Interview with Lorene Cary, Founder of the Art Sanctuary, Philadelphia, PA. Interviewed by Michael Feagans on 09.15.00.
4npo: When did the Art Sanctuary get started?
Lorene: We incorporated in June of 1998. But in fact I was talking to people about it for more than a year and a half before that. I really love the idea of an arts and lecture series whose critical mass was formed around African-American arts--particularly since I was a writer, since I had done lots of book tours, workshops and readings and that sort of stuff all over the country. It was clear to me was that these things almost never happened in a venue in the middle of the inner city. In addition, I had been a part of some reading series that were really just splendid occasions and these were never held in inner cities either. It seemed to me there was no reason for this.
4npo: In all of the places you've been you've never encountered that type of setting?
Lorene: Never at a non-profit. Now and then I have been in this kind of venue if it's a commercial setting, for instance a bookstore in Atlanta. But it was not like the Rochester Arts and Lectures, where they get 300 to 600 people in a downtown church six times a year to hear writers. This was a wonderful series that made me think of this practically about my idea. I knew about it because I was there, not because I was a famous writer in this church talking to all of these people.
Now, in a series it's just like any other series so they get Maya Angelou and Oliver Stone and they stick in a couple of people who are less well known and cheaper. But it makes a season, right? And I thought to myself, wow, what if all of this energy was focused on bringing in African-American writers. Then I said, "Wait a minute, it can't just be literature." The Norton Anthology, for instance, has CDs in it. If you're going to do black-American art, you have to do it across different disciplines, because they speak to and inform each other. So I decided it had to be a lecture and performance series.
4npo: How did you get to the point where you chose the Church of the Advocate, at 18th and Diamond Sts., as the venue?
Lorene: That's not hard really, because it's my home church. I've been there for about 10 years. For years, the people at the Advocate had been talking about doing a music series. They had a music group; they even did a fundraiser where they had Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee come in. This was in '92. They paid the full fare and did this fundraiser. At the end of the day, I think the church made about $11.13. So of course the message to everybody there was "let's never do this again!" (laughter). "Everybody busted their hump, we made ourselves crazy, we worked like dogs and we didn't make any money."
The message to me was that we had 300 or 400 people in this place to see Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. We got no underwriting, not one penny,and we broke even. I thought that was fabulous. So it seemed to me like a great event. At the end, audience members commented, "if you guys ever do anything like this again let us know." And that said to me that with a series you can build on this.
Instead of just having one shot here and then St. Luke's has Maya Angelou and then a year later Bethany Baptist has such and such a gospel choir and then Smallwood comes over. It seemed that just as with for-profit companies, a critical mass of artists and attendees, that makes things more economical and marketing easier. Similarly, I wanted to create a series you could depend on. It's a little bit like the marketing strategy of Time Inc., which says to people, "you're very busy; you don't have time to read the paper all day." Here's something you can get once a week. It will tell you everything you really wouldn't want to miss. This series could allow people who don't have time to pay attention to everything going on in the art world to know that six or eight or ten times a year you're going to be introduced to some form of black art via lecture-performance. Ideally, this will include some sort of live interaction with the artist that will keep you up to date with black art all over the country.
The whole point of this was the tip of the iceberg. Once the series was up and running that just raises the bar, which says "this is what the best of black art all over the country looks like." Now, let's match this with art from the region. So let's bring in regional artists to open for the national artists. Let's bring in artists in residence to homeless shelters or high schools or the church's own book group or what ever. Let's collaborate with all kinds of groups to bring these artists' works into peoples' lives in a way that will deeply move and transform them. Let's help them change, grow their own skills and say, "This is where the bar is set."
For instance, now we have an 8 week writing seminar. That seminar was a nonfiction writing workshop. They were all adults; they were all really good writers. Once the seminar finished, they bonded so much that they now have a writing group that's continuing to meet. And they are talking about doing mentoring, like maybe teaching a writing group to teenagers. The guy who taught it is a young writer who has now himself been mentored by a collective of writers in the area, all of whom have published books. We got together and gave him all of our syllabi, all of our lesson plans we had used in teaching. So that was a different kind of mentoring. Add to that the teaching that he did, and you have another thing going.
