Philanthropies, Foundations, and Boards (Oh, Wow)
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Dear artists, this episode feels very much like a private consultation at times. Today, we’re talking with Ben Cameron, who at the time of this recording is still president of the Jerome Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota. He announced his retirement days after I asked him to join us, and we believe that early 2023 they will be selecting his replacement. This conversation leapfrogs through Ben’s career at Theatre Communications Group, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Target Corporation. And, as of the time of this recording, president of the Jerome Foundation, a philanthropic foundation supporting artists in Minnesota and New York City.
It made me think most presently about the conversation I had with Miranda Wright, in episode four, who talks about the obligation of funders to a particular city or state. I wanted to talk to Ben for just that reason among many, many more. Ben mentions the Cultural Data Project, which is now known as DataArts. I’ll leave a link to it on the show page, but it’s a really interesting area to check out if you’re into arts data spending and the like. Just like Miranda Wright from episode four with her data tracking and the connection she made to the Arts Vibrancy Index. I hope you all have a field day rolling around in numbers. I know I did.
In addition to giving some vital insights into the process of how the Jerome Foundation conducts its philanthropic process, Ben provides some really big and great overarching ideas, including the purpose of core values to an organization. To me, this feels really valuable as we return from the “great pause” and realize that the world has shifted. I’ll quote him early here in saying, “If it’s a value that’s good for the staff and not for the board, it’s not a core value.” Look forward to that one. In the later part of this interview, we will go hard into board makeup and the purpose of a board at each stage of a nonprofit’s career. You’re going to get a lot of broad ideas from this throughout a deep dive. The building of boards, the roles of officers and leadership in some of the established organizations, et cetera.
Ben brings us a real thirty-thousand-foot view of the field, and I believe he’s sincerely trying to generate and create structures for success that are thoughtful. A philanthropy or grant-maker that only does lip service to spread their name isn’t really interested in the success of the program. They’re interested in being seen and successful by any means. Some real info in here about why you might even want to incorporate as a nonprofit. A few things you’re going to hear us mention include the National Theatre’s Generate Program, which we have a guest coming up from the National Theatre of London concluding this season, and you’ll hear me mention Michael J. Bobbitt’s article about how boards are broken. I’ll be sure to put a link in the show notes for you all.
Finally, you’ll hear Ben allude to Zelda, who is Zelda Fichandler, who is one of the women responsible for the regional theatre movement. Also, Ben refers to Mac Lowry, who was someone who did the research leading to the regional theatre movement. I’ll also leave a link for him. A warning that early in the call you’ll hear an office phone ring, which we end up working around. Okay, here we go with this convo with Ben Cameron, Zooming in from the land of eleven tribes, including the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, now known as Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our conversation took place on October 5, 2022.
When I see [organizations] in disarray, it’s because there’s absolute clarity on mission, but nobody understands what the core values are, and there’s rampant disagreement.
Jeffrey: Let me start by saying congrats on near retirement.
Ben Cameron: Thank you.
Jeffrey: How far away is that finish line?
Ben: We’ve been discussing the— Well, we’ve predicated this on the hope that I will step down in January. That’s what I’ve asked the board as— That’s what I’ve identified as the best timing for me, but I’ve also indicated that if they find somebody quicker, they can certainly kick me to the curb before then. If they also find— have difficulty finding my successor, or if they find somebody they’re super excited about who said, “Oh, I’m already mired in an organization and I need a little bit of time to just pull out and to take a breath, and I can’t be there until February or maybe early March,” I’m not going anywhere other than to the porch and the rocking chair and the stack of books, so I could certainly stay. So it’s first quarter of calendar 2023, is when I think it will happen, but we’ll see.
Jeffrey: Fantastic. Well, it’s coming. It’s coming.
Jeffrey: I want to know a little bit more about what got you to the Jerome Foundation. I know your sort of storied history and how you’ve gotten to where you are, but I wonder if you’d remind our listeners: How did you find your way to becoming president of the Jerome Foundation?
