Since its founding in St. Paul in 1992, Theater Mu has become one of the most successful Asian-American theater groups in the country. Credit: Rich Ryan

When Theater Mu was founded in St. Paul in 1992, there was no major Asian American theater company in the Midwest and, the founders quickly discovered, a shortage of suitable actors.  

“The legend is that [co-founder] Rick Shiomi would go to Chinese restaurants and ask the servers if they were interested in theater, and wanted to go try acting,” Theater Mu artistic director Lily Tung Crystal said. 

That wasn’t all. Shiomi also placed classified newspaper advertisements seeking Asian American actors, and would routinely pick actors up and drive them to rehearsals if they didn’t have reliable transportation. In the years since, Theater Mu has become one of the largest and most successful Asian-American theater companies in the country. 

“It was a labor of faith and love,” Tung Crystal said.

Now, that labor of faith and love is being rewarded in a big way. The Ford, McKnight, Bush and Jerome Foundations are combining to deliver $12.6 million to Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian American-led arts organizations and artists concentrated in the Twin Cities—a game-changing investment for the area’s BIPOC arts scene.

Ten Twin Cities arts organizations, including Theater Mu, will receive a minimum of $500,000 in unrestricted grant money over the next five years in the first phase of the program, which will be administered by the Minneapolis Foundation. 

In the second phase of the program, other, mainly smaller BIPOC-led arts organizations and artists across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the 23 Indigenous nations within their borders will be able to apply for a further $5.6 million in grant money as part of a program set to be administered by the Propel Nonprofits and the Metropolitan Region Arts Council. 

The funding is part of an initiative from the Ford Foundation called America’s Cultural Treasures, which seeks to “provide critical funding to organizations that have made a significant impact on America’s cultural landscape, despite historically limited resources.”

The Ford Foundation contributed $5 million to the program, which the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation matched. The Bush and Jerome Foundations contributed the final $2.6 million. 

A number of the Twin Cities’ most visible BIPOC-led arts organizations are set to benefit from the initiative, including Minza, Pangea World Theater, and the Somali Museum of Minnesota, alongside Theater Mu. 

Ananya Dance Theatre is one of 10 Twin Cities arts organizations that will take part in the first phase of a $12.6 million foundation program to fund arts groups led by people of color. Credit: Paul Virtucio

Other first-phase grantees include the American Indian Community Housing Organization Arts Program, the Ananya Dance Theatre, Indigenous Roots, Juxtaposition Arts, TruArtSpeaks, and Walker|West.

For many of these organizations, this kind of money is almost unthinkable. Osman Ali, founder and executive director of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, said that to this point, the largest grant his organization had ever received was $50,000.

The Somali Museum received one of its largest financial boosts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last May, when the museum’s building on Lake Street was damaged and the community raised nearly $29,000 in just 48 hours to help pay for repairs. 

Ali said the grant money will allow the museum to expand or potentially move into a new building. It is in part a testament to the work that community members did over many years to keep these small arts and cultural organizations afloat while major philanthropy dollars went elsewhere—often to white-led organizations.

“We are so excited and so happy,” Ali said. “It’s going to take us to the second level.”

Lana Barkawi, the executive and artistic director at the Southwest Asian and North African arts and cultural organization Minza, has been with the organization in different capacities for well over a decade, giving her a particular appreciation of how dramatic the impact of this money might be. 

“We’ve always somehow made the work happen and not always been resourced to do it,” she said. “And now, 20-plus years into the organization’s life, it’s really incredible to have the work be resourced and be recognized in these ways.”

While grant recipients are eyeing expanding hours and programming, raising wages, and, in Ali’s case, moving, many are simply welcoming the money as a sign that, after a tremendously challenging year, their immediate futures and those of their employees are secure. 

“We just hope [the money] is going to provide some breathing room, some headspace, so organizations can be planning their next great, amazing body of work and have some stability and support in that way,” said DeAnna Cummings, arts program director at the McKnight Foundation. 

Barkawi believes that it will do just that. 

“The kind of funding situation that we’ve been living with, where you have to constantly prove yourself to be responsible enough to manage substantial funds, keeps grassroots organizations small, keeps BIPOC organizations small and struggling,” she said. “This award allows us to take a step back and focus on what we want to do rather than have to be preoccupied by the restraints of our budget.” 

The Ford Foundation and the McKnight Foundation provided most of the money for a program that will fund Pangea World Theater and other Twin Cities arts groups over the next five years. Credit: Bruce Silcox

According to Cummings, the Cultural Treasures program is an attempt to begin righting a wrong that has plagued philanthropy for years: unequal funding that has left BIPOC-led organizations behind. 

“We hope this represents a shift,” Cummings said. “We hope that’s what this initiative is about. The most important thing is to shine a spotlight on the work that these groups are doing… but the other [thing] is to inspire a different way of thinking about arts organizations in our region and the importance of these organizations and these leaders to all of our futures.”

While the Ford Foundation had conceived of the Cultural Treasures project prior to the murder of George Floyd, Cummings said that last summer’s racial justice protests created a “sense of urgency” around the project, and that her industry is beginning to grapple with the fact that it owes much of its existence to the exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. 

Tung Crystal said that the cash infusion and recognition are an honor for Theater Mu.* 

“While I think this racial reckoning has prompted organizations like the Ford Foundation to acknowledge organizations of color, I think the groundwork for it has been happening for decades,” she said.

*Clarification: This story has been changed to more closely reflect Theater Mu’s experience as a grant recipient.

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.