BAIA Talks: John Guess, Jr., founder of the Houston Museum of African American Culture on Racial Disparities in Cultural Funding


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 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
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
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
Originally published September 6, 2017

HMAAC White Paper Addendum Today and Future

HMAAC’s Mission and Vision is to be a cultural portal through which people share and
converge histories and contemporary experiences that acknowledge and expand the
African American experience, and from such interactions, come together to build a
common future.
In six short years, HMAAC has become an influential entity in Houston and nationally.
Named one of the Top Six African American museums in the country by Centric TV; one
of the top three Small Museums by the Houston Press and one of the Best Museums in
Houston by PaperCity, the museum was selected as a Case Study in Relevance by the
Alliance of American Museums for its May national meeting in St. Louis and by
MuseumNext as an example of a museum Taking A Stand at its American meeting in
Portland, Oregon in October. The beneficiary of rapid, dynamic visitor growth in five
years, rising to over 34,000 local, state, national and international visitors since opening
its doors on a daily basis in February of 2012, HMAAC has become the most visited
African American cultural asset in the city.
These successes result from decisions made in defining our mission, vision and
strategy. The first decision was to think expansively about our audiences to present not
only African American and African cultures, but Latino, Anglo and others through
exhibitions, programs and films that create dialogue about singular and joint
experiences. Our exhibitions, programs and films make the point that the museum is an
open place, one that emphasizes issues not only of race and ethnicity, but of gender
and sexual orientation as well. The work of the museum’s strong messages of inclusion,
self responsibility, collaboration and tolerance has, we are proud to say, become our
brand in the community. This community buy-in of our message was the hope some
seven years ago when the HMAAC board chose John Guess, Jr. to head this effort.
HMAAC Today and into the Future
HMAAC is technically three different spaces- building, community, digital. In our main
building we have presented:
•Nationally renowned exhibitions such as the Kinsey and Kelley Collections,
•artists including Otabenga Jones, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Eleanor Merritt, Ellen
Kaplowitz, Danny Simmons, Benito Huerta, Nicole Miller, Malick Sidibe, Leslie
Wayne, John Hernandez, David McGee and Faith Ringgold
•Partnered events with the Contemporary Arts Museum including musical
performances by Theaster Gates, Pamela Z and Kalup Linzy
•A performance of a Latino and African American version of the Vagina
•Summer dance camp and Isteam camps for kids
•An Evening with renowned TSU Debate Coach Dr. Thomas Freeman
•Originated touring exhibitions including the Eleanor Merritt Retrospective, ROUX
and the upcoming David McGee Works on Paper
•An Evening with renowned clothing designer Toni Whitaker
•Literary Lecturer Caine Prize Winner Tope Folarin
•First organizational Meeting of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce co-
sponsored by the Nigerian American Multicultural Center (NAMC)
•African Fashion show co-sponsored with NAMC
•Symposia including the renowned Afropolitans with the Johns Hopkins Center for
Africana Studies, Art and Social Protest with renowned Curator Valerie Cassel
Oliver and Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agula and
•Cutting-edge film series, including being the first Museum partner in Ava
Duvernay’s ARRAY film distribution organization, co-sponsoring films with the
Museum of Fine Arts Houston, hosting the Houston African Film Festival as
partners with the renowned Silicon Valley African Film Festival and the first
Queer Hippo Film Festival, and being a venue for Qfest and the Houston Cinema
Arts Film Festival.
For the community spaces, we have negotiated with private space owners and other
cultural venues. These spaces are where we have presented:
•U. S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove at the Menil Collection,
•The Southwest premiere of Ifa Bayeza’s Emmet Till for an extended run at and in
partnership with the Ensemble Theatre
•The Fathers Day one man show by New York artist Kraal kayo Charles at
Brentwood Baptist Church Learning Center
•The Kinsey Collection Lecture at the Houston Community College
•Tony Award winner Sarah Jones at Rice University,
•The symposium The African Presence in Mexico with the Johns Hopkins Center
for Africana Studies at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston,
•The Urban Souls Dance Group at the Shrine of the Black Madonna and the
University of Houston Clear Lake
•University of Maryland Law Professor Larry Gibson on Thurgood Marshall at the
Thurgood Marshal Law School, Texas Southern University
