Last week"s acrimonious break between the Indiana State Museum and Freetown Village, the African-American living history performance group, is the kind of stuff public relations nightmares are made of. In just its second week since opening, the new ISM has found itself accused of institutional racism and, not only that, ripping off intellectual property that Freetown"s founder, Ophelia Wellington, claims is hers. The story has made the front page of The Star and the Recorder and been featured on local TV newscasts. This press has been about as sensational as cultural coverage gets in Indianapolis. It has, inevitably and irresistibly, been focused on race - and its effect has been to drag on the scab that barely covers a deep cut of resentment about how this city deals with its African-American cultural heritage.
What this coverage has missed, though, is how this story fits another, increasingly familiar, pattern. That pattern has to do with the difficult, often fractious, life cycles of small- to medium-size not-for-profit organizations.
Most organizations start with a founding vision. There"s usually one person who sees possibilities that others don"t. This individual is creative, energetic and persuasive. She rallies other people to the cause and soon there"s a public project or program. If it"s considered a success, more programs soon follow. But making things happen like this takes money. That"s why the next step often involves turning the visionary"s original idea into a not-for-profit corporation. Incorporating as a not-for-profit makes it possible for the visionary to apply for grant money from places like the Lilly Endowment and the Indianapolis Foundation. It also means creating a board of directors, whose job is to support the vision - and help to grow the organization that the vision has inspired.
This is where things can get complicated. At first, the founding visionary and the organization she has created may appear to be one and the same. But as the organization grows and new people are added to the mix, the organization"s board can be faced with a dilemma: Is the purpose of the organization to support the visionary - or the vision? This, obviously, is a painful choice. So painful, in fact, that a lot of boards choose not to make it. The result is that a lot of organizations never grow past a certain point. Their existence is determined by the strengths - and limitations - of their visionary founders.
We"ve seen this happen to varying degrees with a number of organizations around town. It"s happening now, with an extraordinarily high profile, in the controversy involving Freetown Village. Ophelia Wellington started Freetown 20 years ago as a living history project to portray the African-American experience in Indiana after the Civil War. Freetown has performed in a variety of venues around the state, most notably at the old State Museum, where it held a privileged spot for 18 years. It has been a groundbreaking enterprise. But it has also had problems.
For years, Freetown has wanted to grow into a full-scale village, similar in concept to Conner Prairie. Wellington imagined building her version of Freetown in White River Park, where the NCAA headquarters now stand. This hasn"t happened, in part because Freetown never succeeded in building the organizational capacity necessary to raise and administer the kind of money such a project would require. Several fund-raisers and development officers have been brought on board over the past few years to deal with this situation; none has succeeded. Haphazard financial record keeping has reportedly played a significant part in this. It"s hard to get people to give you money when you can"t account for what you"ve already received.
So, two years ago, when the ISM required Freetown to raise at least $300,000 in order to take charge of its planned African-American living history exhibit space, the stage was probably being set for what"s happening now. While the ISM had, with the help of a $2.5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, provided space for an African-American living history exhibit, there was never a guarantee this space would belong to Freetown Village. Instead, the museum gave Freetown two years to raise money in order to pay for scripts, costumes, props and other operational costs. If Freetown could meet this challenge, it would also demonstrate its ability to mesh effectively with what was now a $100 million facility. Unfortunately, Freetown could not raise the $300,000.
Freetown"s work has always had a kind of homemade quality. While this sufficed in the context of the old museum, one has to wonder if new museum planners had doubts about how it would fit in the new, admission-charging building. One also has to question why, given Freetown"s organizational limitations, museum officials even encouraged them down this path in the first place.
But the questions don"t stop there. Because of the break with Freetown Village, the ISM is now being scrutinized on a number of fronts, including its curatorial policies, hiring practices and exhibit content. On the other hand, it"s also worth asking why the financial leaders in the African-American community didn"t step up to the plate to assist Freetown in its hour of need. Finally, where are Freetown"s other board members? Wellington has been the only voice speaking publicly on her group"s behalf. This is not a sign of organizational strength.
Perhaps the biggest question of all applies to how this city shepherds its small- and medium-size not-for-profit organizations. Under-funded and under-staffed, these groups contribute immeasurably to the quality of life in Indianapolis. If this city is going to become a cultural destination, we have to ask ourselves how we can build a financial infrastructure capable of sustaining these groups so, when faced with the kind of opportunity the ISM represented for Freetown Village, they can rise to the occasion - rather than to a confrontation.