We had an artist-in-residence who's going to be working with the kids at the after-school program at the Advocate from September 'til December, teaching them African dance and drumming. He's a wonderful stilt walker, who grew up in the neighborhood, and knows all of these drumming and dancing arts. Artists-in-residence is a growing thing. We are placing these people in the community in areas where people say, "I want my grandchildren to learn something about music. They've cut it out of the school curriculum." Or, "I want my kids to learn something about art."
But first, we wanted to lead with the series so that everybody understands where the bar is set and that all of us are on a continuum that can change the conversation globally. I mean, this is a community that has created hip-hop, which has changed the way people are dealing with modern music. So, we should not think "sometimes you do community art and you don't have the national piece." When I'm in my most grumpy mood, I say, "there are 30 Negro children and 8 crayons and that's not the kind of thing we're talking about aspiring to." But a lot of America thinks that is good enough.
4npo: What were some of the goals you had when you first started Art Sanctuary?
Lorene: I wanted to start the series off really fine, really fast, because it would be dead in the water otherwise. I also wanted to make sure that as an organization, we took off very fast. I wanted from the very beginning to have a director who was not me: one of my goals is for the Art Sanctuary to get up and "walk" on its own. I believe that I need to put in a firm 3-5 year commitment of very intense effort. But I want to be the kind of founder who steps back very quickly, so that I can just be a really hard working board member but not necessary to the day-to-day operation.
4npo: Initially, what were some of your fundraising goals?
Lorene: I didn't know what to expect because I hadn't done this before. Nor was I able to figure out how much to ask for from individuals. So, I created goals for fundraising on the advice of some very fine people including the folks at the Center for Responsible Funding and several business people. Here are the goals I settled on:
1. Diverse source of funding
In the first year, get small grants from as many Philadelphia foundations as possible. I wanted to make sure that we were widely supported by the Philadelphia community, and seen by lots of people who back risky startup organizations.
2. Broad involvement
I wanted to get as much feedback as possible, even criticism. I wanted the whole community to know what we were trying to do.
3. Individual donors
My other goal was to get individual donors right away. This is linked to broad involvement and diverse support but also to show funding organizations that individuals also supported our work. We created a membership tier system and went out to people's homes and gave house parties, where we sold memberships to an organization that did not yet exist! People were very generous--they got it--and said, "I'll take out a membership." They understood that we in the middle class black community ought to be stepping up to the plate with our $50 to help the Art Sanctuary, even if it approaches other places asking for amounts like $2,000, $4,000, or $7,500.
So we got members, larger individual donors, and granting organizations. The idea was I'd do that for the first six or eight months and then in the next year we would apply for city and state funds. Then, in the third year, we would go after national organizations. Right now, we're pretty much on target with these plans.
4npo: That is a lot to ask of staff right from the beginning--to get up and running as quickly as you could with all the other things you were trying to do. How did you manage to do it all? What kind of staffing did you have at the time?
Lorene: (Much laughter) We didn't have to much staff. We had a half-time director/consultant. For a while we had a half-time associate director who was on just for that first summer. We had a freelance person who basically did some PR on our program for the first event. We had wonderful volunteers. Frankly, we did a lot of it with volunteers. We made a point of telling donors that we were doing a lot of this with volunteers so that every dollar they give is stretched enormously. A woman was volunteered by her priest because she was retired and looking around for something to do. She became our first bookkeeper.
My brother-in-law's brother runs a company that does payroll for small businesses said, "I'm going to tell you what I tell all non-profits here in West Philadelphia. You're probably not going to listen to me--nobody ever does--but if you have even 5 dollars, you should have somebody to keep track of it. Nobody ever does it because they always say to me 'We don't have enough money to hire a bookkeeper.' But you really ought to do it." So I listened to him.