Ben: How far back do you want to go? This is like a long and tortured and odd story. After a stint teaching high school English, I went back to graduate school in theatre because I lost a bet, which is a complicated story in itself. Following the theatre grad school, I directed for a little bit. I was a dramaturg for a little bit, but I ultimately—and I taught at the university level—but I ultimately thought at the age of being in my mid-thirties I wasn’t ready to settle into a tenure track, mostly because I think I had encountered professors who had been tenured at a young enough age that wasn’t good for them and wasn’t good for the field, frankly, and wasn’t good for their students. I vowed, I always thought, I love teaching, I’d love to come back to it, but this is too soon to lock this in to be the only thing.
I was fortunate enough that in the latter days of my teaching, I had actually been engaged by the NEA to do a project for them, the National Endowment for the Arts, to do a project for them, and it led me to pursue as an initial step post teaching an administrative fellowship, which was a program they had that was a three-month fellowship that brought you into the agency to learn more about philanthropy. I arrived at the agency and the agency was embroiled within two months of my arrival in the first of a sequence of controversies. This first one actually not involving the theatre program, but later one is involving the theatre program, and there just became a lot of staff turnover, and I’ve often said— Suddenly, the agency started hemorrhaging staff and suddenly, it was like the fifth act of King Lear when the stage was strewn with bodies and the fool was on the throne because suddenly I was the head of the theatre program.
That opened doors for me for opportunities that led me first to the Dayton Hudson Foundation, where I did corporate philanthropy for about six years, but I had always been trained to believe that nobody should be a grant-maker for more than a decade because the longer you are a grant person, the less you know what’s real, the less you know what’s true, and I took that mandate very seriously and in my four years at the NEA and my six years at Dayton Hudson, which is now Target stores, pushed that tenure envelope. Serendipitously at the same time, TCG was looking for a new executive director. I had the opportunity to assume that role, and so I went to TCG to be the executive director/CEO in 1998 and stayed there for a good period of time.
I realized... I mean, it’s going to sound like serendipity, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. I realized my work at TCG had certain rhythms and arcs, and around the seventh year we had done a couple big lifts and I sort of looked on the horizon and I thought the next chapter is going to be about four or five years, and I think we’ve gotten the organization to a really great place, kind of the same thing. I’m not sure, one of their early executive directors that I really admire had been there for twenty years, and I thought, I’m not sure that that tenure is good for me. It’s certainly not going to be good for TCG. So around my seventh year, I started to say to the board, “I think we need to be thinking about a transition or I’m certainly open to other chapters,” and serendipitously the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation was looking for somebody to be the head of their arts division, and that came my way.
And so I left TCG in 2006 to run the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Arts Program, which I did for a decade basically, and the same kind of thing, ten years of Doris Duke, and I’m up against that ten-year limit about not what’s real and you’re not in it the same way, and I started to look around. The Jerome thing came my way and I thought, this is different because Jerome— The job as a CEO of a foundation is not the same as being the program officer. This program officer is in daily contact with the artists. You’re in daily contact with the field. You’re having different conversations. You’re devising strategies. A lot of my job is around watching investments. It’s around board cultivation. It’s around staff hire. It’s just a different purview.
Whereas a lot of my job is to set a strategic framework in which the foundation can operate, the liability of being the front person on the line for more than a decade felt to me different. So I felt comfortable. Frankly, I was also at that point in time already in my early sixties, and I thought, If I’m ever going to be a foundation CEO, this is the one. I will finally say that the Dayton Hudson chapter had been in Minnesota, in Minneapolis. I always loved the Twin Cities. I always said I’d love to come back to it. That made Jerome very appealing. I’m not confident that people whose only career path has been the arts are necessarily competitive in non-arts foundation grant-making.
It’s hard for me to think of many examples where that is the case, other than a few notable exceptions, but this was one where I thought, Okay, it’s a good fit. It allows me to do the arts, and so here I am. The one thing I would say though, that’s a throughline for me, is it sounds like my career has been a series of yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and what you don’t hear in that story are the times I said no, and the times where opportunities came my way and I thought, Boy, I’m not the right fit or, This doesn’t really engage me, or I don’t think this makes best use of what I might be able to offer or, frankly, The values of this organization and my own personal values don’t align very deeply. So there have been times where I have declined to make changes, but that high-eye path you heard is the story of the times I said yes. Yeah.
