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What History Can Teach Us About Arts Philanthropy in the Age of Obama

We don’t look back in order to go back, but rather to better choose what going forward looks like…In this post-election bliss for many of us, it makes sense for us to consider why we value public service, and why we’ve chosen a life in the nonprofit theatre. Have we done it to succeed on personal terms or do we make art to make the world better?
—P. Carl, “The Lessons of History: Some Post-Election Thoughts,” HowlRound

In Europe and Japan they’re spending between 1.5 and 3 billion on the arts. Congress thinks 105 million is indulgent? There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare. —Toby Zeigler on the NEA, “Gone Quiet” from the television show The West Wing

As the post-inauguration buzz dies down and Obama begins his second term, it’s easy for those of us who follow American politics from an artistic standpoint to breathe a sigh of relief. Like so many other GOP candidates before him, Romney used the National Endowment for the Arts as his perennial whipping boy, and frequently cited cutting NEA and NEH funding as a way to lower the national debt. Starting in the primaries and continuing all the way to November, Romney made it clear that he felt the performing arts were an expendable luxury and unworthy of government support.

On this relative scale, Obama came off scot-free. When the bipartisan advocacy group Americans for the Arts Action Fund compared the 2012 candidates on seven arts-related criteria, Obama bested Romney in every category. He took his wife, Michelle, to the Art Institute of Chicago on their first date; has filled the White House with the artwork of Alma Thomas, Richard Diebenkorn, and Robert Rauschenberg; and hosted a White House viewing of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln for Spielberg, screenwriter/playwright Tony Kushner, and many of the film’s actors, after which he showed Daniel Day-Lewis (who plays Lincoln) an original copy of the Gettysburg Address in the private residence.

For theatremakers eager to keep their arts institutions from disappearing, who could be a better presidential advocate? “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay…we must act,” said Obama in his inaugural address, in which he asserted liberal priorities ranging from climate change legislation to same-sex marriage. But what about finally enacting strong government support for the arts?

America still lags far behind Europe and Asia in nurturing artists as valued national resources. Among the G8, which includes the governments of eight of the world’s largest economies, the United States is the only country without a Ministry of Culture. We’re also bested by China and Brazil, who rank second and seventh in the world’s largest economies based on nominal GDP. Yes, Obama’s 2013 budget included an admirable 5 percent funding increase for arts organizations like the NEA, NEH, Smithsonian, National Gallery of Art, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services—a strong symbolic move, but one that barely scratches the surface of what American arts organizations need to survive.

Theatre artists have the power to start national conversations, provide employment, support their local economies, and contribute valuable nuances to our society’s historical record. It’s high time the government acknowledged this fact by offering proper support.

So many arts groups seek a piece of the NEA’s tiny annual budget of $146 million (for FY2012) that its effectiveness is embarrassingly diluted. And while the NEA primarily offers “seed-based” aid to upstart arts organizations, rather than supporting preexisting groups, it’s being outdone on that front, too. In 2012, Kickstarter, the grassroots online platform where artists raise money for new projects, surpassed the NEA’s support by distributing over $150 million to its users.

2013 also marks a turning point for the NEA’s leadership. Rocco Landesman, who joined the NEA as its chairman in 2009, stepped down effective January 1, and Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa is acting as interim chairman until a permanent replacement is chosen. Landesman, a former head of Jujamcyn Theaters, controversially approached nonprofit theatre from a commercial angle as NEA chairman, and has been an outspoken critic of supporting new theatres when arts administrators can’t fill the seats of existing ones. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he told artists at a new play development conference at Arena Stage last February. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” While he gets points for having the guts to stir the pot—and Landesman’s comments have certainly made headlines—he hasn’t suggested solutions to the problems he decries, effectively making him little more than a pessimistic spokesman.

With the NEA’s leadership in flux, and Obama no longer running for reelection, it’s a prime moment for the government to make dramatic changes in how they support American artists. For Obama to leave the American arts community better than he found it when he leaves office in 2017, his presidential team doesn’t just need to reinvent how federal arts funding is distributed. They need to create a full-fledged United States Ministry of Culture, as music producer, performer, and composer Quincy Jones implored Obama to do before the 2009 inauguration. And they need to use this new ministry’s funding, and its public prominence, to encourage arts groups nationwide to break the mold of how they raise money and collaborate with their communities.

This Ministry of Culture could start their work by funding a thorough, process-based assessment of the current state of American arts organizations. By reappropriating techniques from Roosevelt’s WPA Federal Writers’ Project—which collected oral histories from former slaves during the Great Depression—and W. McNeil Lowry’s field interviews project with the Ford Foundation—in which he and a deputy spoke with over 150 arts administrators about their processes in 1957—the Ministry of Culture could begin its legacy by compiling an invaluable resource for theatres, foundations, and the NEA alike. Only after we candidly examine trends in business practices and processes can we start theorizing how best to support arts organizations financially and sustainably.


