Houston Museum of African American Culture    September 6, 2017

Houston Museum of African American Culture

September 6, 2017

Houston’s arts and culture funding fails miserably in its support of African American cultural assets. While Houston is lauded in philanthropic circles as a giving city, The Center for Houston’s Future’s (CHF) 2014 Arts and Cultural Heritage study indicated what is universally known to people of color; that is, while the Houston region benefits from an exceptionally generous body of philanthropists, less than 2% of Houston’s philanthropic dollars go to cultural institutions of color. Philanthropic funding for African American and of color cultural organizations is abysmal.  In a city that touts itself as the most diverse city in the country, the economic picture is different; Houston is one of the five most economically segregated cities in the United States.  Statistically it appears inclusion is not a philanthropic or public goal.

Major Houston Foundation Funding Of Color and/or African American Cultural Organizations


Brown Foundation Arts and Culture

$25 million plus awarded, $55,000 for organizations of color (.0022%)

 Cullen Foundation Culture

$3 million plus awarded, $0 for organizations of color


Hamman Foundation

$4 million plus awarded, $20,000 for organizations of color (.005%)

 Houston Endowment

$56 million plus awarded, $2.5 million for African American organizations ($2.1 million to TSU and PVAMU or 3.75%), leaving $400,000 for all others (.007%)


Fondren Foundation

$16 million plus awarded, $250,000 for organizations of color (.0156%)

 Wortham Foundaton

$11 million awarded, $10,000 for organizations of color (.0009%)

One of the above foundations indicated in writing to HMAAC that it need not apply again to it for funds.

 To be fair, foundation support is not intended to be an annual source of operating funds.  It is support that enables African American assets to get off the ground, to attain sustainability and to extend community involvement. It should exist alongside institutional efforts to earn income through creation of value deriving from assets events and programs.  But it must exist in a substantial way over a number of years, and, in the case of African American assets, it must allow for neighborhood interventions.

Public funding can differ from private philanthropy in its objective to support what are deemed public goods. Such funding in Houston and Texas falls far short of most national averages, and even shorter for African American assets. For example, the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC), is the ONLY such museum in a major or mid-sized city that does not have its building and annual operating budget funded with public funds as a public good.

 A sampling of major African American museums reveals the following facility and/or operating funding experience that is based on public funding.  Here it is clear that HMAAC is an exception as an African American museum when it comes to public support:

 •  The Dallas African American Museum was built with $1.2 million from a 1985 dollars City Bond election.

•  The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco facility cost of $5 million was funded by the City. The City also funds $500,000 of its $2.5 million operating budget.

•  The Philadelphia African American Museum building was funded in 1976 dollars for $2.5 million for construction. The 2013 audited financials showed city contribution of $821,2521 of the museum's $1,390,855 income.

•  The California African American Museum is a state entity whose building was funded by the state, which contributes $2.5 of its $3.5 million operating budget.

•  The Du Sable Museum in Chicago was started with $10 million in state grants for the building. Its 2013 financials show $1,749,046 of its $2,730,446 in operating revenues came from government grants.

•  The Gantt African American Museum in Charlotte had its building financed by the City, which contributes to its operations as well.

•  The Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore was constructed with $30 million in state and local funds. The state contributes $2 million of its $2.848 million in operating revenues.

•  The African American Music Museum in Nashville is being built downtown with $1.8 Million from the City and $10 million from the METRO Government.

 Last year (2016) funding for Houston’s African American cultural assets, including  HMAAC, the Community Artists Collective, the Urban Souls Dance Company, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Project Row Houses, the Ensemble Theatre, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the Nigerian American Multicultural Center and the Texas Center for African American Living History actually decreased while demand from the underserved African American community increased. HMAAC, the most visited African American cultural asset in Houston, knows only too well the funding underside of our city when it comes to race and ethnicity. Despite this funding void, HMAAC took it upon itself in 2016 and 2017 to become a funder as well as partner, investing over $60,000 of its already meager funds and resources in other African American cultural organizations to jointly present programs for our underserved community. 

Notwithstanding the city’s lack of funding support, institutions such as HMAAC have an important role to play if Houston is to become the model of American diversity current city leaders say they want it to be. The importance of such institutions to our neighborhoods is made evident by the current poverty in Houston and America’s inner cities.

 A large number of African American neighborhoods throughout the United States, including Houston, are stuck in intergenerational poverty and economic disadvantage.   New York University professor Patrick Starkey, in Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, cites the over 70 percent of African American children raised in the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods a generation ago now raising their own children in similar circumstances. “The persistence of intergenerational poverty and economic disadvantage,” he writes, “is thus inextricably linked to location and place.” Consider Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, historically segregated with little political clout and neglected public services, as a contemporary example of a “stuck in place or decline” neighborhood, where current public policy is either misguided and not working or in need of additional programmatic efforts.

We know however the power of cultural capital to empower individuals and neighborhoods. We know that if you grow up in a cultural environment, it is natural for you to engage in arts and culture, and research shows that communities and individuals who have and build cultural capital are more confident and assertive. Communities as a whole and individuals possessing cultural capital tend to be better educated and tend to pass on these qualities to their children.  In African American communities possession of cultural capital means more participation in social, economic and political activities over generations and can be a critical component to ending intergenerational poverty.