I asked everybody I knew, and found this wonderful woman. The Community Accountants matched us up with an accounting firm that did pro bono work with us for six months setting up our accounts. She worked with them, without pay, to learn the system. At the end of the six months we went to people and said, "we've got to pay for a bookkeeper," and they got it. But because she gave us that first six months and because Milton Gardner Associates gave us that six months we were able to raise funds toward a stipend for her. She's a retired person and we didn't have to do the whole thing with the benefits so that we were able to hire her part-time.
We now have a full-time director, a half-time office manager, our bookkeeper who's still with us and is our longest-term part time employee. We've worked with the Provost's office at Temple University, which is a wonderful collaboration. They now have designated us as an approved work study site. That's been a great help. Just last month we started an educational coordinator internship. But initially, I did a lot of the scut work. My philosophy was that once I learn how to do it, then I can define it and decide whether it's worth doing or how it can be done better next time.
Write that up. First figure out a way to get it funded, then hire somebody else to do it. That's been my philosophy and that's the intense commitment, which means throwing in my own free labor to learn the job, talking to the people who can teach us how to do the job, helping to create the position. This thing is growing like a mushroom--it's always changing so we try to figure what we need so we can staff it.
4npo: Now why was that good advice from your brother-in-law's brother?
Lorene: Because it meant that we never had any difficulty, with what he said is the wrong flow. You shouldn't have the same people who are brining in and accounting for the money spending it. That is that the same 'hands' shouldn't be doing everything with it. It was very useful advice. We're now getting our first audit because we are finishing our first full fiscal year. Nobody has any problems understanding the books because that is all Regina does. When we ask the director about the money she's paid or grants that she has applied for, it's all fine. She has one set of books that list what she has applied for and what she has spent. There's a check and balance though, because we don't just have to take her word for it. Regina keeps all of the books and her only job is to put in what we've taken in and write checks for what we say we need. She also is a great heavy for us.
If you deal in the community you want to enrich the local environment. For instance we hire Town Watch. It's not a lot but instead of asking them to give us their time we're able to kick-in a little bit toward their operation. We use a lot of local folks for catering; all kinds of jobs. In general, the pressure on us to pay in cash is very large. We know that we are sometime giving a $30 check to people who do not have checking accounts, who are telling you, "look, can't you do something for me because I'm going to have to spend $2 to get your check cashed." The pressure on the director is great, but simply saying "no" is much different from saying, "I'm sorry but the bookkeeper says I can't." It's not even a question. "No you can't get it early, no you can't get it in cash." Once you start doing those things the IRS is likely to respond with, "you did what!?" Because of our bookkeeper, we simply haven't had that problem.
4npo: How about the pressure from donors to document how you are spending their money?
Lorene: I don't think of that as pressure. Right from the start we've said that anybody who gives us a dollar deserves a whole lot. They deserve at least two or three thank you's. They deserve to know where their money is going and to get some assurance that their money is buying more art and culture from us than it could ever do on its own. That's one reason why we struggle to get out a newsletter a couple of times a year even though we'd rather not. We make sure our members get a regular mailing so they know exactly what's coming up. Our director also prepares a quarterly report, which she sends to everyone who is up and due.
We have money from a couple of family funds that are run pretty informally by family members. They don't have stringent reporting requirements but every quarter or every other quarter we send them a report saying, "this is what we've done in the past year." Others are very clear about their reporting requirements and our director is really quite careful to comply.
4npo: It's great that for you, every dollar is important.
Lorene: We want to figure out a way to do this art and make it like radical democracy. That is why we're doing it in the Sanctuary. I think it's part of what the black church has done; it has taken from Christian teachings that wonderful, crazy, radical idea underlying democracy. You're sitting down and eating with whom? With whores and tax collectors? I mean, that's radical. We want and try to do some of these radical things and yet we have to pay the bills in a status-conscious, capitalist society. One of the ways we decided to do this is to have the memberships. If you give us $2.00 then you're probably a kindred spirit. You may or may not come to the events. We haven't figured out all of this out yet. We have scholarship memberships. We have memberships for $10,000. We do this to make sure that everybody who gives us a dime gets special treatment, because they didn't have to give at all. Somebody who lives around the corner sent us $13.00 in an envelope. Not $10.00--they didn't round it off to $10.00; they gave us $13.00 because clearly they had decided that they could push it that far. That's blessed money.