Jeffrey: You mentioned someone shouldn’t be a grant-maker for more than ten years. Why do you think that is? Is that because things might get routine?
Ben: Two things. One is, I think true candor across the funding table is extremely hard because I think really what you’re asking people is there is every disincentive to be candid with a grant-maker because admitting that you are doing something not well, admitting that you have problems, admitting that you have concerns can become an excuse for an organization not funding it. So the natural impulse is to say, “Let me put my best foot forward on everything. Let me tell you what’s working for us. Let me tell you about our successes. Let me tell you why you should fund us, because we’re so good.” So over a period of time, what you don’t hear about deeply are, “Okay, what’s keeping people up at night? What’s the hard stuff that you’re getting into? What’s the ugly stuff?” Because I think really the most— I think that success is easy to fund.
I think learning is hard to fund, and I think deeply pondered questions and support in the face of failure… I’m not interested in supporting people to fail, but I’m certainly interested in helping them learn and the inevitability of their failure along the way as they take missteps is, for me, the richness of the experience, not the liability, but that’s a hard thing to convince people you’re sincere about. The other thing, frankly, is being a grant-maker is seductive. You walk into a room and say, and especially if you have a big checkbook—we don’t, I mean, at Jerome, we’re peanuts in the universe of things—but especially when I was at Duke or the NEA or Target, you walk into the room and it’s all, “Oh, you’re the best, you’re the brightest, you’re the funniest. Oh, have another cocktail. Oh, please have this plate of hors d’oeuvre.”
After a while, you start to buy your own press, and with all due respect, I’m not the best, I’m not the brightest, I’m not the funniest, but it tends to— If you’re not extremely vigilant, it can easily transfer into a kind of arrogance and the presumption of insight that may not be warranted. So the people that trained me said, “If you want to do this: be a grant-maker for ten years, go back into the field for ten years, then come back to grant-making.” So that in-and- out rhythm is really more emblematic of what my career has been, but I consider the time I had at TCG really, the kinds of discussions I had at TCG with theatre leaders who I always said, “Look, I work for you, you joined TCG and I’m here to serve you. I can’t serve you if I don’t know what’s real.”
Those conversations were hard conversations and deep and probing, and I hope the work we did in that time there grew out of that responsiveness. That’s just hard to get at when you’re a grant-maker. When I was at Duke especially, we had a real question that we would ask people about: “Talk to us about your biggest failure and what you learned from that.” And understandably—I mean, it was kind of like a job interview—people... I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where you say, “What’s your biggest weakness?” People say, “Oh, I’m just too much a perfectionist. Oh, I just work too many hours.” It’s like, “Yeah, well, okay, yeah. No, okay.” Those were the kinds of answers we were getting back in terms of failures. I’m like, “No, no, no.” I mean, seriously, everybody does something that has exploded in your face or that has gone badly.
What did you learn from that? One thing, if you fail and didn’t learn anything about why you’re failing, then you’re just going to make the same failure again. So really what’s the lesson? What have you found out? How are you capitalizing on that to move forward? So that’s what you really want to get into, and convincing people you are genuine about that conversation and convincing people that you are going to listen to that conversation without using it as a disqualifier is a hard thing. I will say one of the things we tried to leverage when I was at Duke along that line was we made the decision when I was at Doris Duke that we were going to make all of our funding decisions by panels.
So I was able to meet with people and say, “Look, bottom line is you can tell me anything, and I’m not going to participate in the discussion. I’m not going to weigh in, I’m not going to have an opinion. It’s all going to be up to the panel, but if you don’t tell me what’s real, I’m going to set up bad programs to ask the panel to adjudicate. If you’re not telling me that you’re hemorrhaging deficits, or if you’re not telling me that your audiences are going down, if you’re not... I can help you strategize about programs that might help you through that, but only if you’re telling me what’s real.” So the panel system allowed me to leverage that in a different kind of way than if I had been a maker like many grant-makers are, who are the ones who were being asked to adjudicate as well as listen.
