A RM16.6m Ford Foundation gift is one museum’s ‘survival’

By JAMES TARMY

IN EARLY spring, El Museo del Barrio’s finances were looking grim.

Like every other New York institution, the museum — which showcases the art of Latino, Caribbean and Latin American culture in its location across from Central Park on Fifth Avenue — had shut down operations in mid-March.

Its annual May gala, which normally brings in about US$1 million (RM4.14 million), was cancelled and event rentals for its newly restored theatre space were out of the question. Its store and cafe were closed.

“Our fiscal year begins in July,” says Patrick Charpenel, the museum’s ED, “and we were trying to make the right kind of adjustments — to be realistic.”

The newly restored theatre space. Due to the pandemic, the space is not open for even rental (Pic by David Joseph/www.elmuseo.org)

Those adjustments included shaving its annual budget from about US$6 million to US$5 million, an action that dramatically reduced the scope of some forthcoming exhibitions, moved others wholly online and cut planned programming.

A Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP) loan of about US$500,000 helped stem the bleeding, as did a roughly US$600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Still, “we were getting support, but we were also losing money”, Charpenel explains. About a month ago, he was approached by a representative from the Ford Foundation, which had just announced a US$156 million initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, whose contributors include 16 foundations and private donors.

The initiative, launched in late September, is intended to “acknowledge and honour the diversity of artistic expression and excellence in America”, according to a statement, “and provide critical funding to organisations that have made a significant impact on America’s cultural landscape, despite historically limited resources”.

(One contributor to the fund is Bloomberg Philanthropies, which was founded by Mike Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP.) Charpenel tried not to get too excited — “We didn’t know the amount” the museum might receive, he says — but two weeks after providing documentation of El Museo’s finances to the Ford Foundation, he received word that his museum would receive a staggering US$4 million. That’s almost 68% of its annual budget.

“It will go to our survival — which is maybe, a strong word — but it will allow us to continue,” Charpenel says. “This will allow us to sustain what we already have.”

Cultural Organisations at Risk

Latinx organisations such as El Museo are particularly vulnerable because they have historically lacked funding (Source: El Museo Del Barrio)

The massive injection of funds into El Museo, which isn’t richly endowed, unlike many New York peers, comes at a time when “the pandemic and economic crisis has put cultural organisations at risk like never before”, says Lane Harwell, an arts programme officer at the Ford Foundation. “Organisations are losing earned revenue because their operations are shut down, and they’re losing contributed revenue because funding is unpredictable and donors are less engaged.”

Latinx organisations such as El Museo are particularly vulnerable, Harwell continues, because many black, indigenous and people of colour’s cultural organisations “have

historically lacked funding that more easily flows to white mainstream institutions”.

The Ford Foundation was particularly compelled by El Museo’s plight, he says, because “El Museo is helping to create the next generation of museum-goers, while satisfying the growing interest in Latinx, Caribbean and Latin American art among a broad national and international audience”.

Long-Term Stability

The funds can be taken as a lump sum or disbursed over four years.

Charpenel says he’ll spread the payments out. “It’s not just about the urgent need of money,” he says, “but also our long-term stability.”

The funds, he continues, will go to “what was originally programmed”, which would otherwise have been cut or reduced.

“It’s exciting,” Charpenel says. “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way that foundations and corporations support art and culture in the US.” — Bloomberg