Penumbra Theatre, which recently announced that it is evolving into a center for racial equity and healing, has been declared an “American cultural treasure” by New York’s Ford Foundation, which is backing up its pronouncement with cash.

Ford is giving Penumbra $2.5 million in unrestricted operating support over the next four years. The unsolicited grant is the largest in Penumbra’s history and outstrips its annual $2.4 million pre-pandemic budget.

Founded in 1976 by theater director Lou Bellamy, Penumbra has been at the door of death several times even as it has nurtured top talents such as Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson and actors Crystal Fox, James T. Alfred and Lester Purry.

“I’m thrilled that [President] Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation had the courage to look at the data and not just lament our precarious condition but act,” said Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy. “We’ve been advocating for a long time for investment in Black institutions, which have done incredible work with relatively little support.”

Penumbra is one of 20 Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian American cultural organizations nationally getting support from Ford’s two-pronged, $160 million national program.

The first leg funds cultural treasures, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Apollo Theater in New York, the the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, the Arab American and Charles H. Wright museums in Michigan and the East West Players in Los Angeles.

But Ford also has teamed with funders in seven regions across the country to create matching grants for continuing support. In Minneapolis, Ford put up $5 million to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) organizations, a figure that’s being matched by the McKnight Foundation over the next five to six years.

“Many of these treasures have been holding on by their fingernails for decades, so this is about shoring up institutions that have contributed generously to the fiber and richness of this culture,” said DeAnna Cummings, McKnight’s program director for the arts. “This feels like a blessing that’s presented itself, and we feel lucky to have an opportunity to magnify it.”

The news comes at a critical time not just for Penumbra, but for many cultural institutions.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the nation’s artists, who have been without work for six months, and arts institutions, some of which are likely to fold. But the pain has been most deeply felt among people of color, who suffer disproportionate health and economic impacts.

Penumbra recently announced that it is becoming a center for healing precisely to address longstanding gaps.

“People have long appreciated Black arts and culture, but now we need to ensure that the people making that art are safe and well,” Bellamy said.

Even as it has been blessed, Penumbra is passing gifts on to others. Seven years ago the theater joined Theater Mu, New Native Theatre, Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo in forming the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition, a mutual support group.

Now Penumbra is donating $200,000 to its coalition partners, to be split equally among the four.

“Who has ever heard of an arts organization sharing their good fortune by actually giving a portion of that to other arts organizations,” said Rhiana Yazzie, founder and artistic director of New Native Theatre. “I think Penumbra is embodying the values we’ve grown together over six years in the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition.”

For founder Lou Bellamy, the grant and designation validate a life’s work.

“After 44 years, it is profoundly moving to see Penumbra recognized in this way,” he said. “I can’t help but reflect on how much this would mean to many who didn’t live to see it.”

 

@rohanpreston