Here at Jerome, we also made the shift since I arrived from panel-driven grants to— I mean from staff-driven grants to panel-driven grants, and I say quite openly to staff, your primary role is not to assess or be a critic or to be an evaluator. Your job is to be a facilitator, to be a convener, it’s to be a listener so that we can create the programs that are malleable in responsiveness to the field and then get the field in to help us understand what the most vital investments are we could make to help the field move forward. That’s just a different way of thinking about how grant-making functions, but that’s the way that has been most rewarding and meaningful to me.
Probably because some of the great experiences I ever had in my life were being in that room at the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s where once upon a time there was a general operating support category for theatres, and you had six panel books and 450 theatre applications, and the panels met for six days and you would start at nine in the morning and sometimes you would be there at three the next morning, but for six days, you got a view of the field. You would be in the room with Ping Chong and Dudley Cack and Garland Wright, Anne Bogart, and hearing them wrestle about big ideas around the field, it was so rich and rewarding and powerful to see them come to consensus about what would move the field forward.
I’ve never lost that deep appreciation for panels and that preference for a style of grant-making in which the field ultimately makes the decisions about the distribution of resources while the philanthropists, professionals, have the unique opportunity, which when you’re running a theatre, you don’t have to look at the landscape and to say, “I know you’re obsessed with your theatre, but what are the trends, what are the patterns we’re seeing in the field that we can begin to help address?” So that’s just my bias as a grant-maker.
Jeffrey: Yeah, and this drives ahead a little bit for me, but I do want to ask you, is there a trend now— You mentioned looking at the support that you were giving and there used to be a column for general operating support, which significantly shifted away, and I think there’s very, at some point there was very little support for that, if any. Now, there’s a lot more focus on the process, leaning into what you were saying about asking the questions or supporting the learning. Is that true? Are we looking at support that doesn’t necessarily fund a product, that supports the process in a more meaningful way?
Ben: This is where—again, not being the frontline person, I’m not necessarily the one most in touch with this. I think that the moment we’re in right now for theatre funding certainly is by default, when COVID hit in 2020, we were forced as a field into a moment where we had to rethink what we were supporting. I’ve been saying we. I don’t mean Jerome, but the field had to think about it. People that were funding premieres of plays, suddenly plays weren’t premiering. People that were funding development of a new plays, suddenly nobody was developing plays, so what is it you were funding? So, the field as a pattern began to open up and become more flexible about how grantees were using their funds.
It also began to test patterns for how you thought about who you were invested in. I mean, not that we were right or wrong, but one of the changes we made at Jerome when I got here was we said, “Every grant we do is going to be a multiyear grant. We’re not going to do any single-year grants now.” So we had just, in January of 2020, made two-year commitments, and then in March 2020, everything shut down. So we had just made those commitments. Then, we get— And given our cycle, in 2021, we should have been cranking up for the next round of grants because we go through a process here where we have traditionally— Traditionally, we’ve said to people, “Are you interested in applying? Before you apply, we want fifteen minutes with you on the phone just to hear what you’re thinking about, make sure you understand us, because we don’t want to waste your time.” Then, we’re going to have a short application, we’re going to take it to our panel, they’re going to weed it down, then we’re going to invite full applications from a much smaller group. That process, we have hundreds of phone calls, that’s not a short process. Then, at every step there’s a panel, they’ll weed it down and then you have the full panel. So it’s a long process.
So in 2021, we should have been gearing up again and we thought, What are we even going to ask people? We’re not back. Nobody knows when we’re coming back. Nobody knows who’s going to work here. Nobody knows what they’re going to do. So we just automatically said to the group we had funded, come right or wrong, “We’re just going to extend your grants for another two years. You’ve gotten two-year grants, we’re going to give you another two years.” We had also— When COVID hit, we said, “We always know that there are groups that we have to set aside because of budgetary impulse. Let’s give the people that were finalists and alternates in that last round that just missed the grants, let’s give them grants as well.” So in 2020 we expand— we extended those grants, but those kinds of patterns about longevity, flexibility, permeability, we will now see how long they last in philanthropy at large. There are reasons, there are good reasons people give project grants and not flexible grants. There are very good reasons.