•The Abolitionists Forum with Rice University Professor James Sidbury and Sam
Houston State Professor Brian Jordan at the Jung Center
•Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson at the Houston Public Library
•Francisco Mora’s Afrohorn performance at Multicultural Education and
Counseling Through the Arts (MECA)
•Author Wes Moore at the Houston Public Library
•The Two and a Half Years Juneteenth concert at the Shrine of the Black
•The children’s plays Jumpin Juba and Fugitives of Passion and the Urban Souls
Dance Company at St. James Episcopal Church
•Best Selling Author Luvvie Ajayi at the Shrine of the Black Madonna
•Author Ellis Cose at the Ensemble Theatre
•The mural on These Lives Matter at the Johnson Funeral Home in the Third
•The murals on The World Needs What You Have to Give in Wheatley High
School and
•The mural Be At Your Best at the Dr. Albert Louis Medical Plaza in Sunnyside
HMAAC cannot be rivaled in terms of spacial presentations; from programs we have
sponsored at the CAMH, the MFAH, the Menil, Rice University, the Shrine of the Black
Madonna, St. James Episcopal Church, the UH Clear Lake, Texas Southern University,
Brentwood Baptist Church, the Houston Community College, the Jung Center, MECA
and even into Sunnyside parks. We have successfully used these places to bring
people together, to have honest dialogue, to allow for the most diverse discussions in
the most diverse spaces possible.
And finally, we will be launching our digital space in September. For some time, we have
been planning for our foray into the digital and collecting content. Our initial launch will
•An eight week Facebook series on Everyday Strangers, a global artist project
HMAAC supports financially that includes travel to Brazil, Portugal, South Korea
and Italy, and invites our audiences to learn a language and know other cultures.
•Our HMAAC produced films; Did the Barack Obama Presidency Improve the
Lives of African Americans, HMAAC funded partner The Roundtable Convo’s
Gentrification, and I Grabbed Them By the Votes: Why Did 53% of White Women
Vote for Donald Trump.
•Past programs such as:
•Our Abolitionists Conversation between Rice Professor James Sidbury and Sam
Houston State Professor Brian Jordan,
•Our discussion with renowned TSU Debate Coach and Martin Luther King Jr.
teacher, Dr. Thomas Freeman and Two Women Talking Business: A
Conversation Between Sherra Aguirre and Donna Fujimoto Cole.
•Assorted content worth bringing to our audience from around the net.
Part of our digital expansion is planned virtual access to the museum, connecting users
with objects in exhibitions that inspire, educate and expand the way they view the world
around them. This initiative specifically explores the question: “In what way does this
museum from this culture in this time inspire the life that you’re living?” It utilizes the
physical museum concept of thinking about what happens when someone enters the
museum space, interacts with it and what they take away with them.
HMAAC has successfully endeavored to remain ahead of the curve, despite our
arduous struggles for local support. Often, when we think about African American
cultural institutions, there is a conversation about attendance- “Why aren’t people
coming? Why aren’t people participating? We have this Black History Month program or
this Women’s History Month program, or this Asian-Pacific American Month program,
why aren’t people walking through the doors?” At HMAAC, our performance is quite the
opposite. Compared to the other African American and small cultural institutions in the
city and country, we believe our attendance has risen so fast because we have simply
yet aggressively extended an invitation to experience us with a free-admissions policy
and minimal cost or donation-encouraged events, and a focus on the shared community
experience of those who are underserved. In this way, we have never forgotten that our
audience must always include those Houstonians most in need of access to authentic

cultural experiences – the young, those with little disposable income and those yearning

for identity. We want the lowest of incomes to feel they have a place where they can
experience culture and be empowered in the same way as people of wealth do. People
need a one-to-one opportunity to engage and we think that one of the greatest
successes of HMAAC as a cultural asset is that it has given people an avenue for entry
into a shared community experience through individual as well as group engagement.
Another characteristic that has strengthened our brand is that we have been
unapologetic in our pursuit of truth and authenticity with our conversations,
collaborations, public presence and investment in the next generation. We have
engaged our community, not simply with history, but with the topics of our time allowing
the young and young-at-heart to help understand our contemporary experience and
define our future as a community. HMAAC seeks to provide access and resources
where they have been scarce and thereby elevate and transform our visitors lives
empowering them to change our communities.