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Japanese American museum, East West Players to receive part of $156-million fund

Gedde Watanabe was to star in the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical "Assassins" at East West Players.
East West Players’ production of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical “Assassins” starring Gedde Watanabe was derailed by COVID-19 closures in March.
(Steven Lam)

L.A.’s East West Players theater company and Japanese American National Museum each will receive at least $1 million as part of a $156-million initiative for arts organizations of color announced Thursday by the Ford Foundation.

The America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, funded by a network of 16 donors and foundations, will provide multiyear, operational and general support grants to Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous organizations as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the arts.

East West Players and Japanese American National Museum were the only two California organizations among the 20 grant recipients, each of which will receive between $1 million and $6 million. Others on the list included Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and Project Row Houses in Houston.

The second component of America’s Cultural Treasures provides support for regional arts organizations. Those grants will be determined by local foundations (including the Getty Foundation in L.A.) and announced in early 2021.

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Ford Foundation launched the initiative with an initial investment of $85 million for national and regional funding. Additional funders include the Alice L. Walton Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The goal is to motivate more giving from others.

In 1965, nine Asian Americans working in theater were tired of being relegated to roles like villain or cab driver and fed up with the regular indignity of white actors playing Asian roles.

For East West Players, which has premiered more than 100 plays and musicals about Asian American life, receiving the grant is a way to move beyond treading water. It “ensures support to see that we make it to the other side of this current situation,” said East West’s producing artistic director, Snehal Desai, who added that he could not yet disclose the amount of his company’s grant.

The initiative is about resiliency in the face of unprecedented adversity and addressing disparity for arts organizations led by communities of color, the Ford Foundation said on its website. The recipients “represent the cultural heritage and creativity of communities that have been historically marginalized, underfunded and underrepresented in the narrative of American culture.”

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Desai added the initiative is one form of combating systemic racism within the arts. East West Players does not have an endowment, and it has a small operating reserve, the financial cushion that many institutions rely on in difficult times. “Most culturally specific institutions don’t have those backup reserves,” he said.

The Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

With revenue from facility rentals and public programming wiped out, Japanese American National Museum President and Chief Executive Ann Burroughs called the grant a “game changer.”

“It really validates the role that JANM has played over the years, both in terms of preserving Japanese American history but also really as being part of the nation’s conscious to ensure that no other groups are similarly targeted,” she said of the museum, whose exhibits and programming called attention to, among other things, the racist treatment of immigrants and the imprisonment of U.S. citizens by their own government during World War II.

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East West Players plans to use the funding to support artists and “really lift up our stories,” Desai said. “Right now, these American stories are really important to tell at a time when there’s such heated, hateful rhetoric around COVID-19.”

The initiative is also a form of acknowledgement and validation, Burroughs said, representing “a very major shift in emphasis on how value is placed on diversity and on organizations that are committed to upholding that diversity.”

Here are the 20 national winners:

Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York
Apollo Theater, New York
Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Mich.
Ballet Hispánico, New York
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit
Dance Theater of Harlem, New York
East West Players, Los Angeles
El Museo del Barrio, New York
Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles
Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Museum of Chinese in America, New York
Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, N.M.
National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago
Penumbra Theatre, St. Paul., Minn.
Project Row Houses, Houston
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
Urban Bush Women, New York
Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle


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