Ailey in Opelika

03/02/2015 09:01 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

My favorite memory of my 30-year arts management career was attending a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Opelika, Alabama, in the early 1990s. I was the Executive Director of the organization at the time, and we were working feverishly to escape a difficult period of financial instability. My staff and I were struggling to find a way to pay off old debts and support the vision of Judith Jamison, our Artistic Director. Ailey did not have the same fund-raising prowess it does today; money was extremely tight, and it was scary.

Every so often I was able to escape from New York and watch the company perform on tour. Seeing so many audience members excited by the work of the dancers -- from Tokyo to Paris to Chicago -- was always encouraging and inspired us to continue working to save the company.

On a tour of southern cities, we had a one-night stand in Opelika, Alabama. I am sure the date was booked to fill a gap in the touring calendar; the fee must have been very modest. The company performed in a simple high school auditorium, about as far from the Palais Garnier in Paris as one could imagine. I imagine my dancers had the same feeling I did -- let's do this show and move to a more glamorous venue.

But then the performance began. And a remarkably diverse audience fell under the Ailey spell. By the end of Revelations, the entire community was cheering as one and demanding an encore.

The most notable moment came after the show when the entire audience, and all of the dancers, found their way across the street to the local Denny's for pie and ice cream. There was an astonishing spirit in the place. Black and white people were eating and laughing and joking together. The work of the dancers had inspired everyone and, at least for an hour, racial divides seemed to have evaporated (as had this arts manager's prejudice about racial relations in the American South).

I have always remembered that night that reinforced why the arts are so incredibly potent and important.

And over this past year, with so much racial tension once again enveloping our nation, I think of that single Ailey performance in Opelika even more often.

The arts can and must play a role in uniting people. In educating people. In inspiring people.

This is why so much of the work of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland is devoted to arts institutions of color.

These institutions are threatened today. African American and Latino and Asian American and Native American arts institutions are less financially stable than they have been in a long time; their traditional funders, especially government agencies and foundations, are simply not supporting their work as they did in the past. Many are simply going away. And yet the need for the work they do and their leadership roles in our communities has never been greater.