Along with pursuing a freelance career as a dramaturg and writer, I spent the first year of the pandemic as a fundraiser for a midsize theatre company. Specifically, I was the grant writer, responsible for providing roughly a third of the organization’s revenue. It was about as much fun as you imagine.
When the pandemic began, there was a mad dash to triage. Applications to new COVID-relief grants sprang up, doubling and tripling the workload in the development department as we did our part to keep the theatre afloat. But as our company figured out next steps and we sent out a flurry of applications, other foundations determined that now was not the time to open their coffers wider. For every foundation that released more money in response to the increased need, there was another that pretended it was still business as usual. I couldn’t decide which made me angrier: the foundations that stuck to their scant 5 percent release of their investments (the bare minimum mandated by law) or the ones that gave more money than usual—signaling that they could have done this long before now. Meanwhile, the government’s first-come-first-served approach to funding (and its relatively meager pool of money to disburse) left many nonprofits to fend for themselves.
There is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to fundraising, but this year exacerbated an already tenuous enterprise. And though I’ve seen genuine shows of generosity and camaraderie in our field in the face of this increased struggle, I’ve also seen with nauseating clarity how the nonprofit system continues to fail the arts and cause inequities among us.
COVID-19 may be (hopefully) on its way out, but there’s been a figurative disease that has been ravaging us much longer: the scarcity mindset. Competition is an intrinsic part of the design of nonprofit theatre. Kill or be killed, produce or perish. Rarely feast, often famine, so get resources and hold onto them tightly, because you never know when it could all be taken away from you. These hellish mantras have become even more entrenched during the pandemic, when a $10,000 relief grant might be the only thing saving a managing director from having to furlough yet another employee.
This situation wasn’t created by the arts field, but I wonder to what degree we’ve simply resigned ourselves to a system that serves few at the expense of many. The not-so-well-kept secret is that the nonprofit industrial complex protects and serves white-led institutions, leaving organizations helmed by global majority folx with the scraps of the scraps. This cannot be acceptable to any artist, arts worker, or leader at an arts nonprofit that is seeking to create practices framed with an anti-racist lens and embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion.
We’ve all been saying that there is no going back to normal once we’re all able to be back in the room together again, but what does that mean when it comes to the resources that we have? If the nonprofit system isn’t going to be reliable, can we become more self-reliant by eschewing individualism in favor of collective organizing and resource sharing?
COVID-19 may be (hopefully) on its way out, but there’s been a figurative disease that has been ravaging us much longer: the scarcity mindset.
The good news is there’s plenty of evidence from this past year to suggest that we can be creative with what we’ve got and generous and ethical in our practices moving forward. Theatres have converted their costume shops to make crucial PPE for healthcare workers and the general public. Last summer, companies across the country with their own buildings opened their doors to provide a haven for protesters and gave them free food from their concession stocks. Archived productions were streamed to the public with proceeds split between the producing company and other local nonprofits and mission-driven initiatives.
We can even carry over lessons from this season when considering budgets for future productions and artistic programming. Plenty of companies created dynamic Zoom productions of plays that they originally planned to stage in-person, and they did it at a fraction of the original budget. For instance, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s digital production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves clocked in at $55,000 instead of the $350,000 planned for the in-person version. We can make thrilling pieces of art without shelling out millions. It is possible. Intense creativity can come from limitations.