At one point, organizations like the Inner City Arts Council and City Ballet Theatre were front and center in Milwaukee’s African American arts community. Now they are merely a footnote.
The executive directors of Ko-Thi Dance Company, African American Children’s Theatre and Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company were determined to keep their groups from experiencing that same fate. The groups share more than a century of serving Milwaukee but were struggling to stay alive. After a while the leaders realized they couldn’t keep operating the same way and expect things to change.
“We didn’t want to go out like that,” said Constance Clark, who founded AACT in 1989. “We felt like we needed to do one more ‘something’ to see if we could be saved.”
Their desire for a new approach led to the idea of the Black Arts Think Tank, an umbrella organization that consolidates the groups’ administrative and operational functions. It originally took shape with help from Barbara Lawton, chair of the Wisconsin Arts Board, who convened a conference to talk about issues facing small arts groups. It took on life with guidance and support from community leaders and Greater Milwaukee Foundation Board members Cory Nettles and Jackie Herd-Barber.
“I have watched, admired and supported these three groups to varying degrees and knew their legacy business model was not sustainable,” said Nettles, founder and managing partner of Generation Growth Capital. “Our community needs diverse arts offerings as part of a healthy thriving community and we have to figure out a business model to do that.”
All three groups have struggled with fundraising over the years and all three executive directors have invested their own personal funds into their organizations. AACT and Hansberry-Sands had trouble finding office and rehearsal space. Ko-Thi struggled to pay the artists who worked with them.
“The surprise was that we all had the same story,” Clark said. “We knew it, but didn’t know the details of each other’s story.”
Following a two-year strategic planning process, BATT hired an executive director, recruited a board, led by Nettles and Herd-Barber, and found a new home at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. It is focusing on consolidating budgets, creating a combined fundraising strategy and building a programming schedule that includes collaborations between the three groups.
“We are essentially proving out a new theory,” said Barbara Wanzo, BATT’s executive director, who describes the process as equal parts start up and turnaround.
Clark said they are excited to be in that pioneering role and feel buoyed by the community response. A fundraiser the group held in December 2014 at the Marcus Center, featuring Wynton Marsalis, was one small indication of the community’s support as more than 100 people attended. The response from the corporate and philanthropic communities in general has been positive, Wanzo said.
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation contributed $125,000 in 2014 to expand the capacity of the agencies and ensure their stability as they merge and integrate operations.
The group’s leaders are looking forward to refocusing their efforts on the stage and letting someone else handle the back office.
“I’m waiting to exhale,” said Ferne Caulker, who started Ko-Thi in 1969. “I haven’t been able to do that in a long time.”
It is more than just about the survival of the three organizations. Those involved believe when – not if – it works, BATT will serve as an inspiration to other groups. There is a learning curve involved, but the three women are determined to make the new model work because they feel the community – particularly its children – depend on it.
“So many children need the arts because it builds self-esteem and confidence,” Clark said. “Some of the problems we have in the city right now are because kids are not getting that outlet.”