‘Like winning the lottery.’ These BIPOC arts groups in Miami got a much needed windfall

Mario Ernesto Sánchez knows not to get too disappointed when he hears “no.” As the founder and director of Teatro Avante, a Miami-based Hispanic theater company, he’s familiar with the process of applying for grant funding, getting rejected and trying again.

This year, Sánchez’s theater group didn’t just get funding. It got recognized as a “Southern cultural treasure.”

Teatro Avante and the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI,) two Miami-based organizations that uplift artists of color and immigrant artists, were announced as recipients of Southern Cultural Treasures, a $6 million, multi-year initiative that provides funding and consulting support to BIPOC arts nonprofits in the South. The program is run by South Arts, a regional arts nonprofit that supports Southern arts groups.

The two Miami groups are part of a cohort of 17 BIPOC arts organizations based in nine Southern states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Southern Cultural Treasures is funded by the Ford Foundation and the Alice L. Walton Foundation, which announced a $1.175 million challenge grant for the program on Tuesday.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” Sánchez said.

Director of Teatro Avante, Mario Ernesto Sánchez.
Director of Teatro Avante, Mario Ernesto Sánchez.

Joy Young, the South Arts vice president of programming, said the 17 groups were chosen from a list of 240 organizations that applied for the grant. Along with consulting, each organization in the cohort receives up to $300,000.

Young stressed the importance of funding and uplifting BIPOC arts nonprofits like Teatro Avante and DVCAI that positively impact their communities. She praised Sánchez and Rosie Gordon-Wallace, the DVCAI founder, for the decades’ worth of hard work and success they have achieved on tight budgets.

“These are organizations whose work is rooted in communities of color, but they receive far less support, acknowledgment and attention from funders,” Young said.

Sánchez and Gordon-Wallace agreed that applying for the program was a competitive and tedious process, but it was well worth it in the end. Both said they feel validated and humbled.

Founded in 1979, Teatro Avante is a nonprofit that focuses on preserving Hispanic culture through theater. The 43-year-old company also runs the annual International Hispanic Theatre Festival of Miami.

Sánchez said the funding from the program will go toward finally hiring a development director who will focus on fundraising.

“We didn’t want fish, we wanted to learn how to fish,” Sánchez said. “I didn’t want money that would disappear in a year. We wanted funds that would help us get more funding.”

Rosie Gordon-Wallace, the founder of the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.
Rosie Gordon-Wallace, the founder of the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.

Gordon-Wallace founded DVCAI 26 years ago to support and promote emerging Caribbean artists and curate their work around the world. This arts season, she is looking forward to helping artists make connections at Art Basel and participating in an intensive program for Black curators.

She said the grant funding is an honor and a relief.

“Just to be real, when you get a grant like this, it allows you breathing space,” Gordon-Wallace said. “It allows us to implement the dreams of things that we have in place, to continue to do them and to make them better.”

She added that she is especially grateful to receive the recognition along with her friend Sánchez at Teatro Avante.

“We have been in the trenches together for a long, long, long time,” she said laughing. “For both of us to be awarded this really prestigious award is a feather in Miami’s cap.”

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.