Fete Unknown

If Denver's Black Arts Festival keeps growing, why is it facing financial ruin?

Perry Ayers, founder of the Denver Black Arts Festival, says he's "the ultimate optimist," and why not? In the past ten years he's built the DBAF into one of the largest black-arts events in the nation--and sometimes he's had to stage it on little more than a wing and a prayer.

Festival organizers claim the DBAF has become the second-largest black-arts event in the country (behind one in Atlanta). But though the festival drew a record crowd of 200,000 this past July at City Park, organizers have been reduced to holding yard sales in recent months to try to bail themselves out of a financial hole that has been growing since 1993. It threatens to swallow next year's event whole.

On the other side of town, the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, in its fifth year, is thriving. Held a week before the DBAF, it drew more than 300,000 people this year. Yet corporate underwriting of the two festivals reveals a disparity that's far greater than the difference in attendance: $560,000 from corporations went into the staging of Cherry Creek, compared with around $15,000 for the DBAF. Alone, lead sponsor AT&T contributed in the low six figures to Cherry Creek, says CCAF director Bill Charney.

The disparity seems black-and-white to the DBAF organizers, but some people in the festival and fundraising industries--including a number who are black or Hispanic--insist race is no factor. They say the DBAF would attract more corporate sponsorship if its organizers were more savvy and aggressive.

Ayers retorts that a more sophisticated approach demands more money. He says he's caught in a vicious circle: Spending more money could add polish to his operation and thus attract more corporate sponsors, but he needs money to successfully buttonhole corporate sponsors.

"Foundations and corporations tend to give ethnic communities a very small piece," says Cherrelyn Berry, campaign coordinator for the Metropolitan Denver Black United Fund, a fundraising organization similar to the United Way. "It's $2,000, $3,000 or $5,000 grants versus $20,000. Fifteen thousand dollars is not going to put up the tent."

And the disparity is no surprise to Kermit Eady, founder of the Black United Fund of New York, a Harlem-based fundraising organization. "That's just historically the case," says Eady. "We'll ask a corporation for a grant, and all we get back is, 'Oh, we like your proposal; however, we cannot fund all the projects before us, and we wish you much luck in the future...' Bottom line is, they just don't do it."

Merely having the word "black" in the event title makes some companies nervous, says Eady. "The term 'black' frightens a lot of people," he says. "If we were to take it out, it would be a lot more palatable to corporations." Eady adds that many companies have advised him to remove "black" from the title of his organization to attract more support.

Joe Aragon, chairman of the board of the Cherry Creeks Arts Festival and a Hispanic, insists that Denver corporations are not racist and that the presence of "black" in the name of the festival has no bearing on the decisions companies make. "I think the corporate community is too sophisticated for that," Aragon says.

But DBAF boardmember Daphne Rice-Allen says she thinks "there is an uncomfort level when it says Denver Black Arts Festival. That, for some people, is uncomfortable. To some extent it is, because you're being exclusionary."

Lauren Casteel, a black woman who is executive director of a white philanthropic organization, the Buell Foundation, adds that, though race isn't the only thing companies and foundations look at, the idea of having a black-themed event in the mostly black environs of City Park can make corporate decision-makers "feel out of their comfort zone. If it's out of their boundary, that creates an economic risk."

And since the Cherry Creek festival does feature multicultural displays, Casteel says, corporations "can support CCAF and still feel like they're doing the right thing." She adds, "For many years philanthropy was a closed network. People couldn't get to the table, couldn't get to the door. That's what's happened to Perry."

DBAF organizers say they're also stretched too thin to commit the necessary time and energy to finding corporate "partners."

"We have to be able to market the package and tell the story," says John Bailey, executive director of 100 Black Men, a nonprofit black-pride organization. "I don't want to say it's because corporations have been insensitive. It's because we haven't been aggressive enough."

And some of that comes from years of low expectations. "People are very uncomfortable asking for money, especially minority nonprofits," says Cherrelyn Berry. "We go in expecting a few thousand dollars, and we'll give them the world--as opposed to going to them saying, 'We want you to be an underwriter for this event, and that's gonna cost $20,000 or $50,000.'"

That's where operations like the DBAF have had trouble: navigating the murky corporate currents that separate purely charitable philanthropic grants from market-driven underwriting arrangements. Since 1990, the DBAF has received yearly philanthropic grants of a few thousand dollars from the US West Foundation, the phone giant's "charitable giving organization." This year the grant was $5,000. With a budget of $25 million culled from the company's pre-tax earnings, the foundation awards money to hundreds of nonprofit organizations each year.

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