Portrait of Jane Chu smiling.
Jane Chu, the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts who was appointed to the postion by President Obama. Photo by Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.


Many of the most prominent arts organizations nationwide, particularly resident professional theatres, were founded during the 1960s–1970s in the heyday of arts philanthropy, when strong backing from foundations and the government was a given. The government needs to help these theatres supplement their archaic business models with innovative, sustainable new techniques. To achieve this, they need to foster a national spirit of philanthropy that can help get private arts funding back on track, starting with strong tax incentives for charitable giving specifically to 501(c)(3) arts nonprofits. And they need to emphasize that plays, pieces of music, and artwork are important social resources. Theatre artists have the power to start national conversations, provide employment, support their local economies, and contribute valuable nuances to our society’s historical record. It’s high time the government acknowledged this fact by offering proper support.

The government and foundations should—and must—continue supporting arts organizations and should strategically evaluate how do so in ways that help theatres attain long-term stability. But the rest of us—the theatremakers, the artists, the musicians, the arts enthusiasts and advocates—must hold up our end of the bargain. To enact change that will bring newer, younger audiences into the seats, we need to start altering how we find the money to put them there. That means critically examining the institutional frameworks on which American theatres were built in the 1960s, structures that have influenced nearly every theatre company that has formed since. And it means being brutally honest about adapting our financial structures to twenty-first century realities. Instead of using flash-in-the-pan quick fixes, we need to put egos aside and, when necessary, rebuild these theatres’ business plans from the ground up.

We can take inspiration from the founding missions of theatre companies that emerged during the boom of arts philanthropy in the 1960s. These groups thrived because they offered their communities an artistic outlet, rather than recreating Broadway on the regional stage. Led by visionaries like Zelda Fichandler and Nina Vince, women who fearlessly broke the mold of how theatres outside of New York had been structured, these regional theatres wanted to create art that asked difficult, open-ended questions about society. “We select our plays with a view to the insights they provide into contemporary questions,” Fichandler explained in 1977 about Arena Stage, her theatre in Washington, DC “We are a theatre of themes, with an emphasis on the variety of the statements, both as to content and to style.”

This groundbreaking approach to theatre also meant taking clear financial risks, and resident professional theatres thrived with the backing of groups like the Ford Foundation. Ford spent $19.5 million on fostering seventeen resident professional theatres between 1962 and 1976. They supported these organizations on the condition that they would not grow overdependent on foundation funding: the aim was to gradually wean these theatres from Ford’s support, creating self-sufficient entities with strong infrastructures that would allow them to continue in perpetuity. But when the National Endowment for the Arts was founded in 1965, giants like the Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations took this federal support as an excuse to decrease their own arts philanthropy.

But the NEA was never supposed to solve all arts-related monetary problems: it was founded to supplement private arts giving, along with civic support at the local and state levels. Yet its presence allowed these large family foundations to feel that their work in theatre was done. They refocused their spending on human rights issues and the theatres they had fostered were left to see if their “sustainable” models could hold up. What this first generation of foundation donors didn’t realize was that these theatres—which wanted to present diverse seasons that paired new works with classic dramas—were inherently built on a nonprofit model, and were unsustainable from box office returns alone. Their overhead costs for full-time staffs and building maintenance were inevitably high, and limited engagements of several weeks meant that plays rarely earned back their production costs. The necessity of paying preproduction and promotional costs every season before knowing how much each play could earn made producing nonprofit theatre a constant gamble—and continues to make it risky today.

While new arts-focused foundations have helped pick up the slack, most notably the Doris Duke Foundation, many theatres have clung to their original institutional fundraising structures, which were formed with generous foundation support assumed. Even widely-used audience development techniques like direct mail advertising, block sales to businesses, and telephone campaigns were first introduced by Danny Newman, whose groundbreaking analyses of subscription methods were supported by a Ford Foundation grant. As any nonprofit grant writer or major gifts officer can tell you—and this harks to a much larger issue concerning the pros and cons of nonprofit status, which is too meaty to address here—we’ve created an institutional structure for arts groups that relies, often perilously, on an endless hunt for money.

Such a structure requires theatres to house full-time development teams, who need a shrewd sense of the best local foundations and major gifts donors to tap for money. It’s a daunting task for small theatres with limited resources, especially those that take risks with what they produce, and thus have a slimmer chance of making ends meet through box office returns. Funding also often takes on a snowball effect—foundations are more likely to fund a theatre when they see it doing well financially, and when they can tell that the theatre will not become overly reliant on their support—which means that theatres who don’t get their foot in the door are inevitably shut out.

