St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre announced Thursday that the company will receive a $2.5 million grant over the next four years from the Ford Foundation. It’s the largest grant in the Black theater company’s 44-year history.
“It’s very exciting,” said artistic director Sarah Bellamy. “It’s a powerful recognition of our past and a nod to the innovation of our future.”
Penumbra is one of 20 arts organizations around the country to get funding from the Ford Foundation’s newly announced and unprecedented $160 million initiative called American Cultural Treasures. The grants are going to BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) organizations and, like Penumbra, represent the largest donations ever for most of them.
Ford Foundation president Darren Walker told the Washington Post the initiative was a bid to reinvent how Americans, specifically American philanthropists, value theater companies, museum and the arts in general. He said there’s a clear gap in funding between larger, mostly white, arts organizations and smaller minority ones.
“Just as inequality is playing out in our society, in the arts it is playing out,” Walker said. “The Getty and the National Gallery of Art are in their own bubbles. Yes, they’re concerned about finances, but as one of them said to me, ‘This is terrible, but we can raise the money.’
“When you get to the medium and smaller arts organizations — that don’t have endowments, that don’t have rich boards, that don’t have huge amounts of operating cash flow — those organizations are panicked. If we don’t help them, they will be gone.”
Bellamy said Penumbra was not in danger of closing its doors, despite the pandemic that’s kept its stage dark for months. “We were fortunate to be in a really good position when it hit,” she said. “This does take a little of the pressure off.”
In August, the theater announced that it was “evolving” into the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing. The company, which is one of only three professional Black theaters in the country that offers a full season of performances, will continue to perform works for the stage, but is expanding its community and racial equity programs and adding a wellness center. Bellamy said the Ford funding will help accelerate the process and pay for new staff.
In typical years, Penumbra operates with a $2.4 million annual budget. Bellamy said the company’s previous record for a multi-year grant was $500,000 over three years. Penumbra also just received a $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Bellamy first got the call from Walker last week. “I told him I want his job,” she said with a laugh. “I want to call people and tell them there’s lot of money coming their way.”
Walker told the Washington Post he hoped this effort would spur other donors to direct their dollars toward organizations like these. In that spirit, Penumbra is granting $50,000 to each of its fellow members of the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition: Pangea World Theatre, New Native Theatre, Theater Mu and Teatro del Pueblo.
It’s a move of solidarity, Bellamy said, in a time when racial intolerance and violence is on the rise.
“We wanted to say thank you for your work, thank you for your partnership,” she said. “Here’s some abundance, let’s send some abundance back out into the community.”
Due to the pandemic, Penumbra’s stage will remain dark at least through May. Whenever it is safe again to stage live performances, Bellamy said the focus will be on new play development.