4npo: Tell me about the feedback you receive from the people in the community.
Lorene: It's very interesting. We had a small group who liked this from the beginning. We have people who say to us, "we want you to do this or that." Mostly we are hearing, "we want more stuff for our kids. Our kids are not getting art in the schools. We want them to have the best they can get." People have said we like the fact that something is happening. Nobody likes to live in a neighborhood where nothing is happening.
One woman at the soup kitchen is always reading. When Terry McMillan came I saw her and said, "Now look you have got to come back tonight and see Terry McMillan." She said, "I ain't got no money." I said, "look, I'm going to put your name down, please come." I didn't even get into the scholarship membership because I knew she wouldn't believe me. I said you got a complimentary ticket from me. I want you to come because you're always reading and you should come because you will love this. She said O.K.
We have the affair, the whole thing. People came; had the book signing. I see her next week I said, "What happened to you? I expected to see you, it was great we had a great time." Now this was when How Stella Got Her Groove Back was in the movies and on all of the billboards. She said, "You meant the real Terry McMillan?" I said, "What do you think, I got somebody in drag to come?" That was one response we got a lot: "Is it real?"
This older guy came to an open mike and said "I don't know whether to say a poem or sing the blues." He proceeded to sit down at the piano, throw it open, pull the microphone to him and start banging out this old blues tune. It was amazing. Where did this guy come from?
At any event, maybe 25% of the audience has walked from around the corner. That's not bad. It's such a delicate balance. We really want to have a mixed audience from around the region; mixed class, mixed race and all of that. The community senses that something is happening. It's growing, they're getting used to it, to believe it, and to trust it.
4npo: How do you plan to measure success from here on out?
Lorene: We will measure success in several ways. One is simply the number of people in the audience and the diversity of the audience.
We have started a salon series, which is a way to keep from doing the kind of big events that require us to heat that 6 story high mausoleum. We want to do the salon series in January and February because there are a lot of events that will be really worthwhile but will probably pull in smaller audiences. We can cut down our expenses by holding it in the parish house, which is already heated. We won't need any amplification, so we won't need a mike or a stage crew. That cuts costs right there. If you have 20 or 30 people it's a small and intimate setting and it's fine. You don't need more than that to have a really successful, fabulous poetry reading. Now, you can get 300 or 400 people in to see Nikki Giovanni but there are really great poets that will not draw that kind of crowd. We don't want to say to ourselves, "The only way we can measure success is with large crowds." So, we look at audience numbers and diversity but we've also tried to put in mechanisms for measuring the success of small events.
The nature of our educational programs is another measure of success. In that case we will count the number of students affected, and assess the quality of educational experience. The model that we used beginning this year had its roots in a course I taught at Penn, Teaching Literature in Community. I taught 7 students, four grads and 3 under grads, the works of John Edgar Wideman over a 6-week period. Then, each student went out to a site in North Philadelphia and taught his book, Brothers and Keepers, for 5 weeks. That was an extraordinary experience for everyone. The student would teach the class for 2 hours then all of us would get together for our hour of class work each week. We talked about: how the book was received by students; what else they could do; what's working; what's not working; how people who were 55 years old were reading the book differently from people who were 12 years old; and so on. They also helped raise money so that each group member could have their own book. So, they got a taste of entrepreneurial grantsmanship. Even if it's only getting 10 books from Borders, you're in a different relationship to the course and to the students once you've gone out and humped a little bit to bring home some money.
At the end of that time, they did wonderful work. Some of the students wrote blues songs or poems in response to the work. At the end, all of the students were invited to John Edgar Wideman's reading at the Sanctuary. That was what we were teaching towards, and they knew it. People could come in having read the book, having struggled with some of it, and with questions prepared. For many, it was the first time they had finished a book. And by the way many people didn't finish the book. To come in and meet the author and stand toe-to-toe and ask him questions still changed the nature of their relationship to it. Walking to the library was more than visiting a bunch of books but a chance to learn about someone like that man who came and spoke to you, another human being who has thoughts and feelings just like you.