I think part of what’s the positive in what we did, we give what we call “flexible funds” to most groups now. So we say basically, “We can’t fund you to do just anything you want to do and especially if we give you—” I mean, if a university got a grant from us, we wouldn’t want our money going into the physics department. So we say typically like, “This is money for program services and activities impacting and involving artists earlier in their career. You figure out what that means for you, you’ve got a lot of latitude with that, but we don’t want you to use this to mount a production of Glass Menagerie featuring stars. That’s just not what our money is about.” I think the equation people are trying now to figure out is: How do you balance the implicit and rightful and important need to trust and allow flexibility for funds with the inevitable accountability that we are required to have to the government and to our own board about ensuring that we understand how the funds are spent and how they align with what we exist to do. So it’s about how do you create a non-onerous accountability system while leaning heavily, more heavily, into this trust and flexibility realm. So, that’s the balancing act, and there’s a lot of discussion about what that accountability does or doesn’t look like and how that is or isn’t documented. Unfortunately, because historically there’s been some talk about, “Well, should we all have just one application and one accountability and one report,” because the interests of different funders are so divergent, it’s hard to imagine what that would look like at this point.
It doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist, but it’s hard to really grapple with it, about what does that really look like? There have been some notable attempts at it, most notably the cultural data project, which ultimately in time, sort of went by the wayside, but a lot of that was designed not for the funders, but to really say, this will be time- and energy-effective for you as an organization or for you as an arts group, and there’s a lot you can learn from it and it’ll cut your workload. That piece of it was never necessarily received or appreciated, I think.
Jeffrey: So I’m wondering what you wish an artist would know before they would apply for any of the opportunities at the Jerome Foundation?
Ben: I think, here are just a few things. I always feel badly when I feel like an artist or organization has wasted their time because time and energy are precious commodities and there’s a limit to how much of both we have. So we’ve tried to be as transparent as possible. If you go to our website, we’re pretty, I hope, clear about what we stand for and what we do. I hope we’re clear about the moment in an artist’s life where we are going to be a fit and a moment in an artist’s life where we’re not going to be a fit. We have an— If you’re applying for one of our fellowships now there’s an eligibility quiz that should help you more concretely understand whether you’re an eligible artist for us or not. For every program we do webinars, we do individual counseling.
So the one thing I hope people understand is please make sure—and I’d say this to about any funder—please make sure you understand the funder and the program before you spend a lot of time and energy and effort, because a lot of times we just get things that aren’t a fit. Fundraising for me, which I think is just—if I’m really going to simplify it—is fundraising is the ability—and grant saving—is the ability to speak to where the funder is listening from, and I know that sounds like an odd thing. So when I worked at Target stores—and this is a hundred years ago—Target, at that point, we knew our typical guest, because we didn’t have customers, was a mother of two children, she was in her mid-thirties. She had a household income between fifty and sixty thousand dollars a year, her average checkout at the counter was like $147.I mean, we knew a lot about her.
But what we knew that we wanted our arts program was, we wanted our arts experiences to be family affordable, family accessible, family friendly, because that’s what the corporation’s vested interest in the arts was. So a lot of times people come and knock on our door and say, “Hi, we’re going to do this avant-garde piece at two in the morning and we were sending you an application, we’re all going to take our clothes off” and we would just have to say: Look, I wish you every success in the world with that. I need the family affordable.... 2:00 a.m. is not going to necessarily be family accessible, and depending on your values, it may or may not be family friendly. Similarly, the Metropolitan Opera can knocked on our door and say, “We want you to support this production of Turandot, but seats are $150 a person.” Our family can’t afford that.
So it’s about: Do your values and what you’re seeking funding for align with the values and with the structures of the potential funder. Where I see people going awry a lot is they mismatch— Their passion for what they’re doing, their art, or their conviction leads them into assuming: If I can only tell people how great the work is, they will fund me. Often funding is not about— A rejection is not about, We don’t believe in the quality of what you’re doing. It’s not a fit with what we stand to do. So I just hope people can sometimes think that, because for me, I mean, we’re very transparent about what our values are, and in our application we say, “Here are our core values as a foundation, how do you align with those?”
We take that part of the application very seriously and our panels do, because if you’re not aligned with our values, you’re going to have a hard mountain to climb. It’s not that we won’t fund you, but our highest priority goes to those who are deeply aligned with our values. So that piece I wish people understood is how is it that you understand what the funder exists to do and do you understand the values of the funder? And with us, I hope we’re clear.