What can Obama and the National Endowment for the Arts do to help shift these trends? They can take a leaf out of W. McNeil Lowry’s book by setting up a field program that closely examines how theatres are financially structured nationwide, with an eye toward remedying unsustainable trends. When Lowry started his Division for Humanities and the Arts at the Ford Foundation in 1957, he and Edward F. D’Arms conducted interviews with actors, administrators, and patrons at 175 arts companies nationwide to spot pervading trends. “You’re not doing anything but raising questions, you’re listening,” he explained. “In some fields I was already better able, as an interpreter-layman, to understand the comparisons and differences among these [organizations] than were the person themselves. Why? Because they’d never had the opportunity I had.” These trips gave Lowry unique insight into how American arts organizations were operating, and also helped him to determine where the foundation’s money would be best applied. Lowry’s technique helped him pioneer drastic changes in the fields of arts philanthropy and arts institutional management, and, in the fifty-six years since his project, no one else has come close to examining the state of American arts with Lowry’s level of thoroughness.

In that time, the internet has transformed the way theatres run and communicate with one another—a feat that Lowry couldn’t have fathomed when he helped found Theatre Communications Group (TCG) in 1961—though technology has also made audiences more elusive than ever. While TCG conducts an annual financial report about all organizations in the League of Resident Theaters (LORT), it looks at the numbers instead of considering the methods used by theatre leaders to create and execute their budgets. Nor does it examine how the NEA and family foundations review grants and decide funding.

Garnering a better understanding of these processes is essential to getting at the heart of this problem: we need to see what types of grants could create the most sustainable business practices and where theatres need funding to enact drastic changes in their organizational structures. If theatre companies can be funded with emphases on both longevity and adaptability—and if we, as theatremakers, are willing to make changes that apply our organizations’ founding missions to today’s financial realities—the years ahead could bring major advances in American theatrical expression. And if the government collaborates with theatremakers to tackle these issues, such teamwork could foster the theatrical creativity and risk taking that led innovators like Fichandler and Vance to found their nonprofit professional theatres in the first place.

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Hi, Diane,

Thanks so much for your comments. You're right: out of these three family foundations, Mellon has given the most to arts organizations since the founding of the NEA in 1965, and they (along with the Doris Duke Foundation) continue to have an admirable focus on arts funding. I don't know as much about their pre-1965 involvement--I know that Ford led the way during that period, with Rockefeller close behind--but I'll definitely look into it. The quotations and references above refer primarily to W.McNeil Lowry's personal papers from the Ford Foundation, including funding reports, speeches, memos, and grants, which can be found at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Dear Julia,

thanks for your impassioned plea for cultural policy in the US, for reminding us of some key moments in American theater history, and for your suggestions on how to move forward. I have one modest correction to your story, and a request:

(1) You suggest that Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon all walked away once the NEA started funding the arts and shifted their focus to human rights. My understanding (from having worked there and also what I've read) is that Mellon has been one of the steadier supporters of the arts generally, including theater, over the past three decades plus and has increased its support for the arts in recent years.

(2) I wonder if you would be so kind as to add a comment (or modify the original post) to include the names of the publications you are quoting/referencing above?

Thanks, again. Diane

I think you are presenting some very interesting, if not very achievable scenarios in the current climate. As a development person, here are my thoughts.

1) I don't foresee a way to build a Ministry (Department?) of Culture in our current environment. This is not to say that it would not be fiscally or logistically impossible, but I don't see any political backing for such a maneuver That being said, if such a ministry or department could somehow absorb the NEA, that would be very interesting to me.

2) I would like to know more about your desire for a different kind of research in regards to foundations and their giving processes, TCG's Fiscal Survey, and the organizations business practices. This is a huge subject and conversation that you very quickly gloss over. Like you (I assume) I have never seen that kind of reporting. My inclination is that it is largely due to the fact that that evidence will be anecdotal at best, and therefore more than difficult, if not inappropriate, to include into something that is utilizing quantifiable data such as financial information.

3) All this being said the answer is quite simple for me. While there has been no real study done to this date (cough, cough..any takers?!) anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that most theaters and arts organizations are seeing a substantial decrease in the number and amount to general operating support grants (GOS) the recieve. GOS grants are vital to organizations and we need evidence whether or not funders are making less of these funds available by choosing to have seeming more influence by funneling resources through project specific opportunities. If this is the case, then, next to the crippling student debt of emerging theatre artists, this will be the major issue that the American theatre will have to address during this decade.

I'm sorry to quibble with an otherwise excellent overview, but you write "And while the NEA primarily offers “seed-based” aid to upstart arts organizations, rather than supporting preexisting groups..." -- this is not the case. The NEA will not consider a grant application from an organization that is less than three years old and will not support work that is not under the umbrella of a 501c3 corporation. *This* is the seed-funding gap that kickstarter has filled over the last several years.