Just a few months ago, the news cycle was filled with stories about Silicon Valley companies pledging five- or six-figure donations to support the movement for Black lives. It’s rare to see an artist come close to matching anything that tech companies can give at a moment’s notice, but the musician Jeff Tweedy announced that he would commit five percent of his writer royalties to racial justice organizations in perpetuity. The Wilco frontman, who’s worth an estimated $9 million, encouraged other white musicians to do the same because, as he suggested in a written statement, the music industry continually profits from the appropriation and theft of Black creativity and culture. “The wealth that rightfully belonged to Black artists was stolen outright and to this day continues to grow outside their communities,” he wrote. “No one artist could come close to paying the debt we owe to the Black originators of our modern music and their children and grandchildren.”
I’d never heard of Wilco or Tweedy until his statement began circulating online, so I’m literally not a fan. What got my attention was his simultaneous call for industry-wide reparations—and that multiple white colleagues of mine understood Tweedy’s pledge to be reparations itself. This prompted a question that I’ve been posing in interviews: What’s the difference between a donation and reparations? Is there a specific dollar amount or giving strategy that makes the leap from tax-deductible gift to reparative justice?
Few people have a clear answer, except Brandi and Carlton Turner, the husband and wife co-founders of Sipp Culture, known formally as the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. “You think about breakfast. You have eggs and some bacon and some toast. The chicken made a donation, the pig made a commitment,” Carlton said with a chuckle, repeating the words of a former coworker. “There’s a sacrifice that has to happen that is related to reparations whereas a donation [implies that] ‘I can keep giving this donation because I’m not really hurting from it.’ A donation doesn’t change the power dynamics. It doesn’t equalize power. It just quells disruption is what donations do. What reparations does is it actually alters power.”
Spanning three spaces and eight generations
Established in 2017, Sipp Culture is an enterprising model of what we might call creative placekeeping in Utica, Mississippi. Their work spans three spaces all within walking distance to each other, including a 1920s-era house for an artist residency program, 17 acres of land for a demonstration garden and outdoor amphitheater, and a cultural center on Main Street that serves as a community hub. But listen to the Turners tell it and Sipp Culture is far more than a cluster of programmable spaces. It’s the coming together of Carlton’s lineage, which goes back eight generations in Utica to a plantation and the enslaved Africans who worked that land; his background as a performing artist and cultural leader (he was previously the executive director at Alternate Roots); and the manifestation of he and Brandi’s vision to share the stories of this place they call home.
Once a hub for cotton production and export, “Utica [Mississippi] was created by white people coming down from Utica, New York, and developing a kind of settler space here,” Carlton explained. “The Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Natchez people were in this area.” Sitting next to Brandi at the Sipp Culture site, he told me how, in the early 1900s, a man named William Holtzclaw, a student of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, established the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute.1See more images of the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. The school eventually became Utica College, the first and only historically black junior college in Mississippi, and also housed a high school. “They created this infrastructure to support the post-reconstruction era, to support the education of Black people, turning them into educators, business people, administrators, and agriculturalists,” he said. “You have probably three generations of people that came to that Institute and became the Black leadership in and around central Mississippi.”
In recent years, Utica has witnessed the closure of its grocery store and high school, creating deep cavities in the public infrastructure that are increasingly common in Black rural and urban areas alike. Brandi said, “When we started thinking about our work here, it was about creating a space in our community that served our community.” Sipp Culture operates at an intergenerational crossroad, looking forward to the future of Utica for its young people while looking back at the historical events that can still be felt today. For instance, the white terror that precipitated the Great Migration and affected the ability of Black families to pass land to their family members. “When you think about reparations,” Carlton added, “our work is about repairing some of that generational damage, and connecting people back to a legacy and history of agriculture, of growing and producing, but not producing for someone else, producing for the community and for collective liberation practices.” The Turners also see their relationship to reparations as “repairing ideas” about the boundaries of art and culture by honoring practices typically excluded from the narrow definitions of what art is.
Planting seeds to grow reparations strategies
Sipp Culture is one of several organizations involved with Reparations Summer, a campaign of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA). Reparations Summer promotes a “new Juneteenth tradition” of annually organizing and redirecting resources back to Black land stewards. The website states: “We demand that white people and folks with access to the accumulated and hoarded resources move money and land out of the extractive economy now so that we can plant it as seeds to grow the Reparations strategies we need to become truly whole.” Bearing images of Black farmers alongside unapologetic statements about what is owed, the Reparations Summer website is visually appealing but feels untended and untethered from the action. The campaign came to life for me after hearing directly from the Turners, who revealed multiple connections between the organizing efforts of NBJFA and the systems that fund the arts.