 We know additionally that cultural assets, through which cultural capital can be obtained, affect high opportunity. Neighborhoods that are characterized by safer streets, good schools, greater levels of civic involvement and access to better jobs, in public policy terms are “high opportunity” neighborhoods, where these factors act to alleviate income inequality and help halt the cycle of poverty. Leading social and economic analysts like the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project’s Mark J. Stern would add the existence of cultural assets to the list of characteristics of high opportunity neighborhoods. In his Rethinking Social Impact: We Can’t Talk about Social Well-being without the Arts & Culture, Stern found “the presence of cultural assets in urban neighborhoods was associated with economic improvements, including declines in poverty.” Additionally, his research found the arts to be associated with preserving ethnic and racial diversity, reduced ethnic harassment rates and lower rates of social distress.

Given these findings, HMAAC decided that museums focus too much on getting the public to visit on the museum’s terms, and not enough on creating a cultural community based in the neighborhoods where our visitors reside. Our added emphasis on building cultural capital in our neighborhoods allows us to escape the current paradigm that our political and philanthropic elites are wedded to; that is, the strategy of remediation of wrongs rather than individual and community empowerment.  Cultural capital is not created by community Christmas tree lightings or Thanksgiving free meals. Nor is it created by painted utility sites without message that erroneously suggest an integration of artists and community. There is no community empowerment in these actions. We fully recognize that other neighborhoods that are not of color in our city have cultural assets and gain the cultural capital derived from interaction with them, and we fully understand the different (from ours) economic and social narrative such assets and capital provide them with. 

 To build cultural capital in low income and African American neighborhoods, we must provide these neighborhoods with cultural assets.  As a result, HMAAC has become a museum in a building AND in the community,  and is about to expand to being a museum in digital space. We now connect with the public through active, values-aligned partnerships in Houston’s African American neighborhoods, with the goal of engaging these communities in cultural conversations, and thereby expand the influence of the museum as a vehicle of empowerment beyond destination visits, which currently are the mainstay of museums.

When one considers the work done by poorly funded African American assets, the work truly is extraordinary; the summer art classes held throughout the city and exhibits organized at the Community Artists Collective (CAC), the kids taught dance and discipline by the Urban Souls Dance Company (USDC), the kids and adults taught history by the Texas Center for African American Living History (TCAALH) in Houston and across the state, the Third Ward community engagement of Project Row Houses (PRH), the Young Actors Program of the Ensemble Theatre every summer, the reenactments by Buffalo Soldiers National Museums (BSNM) at venues across the city, the business and cultural events across the city sponsored by the Nigerian American Multicultural Center (NAMC), and the the self-determination values taught through the Shrine of the Black Madonna (the Shrine).

Then consider the results of that work: kids and adults whose achievement is greater than those not so lucky to be exposed to these fine organizations.  Yes you can count them; the actors gaining national prominence who started at the Ensemble Theatre, the officers and other service men and women serving our country because their eyes were opened to African American military involvement by the BSNM, the artists nationally recognized from their exposure at PRH, the dancers who have gone on to participate in university dance companies because they were given opportunity by the USDC, the many civic minded individuals engaged by programs by NAMC, the high school and university history students and teachers inspired by the experiences gained from the TCAALH, the individuals who reinvest into our communities as a result of the programs they experienced at the Shrine, the many kids taught art and the prominent artists across the country whose initial exhibitions were at the CAC, and the thousands of individuals young and not so young engaged every day in our neighborhoods by messages The World Needs What You Have to Give, or These Lives Matter or Be At Your Best on murals HMAAC has funded in Wheatley and Kashmere high schools and on  prominent African American owned buildings in our communities. 

Now consider the impact on our city, on our nation, if these assets had comparable funding and capacity of those institutions where our philanthropic dollars currently flow, or a fraction of it (still meaning in the millions of dollars). Consider the neighborhoods changed by the cultural capital and empowerment these African American assets bring to individuals and our communities.


As HMAAC has noted before in a previous White Paper on the deficits of Houston’s Cultural Plan, African American neighborhoods are standing at a crossroads of location and place: On one side stands intergenerational poverty, and on the other, the transformative value of cultural assets located in these neighborhoods. The long road for the Sunnyside neighborhoods of Houston and the nation to become high opportunity ones begins not only with resolving food deserts and improved public services but with the provision of cultural assets as well, something HMAAC has proved can be done with minimal funds and in the face of startling underfunding. But what we are currently doing with less is just not enough. It is not enough. Our underserved communities deserve much more.  They deserve the opportunity to be inspired by assets in neighborhoods that enrich intergenerational learning and the transfer of skills, that allow them to be a part of transformative communities that benefit from the realized potential of every child’s dream, that have the power to change community narratives for the better if only by positive self reflection where they live.

What if properly funded African American cultural assets could REALLY do our work. That is the unrealized benefit, the opportunity lost to our city, to our country and to the world by this racial inequity in philanthropic funding. Rationalizations for failure to fund African American assets are increasingly seen as excuses for  thoughtless and capricious inaction or worse. Given this continuing lost opportunity in our neighborhoods, if Houston IS the model for the country on living and thriving together, we should have grave concerns about our future.

What If our cultural assets continue to fail to gain local political or local foundation funding support, if we continue to be subject to racial inequities in cultural funding; no doubt the poverty of our neighborhoods, as has been the case, will stay the same.

John Guess, Jr., CEO

The Houston Museum of African American Culture