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.
On the other hand, US West Communications--the actual phone business--sponsored Cherry Creek's festival in 1994 and 1995 in return for prime marketing opportunities. Last year, Charney says, US West gave $30,000. (The company did not sponsor the 1996 event after sponsorship rates went up and rival AT&T jumped on board as the lead sponsor.)
"It's a whole different thing," says US West spokeswoman Lois Leach, comparing philanthropic grants to "corporate sponsorship." The latter, she says, "means you get advertising, you get to promote your product. It's a sales-oriented sort of thing, not just a charitable giving."
Ayers, whose festival gets practically no sponsorship deals, says US West got off cheap at the DBAF. "US West gets their banner hung for $5,000 on the main stage," he says. "That's a travesty."
US West's Leach says the company has sponsored other minority events, contributing $25,000 to the National Council of La Raza this past July and $80,000 to next month's National Minority Suppliers Conference. The company did not sponsor the DBAF, she says, because it "does not offer the same size crowd [as Cherry Creek] and the same opportunities for elaborate displays" such as "cellular kiosks" that allow the company to hawk its wares. Leach adds that Cherry Creek also offers more access to phone and power lines than the DBAF's City Park location.
Ayers calls such explanations "a copout."
"When you give us some real dollars, you're gonna find some room," he says. "Every time you figure a company gives $30,000 or $40,000 and they need some specifics in terms of presentation, yeah, we're gonna accommodate them. It empowers us to do what we have to do to get what they need."
One of the DBAF's few corporate sponsors, Norwest, contributed $2,500 to the festival this year. Its director of community relations, Bob Willis, suggests that the DBAF organizers "may need to regroup and determine how they can get their event up to the next level" of sophistication.
The dollars from Norwest are fewer, Ayers says, because Norwest is giving money from its philanthropic pot instead of its marketing pot. But Ayers doesn't fault Willis, saying, "He has a budget of how much he can give and who he can give it to. He's coming from that philanthropic room. He's not in the marketing room, where they put you on TV or put up banners in stadiums. He's not in that room. For us to get in that room, that's the thing. As far as Bob is concerned, he's doing all that he can do."
So is Ayers. He can't charge admission for his event because it's held in a public park, so he's had to ask for "donations" from those attending. And the donations at the gate this summer amounted to less than $8,000, an average of a few pennies a person. Without gate receipts, Ayers is forced to drum up money in other ways. He and other festival officials held a meeting recently to solicit financial support in the black community, but only about twenty people attended. Several of the people who attended grilled DBAF officials about their efficiency and organizational skills. And it will take a lot of skill to raise more than $100,000 to put on next summer's event.
Festival organizers have already advertised in black papers and on black-owned radio station KDKO and are planning a fundraiser in mid-November.
"We may have to sell the things we've got," says Rice-Allen. "Perry may move in with a buddy, the building will go away, but the concepts and the ideas will not. We may have to sit out '97. I don't know.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.