Do we have the courage to talk not only about the product and the excellence of what we do and the critics saying it’s four stars? Can we talk about the social experience of being in that theatre?
Jeffrey: Yeah, and this probably leads into your values at Jerome, but why is it important for Jerome to fund emerging artists so prevalently?
Ben: Our founder was a painter. He was a musician and a composer. In fact, that was his college degree. He fought with the French resistance in World War II, but became a painter, became a photographer, ultimately became a movie-maker, won an Academy Award in 1957 for the best documentary for a film he did for Albert Schweitzer. Then, later in his career, before he passed away, really moved into film experimentation and moved into sort of avant-garde techniques and hung out with Andy Warhol and helped create a film anthology with Jonas Mekas in New York. I’m always conscious wherever I work. The money that I have to distribute is not my money. It was Jerome’s money. It was Doris Duke’s money. How am I the bridge between the things that that person stood for or believed in or supported that are still viable and valuable and important in the world as it exists today.
So my job is: How do I build a bridge between those two things? Especially, when you’re a private foundation as opposed to a government foundation, which is different, or a corporate foundation, which is different. When you’re in a private foundation, that can be in the water depending on where you are. Even though I will say the longer the foundation is removed over time from its founder, the weaker that tie can grow. So it would be an interesting question to ask. I assumed that the Ford Foundation doesn’t spend a lot of time around the table saying, “What would Henry Ford want if he were alive today?” I have people on my board in my governance structure who knew our founder, and he’s not an abstraction for them. They knew him. So that’s just a different—
And the same with Doris Duke, we had people on the board who knew Doris and were there because they were friends of Doris’s, just a different thing. So Jerome in his life was an artist, even though his will did not direct us to limit our giving to the arts, that was a subsequent decision that the boards have made over time, that that’s where they wanted to be. Jerome was notoriously generous for two things that I think, or three things that I think we pull our values from. One is it was from his own experimentation and his own lean into more of the kind of avant-garde and the going beyond traditional techniques and forms to experiment and test, that has led us to our own emphasis on artists who tend to push and test the limits of the art form, that’s from Jerome.
Jerome gave a lot of his money anonymously. The foundation was not called the Jerome Foundation when he was alive. It was called the Avon Foundation. He was especially notorious for finding painters literally in Paris that would be painting on the quayside that nobody had ever heard of, and he would wait until they went to smoke a cigarette and he would take a wad of francs and wind them up and then hide them in their artist palette, so they’d find it when they came back, never knowing where it came from. He was a funny, charming, gregarious person, but he was also a humble person, and our value of humility, which in many ways is my favorite value of our three, really comes from him and the way he behaved in his own lifetime.
I mean, that’s again, a link to him and the diversity value, which over time, has led us also in—more and more deeply into—of course, inclusion and equity. Really in its earliest phase was to say, diversity in race, diversity in sexual orientation, diversity in gender, diversity in point of view, but also diversity in field and diversity in art form and diversity in style, because Jerome was not a single-discipline artist. Jerome was not a single-genre artist. Jerome himself embodied a kind of cross- and multidisciplinary approach. So again, that really pulls from him in a very different way. So those values really ground us. They are embedded in the fabric of what we have done. I think they give us direction and frankly, I mean, this is a whole other discussion.
My own belief and my own practice here was when I came we didn’t create a strategic plan. When I got here, we said, “What are our core values?” And core values, if you’ve heard me talk about this before, I think basically have at least three characteristics if they’re going to be meaningful for the organization. One is they have to permeate the organization. So if it’s a value that’s good for the staff and not for the board, it’s not a core value. Second thing about a core value is that it’s a responsibility for the value to be modeled as well as supported. So these are not just values we’re going to support in the field. We’re going to live them. We are going to live them, and we’re going to support them. The third thing about a value is that every value you have has to have a consciously rejected yet equally viable opposite.
