works of August Wilson, producing important revivals of all his works, as well as plays by many other noted playwrights.

Penumbra hit a fiscal bump this year and had to cancel its autumn presentations.

But it is on the rebound.

Led by Lou, Chris Widdess -- the organization's remarkably talented Managing Director -- and a deeply committed board, Penumbra will reopen in early 2013 and present a full slate of offerings.

An emergency fundraising appeal -- aimed not only at covering short-term needs but ensuring that the entire fiscal year will end with a surplus -- has been a rousing success and hit its target by last year's end.

I was fortunate to attend a board meeting in December. What was astonishing to me was that one would never know that the organization has been recovering from a crisis. There was such a positive spirit without any of the board-staff tension one typically notices when an organization is challenged. Virtually every board member is actively involved in fundraising and all have ramped up their efforts this year.

One key statistic stuck out to me: Penumbra now receives more than one quarter of its contributions from individual donors.

This made me very happy. Less than a decade ago the theater received less than 5 percent of its contributions from individual donors, similar to other arts organizations of color.

This is huge progress; when arts organizations rely too heavily on institutional donors -- primarily government agencies and foundations -- they tend to be limited in size. The number of institutional donors is limited in every region and they typically have a ceiling on the size gift they will make. So most arts organizations of color have not grown very large; in fact, only Ailey has a budget over $10 million.

White organizations, however, usually receive over 60 percent of their contributions from individuals, a virtually unlimited source of funding. Those organizations that have built large individual donor bases tend to be more stable (individual donors are less cyclical than institutional donors) and grow larger than other arts organizations.

Many leaders of organizations of color are skeptical that they can raise substantial funds from individuals.

Penumbra is a superb example that it can be done.

I am optimistic that Chris and her team will continue to increase Penumbra's individual contribution level in the coming years and will become a role model for other organizations to follow.