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My Visit to the Museum of Chinese in America

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I had the great pleasure of visiting the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown in New York City. There is much to enjoy in the beautiful facility designed by Maya Lin (the co-chairman of its board) including the interesting, and remarkably diverse exhibitions and public programs. But as impressive an operation as it is, I was far more impressed by the way MOCA is funded.

Most culturally-specific arts organizations depend extensively on government and foundation funding. It is no secret that I worry deeply for these organizations since these two sources of funding are the most cyclical and also the most limited in number. An arts organization that depends on a few foundation grants and annual funding from one or two government agencies is going to be limited in size, unable to handle inflation adequately, and is subject to wide swings in funding.

Unfortunately, this is the fate of most African-American, Latino and Asian-American arts organizations in our nation. Yet these very same organizations are crucial elements in our national arts ecology; they educate young people, give access to the arts to underserved audiences and artists, and produce some of the most important artworks of our time.

For the past twenty years, since I arrived at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I have worked to change this funding paradigm, with limited success. Most arts organizations of color still have not been able to develop the individual donor bases that Eurocentric art organizations enjoy. These organizations typically raise 50-65% of their funds from individual donors, giving them a cushion against economic downturns and access to a potentially unlimited pool of potential donors. Organizations of color, however, typically receive only 6% of their funding from individuals.

Imagine my surprise (and delight), therefore, to learn that MOCA raises over half its funds from individual donors! Its wonderful interim director, Jessica Chao, its energetic young staff, and its dedicated board have done wonders to create an institution that can grow and prosper in a consistent manner. Not only do the board members and staff solicit funds from individuals, they also have created an astonishingly successful annual gala that raises over $1 million each year. This is not totally surprising; those organizations that build large individual donor bases are in a far better position to make their annual special events truly profitable.

The institution, like every arts institution in the nation, has challenges it must address. (And, like most arts organizations, appreciates its problems far more than it celebrates its successes.) But MOCA has created a foundation for its operations that will allow it to develop and prosper. I have no doubt that it will meet every challenge it faces and will continue to grow.

The Museum of Chinese in America provides a model and inspiration for all other organizations of color. While building an individual donor effort is not easy and takes time and discipline, it can be accomplished, even by a modestly-sized, culturally-specific museum. MOCA demonstrates that it is certainly worth the effort.