MISSING THE BALL: Now is the Time for REAL Equity in the Cultural Economy

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If NOTCF is going to make a difference for the culture bearers at the heart of the city’s $10 billion a year tourism industry, it cannot continue the same old practices under a new name.

We were there when the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund announced it’s grant program for culture bearers. We were actually excited about the announcement. It is a long overdue idea.

Ensuring that Black business owners and purveyors of the city’s authentic culture benefit from the tourism dollars that pour into the city matters to us for several reasons. We were there more than 30 years ago when the late Clarence Barney  pushed for the creation of the Black Tourism Network, an organization that advocated for the inclusion of Black New Orleans in the industry and one that we believed lost purpose and power when its name was changed to the  Multicultural Tourism Network. As publishers of The New Orleans Tribune, a newsmagazine that speaks to, for and about Black people and the issues that impact them, we have long chronicled the history and role of Black culture in making New Orleans the city it is today. Now that the holdings of our publishers include The McKenna Museums, we intimately understand how small Black-led cultural institutions are relegated to the margins of a cultural economy that would not be what it is without the influence of African traditions that have been preserved and cultivated by Black New Orleanians.

And while $600,000–the initial amount of the culture bearers grant fund–is not a lot of money, it’s a start, we figured. As we said, this has been a longtime coming.

We even wrote about it in our May issue, only to learn later that before one culture bearer could be awarded a single grant, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation has been awarded $1.2 million over five years. So why has $1.2 million from a fund that is supposed to support culture bearers and cultural institutions (people and groups that are often overlooked despite their impact on the fabric of the city) been awarded to the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation?

NOTCF staff and board at press conference announcing $600,000 grant fund for culture bearers.

An “inherited obligation” . . .  is the answer. We say that’s not a good enough reason.

If NOTCF is going to make a difference for the culture bearers at the heart of the city’s $10 billion a year tourism industry, it cannot continue the same old practices under a new name.

We read with great interest The Lens article about the $1.2 million award. And we read NOTCF board members’ explanation that the new organization was essentially left with obligations of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp., the organization,  that it “replaced”.

As a part of the “Fair Share” deal Mayor LaToya Cantrell pushed to ensure that the City and it’s people received their just due relative to the tax revenue created by tourism, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation, a small publicly funded agency that focused on marketing the city as a tourism destination, was merged with the larger, privately run and publicly funded New Orleans & Company, which previously focused it’s efforts on luring large conventions and corporate travel to the city. Out of the ashes of NOTCM, the NOTCF emerged with an entirely different mission to support and sustain tourism by providing direct support to and programs for culture bearers and small cultural institutions – at least that is what we were told.

Can we appreciate that in the midst of all of the reorganization and restructuring there was still a $1.2 million obligation? Yes. But we do not agree with how it was met—not at all. In fact, in all of this restructuring, that it was NOTCF left holding the bag of a $1.2 million “obligation” to the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, is the problem. If the point of reorganizing and restructuring these tourism-related entities was to do better and create a space that focused on culture bearers, then this has been a failure so far.

New Orleans & Company received $21 million in public funding in 2019. The now defunct NOTMC’s annual budget, derived from a portion of hotel occupancy taxes, was less than $6 million. The newly created NOTCF’s 2020 budget was just a bit more than $3.6 million—with just a portion of that earmarked to support culture bearers through grant programs.

Doing better would have meant that an organization created to support culture bearers and small institutions that have not participated  in the cultural economy in a way that matches their impact would NOT have been saddled with what amounts to a $1.2 million debt, especially to an organization like the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation that boasts $50 million in public funding and $100 million in private investments.

And before anyone comes with the “but the Sports Foundation brings so much money to the city” line, our argument is a not about the worth or value of any organization. It’s about the purpose of the Cultural Fund. Does the Sports Foundation leverage its funds to bring more revenue to New Orleans through national and international sporting events? Sure. But bringing more revenue to New Orleans through international and national sporting events is not why the New Orleans Tourism and Culture Fund was created.

For those that need to be reminded, here is the mission of NOTCF: To support cultural industries and culture bearers of the City of New Orleans through partnerships, grants, and programs to advance sustainable tourism. And that’s straight from its website.

Now would be a really good time to sit down with the people we consider true culture bearers–Mardi Gras Indians, musicians, owners and operators of small cultural institutions–and ask them again how NOTCF can best help them sustain the work that they do that makes New Orleans so unique. We are going take a guess and say the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation would not make the short list…or the long one.

As far as we are concerned there is nothing that justifies using $1.2 million in NOTCF funds for an inherited obligation to the Sports Foundation. To then approve that $1.2 million before a single culture bearer received a thin dime adds so much insult to injury.

NOTMC was merged with the larger, publicly funded, but privately ran New Orleans & Company. Why wasn’t that $1.2 million obligation transferred to New Orleans & Company?

To be sure, we don’t care who paid the $1.2 million. We just know it should NOT have been the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund. And if no one else is going to say it, we will: A new organization with a new and much needed purpose should be free to do the work assigned to it. It should be free to focus all of its LIMITED resources on the real culture bearers and authentic cultural institutions. There are a lot of organizations and entities out here that are better funded and with missions more aligned to the Sports Foundation’s efforts. There is only one New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund . . . if that’s what it really is. Because, as of right now, we aren’t sure.