When I asked the Turners where reparations might begin in the arts and culture sector, Carlton gave a compelling response:
I think so much of art and culture relies on heavy investment from philanthropy and that’s a troubled relationship because most of the surplus resources that are stored in the form of endowments, and the way that philanthropy is structured, so much of that money came on the backs of enslaved people . . . These foundations were created as tax shelters and allow these wealthy institutions and trustees to still determine where those dollars go. Otherwise, those dollars would be in the public coffer and would be distributed as democracy dictates, whatever that means . . . But that’s not the case. Foundations are structured to live in perpetuity. That’s literally written into most foundation charters. So, I think reparations, for me, looks like challenging ideas about these dollars being held in perpetuity and thinking about how these philanthropies can begin to spend down and into non-existence.
This almost made sense to me. As someone who’s worked almost exclusively on the public programming side of the visual arts, having little contact with funders, my knowledge of how philanthropy actually works is minimal. So, to better understand it, I did what most learners do these days: I turned to YouTube.
Last month, Vu Lee of Nonprofit AF moderated a virtual panel discussion called “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?,” an eye-opening dialogue on how foundations hold wealth and power in society. Speaking to an audience of 1,300 live viewers, Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said, “The purpose of this conversation is to open up this invisible, mostly secret world of how high finance works.” The panelists, including Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, and Andrea Caupain, CEO of Byrd Barr Place, explained that private foundations must give out a minimum five percent of their endowment annually. “It is intended to be the floor and that has become the ceiling for most foundations,” said Villanueva. He then echoed what Carlton had begun to illuminate: “Despite our role in helping to create this bounty of wealth in this country, off the backs of our ancestors, and the current day expectations of lower-wage workers [who are] mostly people of color, we as people of color are not benefiting from our fair share of philanthropic investment.” Of the five percent minimum that Villanueva mentioned, a meager 8–8.5 percent go to communities of color, even as racial inequities in healthcare, education, and housing widen and nonprofits work to fill these gaps.2Watch the second part of this conversation on philanthropic reform, “Fixing Philanthropy for Communities,” which addresses potential solutions.
Getting beyond words to transformation
Hearing this dialogue left me with the same question for arts philanthropy that I have for the arts at large: What models get beyond all the buzzy verbiage about diversity, equity, access, and inclusion to actual transformation? Or even reparations? In speaking with DeeArah Wright for my last Ostracon piece, she held up the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia, which gives grants to individual women, trans, and gender nonconforming artists, as one model to which others might aspire. Denise Brown has been Leeway’s executive director since 2006, following a strategic shift that moved this small family foundation from a predominantly white staff to majority people of color on the staff and board of directors. Leeway Foundation worked with community advisors, which included artists, to design a new application that focused on formative personal, political, and artistic experiences as opposed to your typical signifiers of value like CVs.
In Brown’s mind, the Jeff Tweedy example speaks to the problematic relationship that the Turners alluded to: The power to determine how much money will be given and who it goes to remains with the white man who holds the wealth. “What turns it into reparations is how much agency and autonomy those people have who are supposed to benefit from his decision to give resources,” said Brown. “What is their role in defining what that looks like? That is when it starts to veer more towards reparations. Until then, it’s just a charitable impulse.”
Brandi Turner suggested to me that reparations must involve systemic change that “serves us as a whole, as humans.” However, arts funders have a tendency to shift their priorities to support trends—arts engagement in low-income neighborhoods, DEAI training in museums, or COVID relief for artists, for example. I’m not suggesting that support is not needed in these areas but there’s little indication that these philanthropic dollars dismantle systems that uphold injustice, or alter power structures, or close the racial wealth gap, or mend the decades of underfunding, disinvestment, and destruction in Black communities. A donation is, to paraphrase one of my students, akin to using a tourniquet instead of repairing the actual wound. “Most of these large philanthropies are not progressive enough to see how they could help to foster and sustain the type of change that’s needed in order to have a different type of world,” Carlton told me, “Even though a lot of them have the equity and diversity language, that only goes so far.”