Thus, we plan to judge our success on the quality of the events, the number of people who come, the quality of the educational enhancements, the number of events we hold each year, and "repeat business." We're also going to judge success by the diversity of disciplines we're able to bring in. We started with writers because they are easier to accommodate. It's simple; you get a mike, you rent some speakers, and bam! No drum set, tweeter, woofer, lights. Because I'm a writer, I know some of them and can arm wrestle them or beg them or something. Also, they're used to thinking of themselves as citizens and ambassadors. They know something that hip-hop artists don't, which is that not everybody is going to love your art all of the time so you need to get out there and convince people.
Another measure is the complexity of our offerings. For instance, this year we're doing a lot of dance. We're able to do that now because we're finally technically able to get a stage with the proper sprung floor. We'll either pay for it, which is expensive, or get the city rec department to put it in because we give them as much warning as they need. This enables us to have the hottest choreographer in the country come and give a lecture/demonstration. We will put him in our season and this will enable us to bring in other really fine, smashing choreographers who are les well known. We will also get them together with . We're also going to try and get some media coverage. I don't think this will happen the first year, but I hope in the next few years we will get picked up on radio and TV. This will be part of our measurement as well.
Finally, we will assess the artistic activity we hope to inspire. One thing we hope to do is start a little radio station where we teach youth in the area how to run a radio station. At this point it would only broadcast our events to a one-mile radius. This depends on us getting a frequency, of course. We already have some wonderful pledges from people in the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalism, to come in and talk to them about how to become a journalist. It may be pushing it to call this "art" but I think we will push it. And money of course, we will always balance the books.
4npo: It sounds like you're creating some great collaborations with other organizations.
Lorene: It's fabulous. We are trying to be a place with no turf. We don't have our own building; we're actually in a church building that's just being leased to us. It feels so much more than that. This is a different kind of space; it has that feeling of sanctuary. It doesn't feel like you're 'on our turf' because we don't have a turf.
The fact that it's a place that held black power conventions and that the first women in the Episcopal Church to be ordained were ordained here 25 years ago: that aura is still here. In the church, there are huge murals of black struggle. It's a French gothic cathedral, one of the best on the East Coast. You walk in and feel like your in 14th century France. And then, next to he hand carved stone, the stained glass windows, the rose windows, the flying buttresses; right there are these huge murals of black struggle done by Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds. There's one of a white head with somebody plunging a knife through the neck. I mean, this is right there in the church. It creates a sense that you really are in a place that not only understands what it takes to make art and to tolerate passion, but also makes room for it and encourages it. Here, this is part of our lives as spiritual beings.
4npo: One final question: have you thought about creating an endowment for the program?
Lorene: Sure. This fall or winter we're going to put together a development committee. We've got about 5 solid people who said that they will help us. We have a board. The last component of our funding is corporate; we didn't even go for that until we had our board together with everything up and running. Our board has helped us a lot. We have a small grant from the First Union Foundation. We've gotten a grant from Fannie May, and CitiGroup has just visited us from New York. All three corporate grants have come directly from board contacts. Board members understood that fundraising was part of the job and that corporate support was important. However, the development committee will be a separate group of a few people who are friends, individual donors and supporters. We've told them we want to start an endowment and hope to put together a development committee to develop a strategy for that. I think we'll probably begin work on that this winter.
4npo: This is really the last question. Who made it clear to the board that part of its job would be to raise money?
Lorene: I did. I said to them that our hope was that each board member could bring between $3,000 and $10,000 to the table each year. Of course $10,000 was not a limit! We have a couple of members of modest means who said, "I'll make my quota with house parties. I'll bring in enough people." So, if you bring in 20 members at $150 each you've made your quota. We have some people who are doing it by writing their friends and getting them to become members at between $100 and $1,000 each. Another did it by getting her corporation's foundation to look at us and came through with a grant for $7,500. So we made our fundraising expectations clear, but we also made room for different approaches. I don't think you should be afraid to ask. It's crazy to be afraid of money.