Houston Museum of African American Culture

December 17, 2018

The Houston Museum of African American Culture, embracing the concept that museums are not neutral, and the concept of being “a museum in a building and in the community,” becoming in essence a community centered museum, has consistently advocated in position papers the importance of creating cultural capital as a means to reducing intergenerational poverty. We have cited in previous papers research from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University that correlated the creation of cultural capital with poverty reduction among other neighborhood and community benefits.

While we have cited Opportunity Zones as a point of reference, it is not clear these alone will bring more investment to distressed communities to effectively reduce neighborhood poverty. The theory of the Zones is that by giving rich people financial incentives to locate investments in poor areas, some of the investor gains will trickle down to poor people and help reduce poverty. But while Opportunity Zones are a potential boon to real estate developers (note Jared Kushner corporate investment in a New Jersey Zone), the impact on poverty may or may not be the case.

In 2015 Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute did a literature review based on a San Francisco Federal Reserve report that focused on what were then called Enterprise Zones (similar in intent to Opportunity Zones). His conclusion, based on the literature: the Enterprise Zones primarily helped investors and secondarily helped area homeowners, while doing little to alleviate neighborhood poverty.

Pethokoukis found that while some research showed evidence of positive employment effects, other research failed to find evidence of reduced poverty. He found additionally consistent evidence of housing price increases, implying that benefits are received by unintended recipients. Other results from his review suggest that such zones largely rearrange the location of jobs rather than creating more of them, indicating negative spillover effects on nearby areas.

Although many are quick to use this research for definitive conclusions, the truth is more research is needed to understand what features of federal programs similar to Opportunity Zones actually positively impact job creation and poverty reduction. Pethokoukis pointed out, even if there is job creation, it is hard to

make the case that such zones further their distributional goals of reducing poverty, and it is likely they generate inordinate benefits for real estate owners, who are not the intended beneficiaries. Moreover, the emphasis on job creation and income growth does not appear to be a complete or effective approach to changing the neighborhoods without the asset creation advocated by HMAAC that increases wealth.

Given this, why ignore the impact that cultural capital creation has in reducing neighborhood poverty. As an institution committed to creating cultural capital and using cultural assets to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, HMAAC is clear that this strategy is worthy of substantial foundation support. The dearth of of color owned neighborhood assets severely impedes the cultural capital and wealth creation that can positively impact intergenerational poverty reduction (see previous papers).

The museum’s history of creating message mural assets in low income areas and in schools, our financial support of programming in low income areas through other of color cultural assets and the organization of group investors such as HMAAC’s Group One Investors to invest in creation of low income neighborhood assets provides a track record deserving of greater funding support.

The absence by foundations of portfolio theory diversification principles should be corrected to include significant investment in of color cultural assets in addition to other public and social service assets. Investment in the latter has not resulted in significant change in neighborhood empowerment and asset creation, let alone reductions in neighborhood poverty. Perhaps the reluctance is the incremental progress that initially results from investment in cultural assets. But a multi-year commitment of five years or more should bring actual impact into focus.

Or reluctance results from the difficulty in measuring intermediate qualitative gains and relying solely on quantitative results. Yet our qualitative stories of African American investment in low income areas have inspired others to join together as group community investors to do the same. The quantitative impact is incremental, but the qualitative effect of bringing together individuals to invest small dollars to impact low income communities is more than what exists historically and must be seen as worthy of replication.

Whatever the reason, the argument here is that the risk of greater funding is well worth the potential reward. Such investment would be positive in overcoming the racial disparity we have explored in a previous paper that is clearly in need of remedy, and especially because the lack of support and disparity primarily effects of color managed and of color cultural assets.

For HMAAC in particular, it would seem that our metrics, our mission, our multicultural conversation geared toward a common future, our place as the forum in our city where racism is actually acknowledged and discussed, and where the support of our African American museum is exponentially worse than those in other cities where our performance exceeds or is similar, it would seem that this African American museum, this of color asset mitigates any risk involved in substantially funding it as a complementary strategy to current foundation community investments.

We have an opportunity in Houston. We can flip the switch. Rather than being  the ONLY African American museum in the country that does not have its building and operations publicly funded (see previous paper on Racial Disparities), we can become the ONLY African American museum privately funded. That would require support not only from our foundations but from liberal as well as conservative individuals, the majority of whose lack of support up to now has indicated an indifference toward Houston having an African American museum, even one as nationally recognized and community impactful as HMAAC. That must change, and we continue to hope that it does.

John Guess, Jr. CEO

The Houston Museum of African American Culture