05/24/2010 08:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Remarkable Class

I recently began teaching a series of arts management seminars for ten grantees of the Ford Foundation. The Foundation has committed $100 million over the next ten years to support a new generation of arts spaces. According to the Foundation's website, "The initiative, Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces, will provide grant funds to support both new projects and the revitalization and expansion of existing arts spaces."

The Kennedy Center is responsible for delivering one element of the program: a mix of classes, web chats and site visits to help build the planning, marketing, and fundraising skills of the grantees. I believe this is crucial since my fear for any arts organization building a new facility, or renovating an older one, is that so many resources and so much organizational focus is placed on the physical structure that the artistic and educational programming--the reasons for the building in the first place--can suffer.

We had our initial session in the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City. It was an incredibly exhilarating day. The ten organizations are all vital, growing and important. They are led by amazing individuals who have both a deep sense of purpose and the maturity to appreciate the needs of growing and changing organizations.

Having this session at La MaMa, the oldest of the organizations, was particularly apt since my message to the group, as always, was that success in the arts was directly tied to strong, exciting, vital programming-- just the kind of programming for which La MaMa has become famous. Maintaining this spirit of adventure and risk-taking is a challenge, especially in this economic environment.

The lesson of these ten organizations is that success comes from the passionate disregard for those preaching to play it safe. The Hip-Hop Theater Festival has grown fast and furiously in ten years while Youth Speaks has created a new generation of young poets in San Francisco. Each of the other organizations - Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, Pa'i Foundation, Asian Arts Initiative, Ashé Cultural Center, First Peoples Fund, Alternate Roots and NALAC - provides innovative programming for diverse communities.

Each of the groups also faces challenges. Like most culturally-specific organizations (and rural and avant-garde organizations), individual donors play a very minor role in total funding. While the average white organization raises 60% or more of its contributions from individual donors, culturally-specific organizations typically raise less than 10% of their contributions from individual donors. These organizations are no exception.

This will be one of the central areas of focus for our teaching. If these organizations are going to grow to inhabit their new facilities fully, they will need stronger boards, better institutional marketing efforts and more individual donors.

I have no doubt that the remarkable leaders of these organizations will be able to meet these challenges. What they have already accomplished is deeply impressive. With the help of the Ford Foundation, and with some added capacity, these groups will become stable and visible role models for so many diverse arts organizations in this nation.