So every time you choose a value, you have to be explicitly clear by saying, “By choosing this value, here is what we are consciously choosing not to do.” So I always say to groups when I’m this— When they say, “Well, excellence is a core value of ours.” I keep saying, “Well, frankly, with all your audience is demanding, you can’t make a viable organization based on bad work. That’s not a choice.” When people say, “Well, physical responsibility is a core value.” No, you can’t run an organization for ten years and hemorrhage red ink along the way. That’s a given. You have to be physically responsible. What are you choosing and consciously choosing to lay aside? It is out of that grounding and values that our strategic framework sprang and the process, the way we define our strategy, sprang from that value.
When I look at organizations, when I see them in disarray, it’s because there’s absolute clarity on mission, but nobody understands what the core values are, and there’s rampant disagreement. Similarly, I think the speed with which we responded to COVID was because the strategy wasn’t hard to define because we were all on the same page with values. So we moved, lightning speed, to get grants out the door, to make a commitment, to overspend our 5 percent, to do those finalist grants, to do those alternate grants, to give artists the flexibility to use grants in different ways. First board meeting after COVID, we got all that done. So that values piece is really the grounding work that I think people often aren’t deeply conscious of, when they sprang right to, “Well, what’s our mission?” It’s like, okay, what’s your values? That for me is the richer question.
Jeffrey: I love that. That’s the first time that I’ve heard if you have a core value, you have to have the negative in mind. What do we— Actively, it’s that same sort of complacency, if you’re complacent about something, it’s active support of it. It can be just like a lip service to, sort of, a bunch of really great-sounding core values that of course, you have those things. That’s great.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, and I will say part of what’s really interesting to me about the theatre field is that I think, every— Well, not everybody. I think there’s a huge range of what those values can be, and theatres will come up with their own unique configuration of their core values. I personally believe you can’t have more than three. I think the real hard work is drilling and forcing yourself to think about three max, and my preference for three is every time you add a value, the potential for them to come into conflict with each other exponentially arises. So then you get into a disarray. Frankly, just for the sake of values, we remember in threes. Punchlines are in threes. Fairy tales are in three. A priest or rabbi and whatever walk into a bar. They’re always two ugly stepsisters with Cinderella.
I mean, three is the natural memory rhythm. So three grounds in organization, but if you ever come visit our office, you’ll see on our boardroom door are the words diversity, risk, humility in big letters. It’s painted all over the wall. I mean, we live it. We remind ourselves of it. We have it every day. So I think what’s interesting for the theatre field is given that unique configuration, every group will determine about what their own values are. I always took the position at TCG that it is the diversity of— It’s kind of like an ecosystem, that the very fact we answer that question about values so differently is a strength of the field. You don’t want a field where every organization looks the same or behaves the same or has the same structure or has the same process for creating work or the same rhythm. I mean, that’s the glory of it.
Just like in a healthy ecosystem, the oak tree needs the ivy and the ivy needs the whatever. I mean, you look at the theatre field writ large, and I think that there’s often an underappreciation that the avant-garde theatre needs the children’s theatre. The children’s theatre needs the ensemble theatre doing, increasing in new work. The ensemble needs the big theatre. The big theatre needs the ensemble. I mean that’s like, there’s an interdependency of life forms that makes a field a field. So that’s a source of celebration and often, I think that can easily turn into a source of frustration and division. So what was wonderful about TCG in my day when I was there was—what I found nourishing, but I also was sensitive to—was how is it we find in ourselves the generosity to honor the decisions and the integrity that others have made for themselves rather than insisting they make the choices that we have made.
I mean, and again, I loved being in the room where people would fight about who was right and wrong, but ultimately, at the end of the day, my hope was always: I hope you respect and honor that other people make different choices. I mean, otherwise, we’d all be doing the same play. We’d all have the same season, we’d all have the same work rhythm, we’d all have…. That to me is not a healthy field.
Jeffrey: How can the large arts institution continue to foster that local community ecosystem in particular, I’m thinking of the National Theatre in London always has some sort of incubator or generative program where they bring in, they help an ensemble or collaboratively creative company develop something throughout the span of their season as well. So I guess to get back to my question, how do we cross-pollinate?
Ben: Well, no. I mean, think there are ways that we’ve seen that people have tried to do it in different ways, and there are—from the very simple to the very complicated—there are depending…. I mean, it’s worth acknowledging that there are in many cases complicating barriers that even with the best of intentions make it very hard in terms of, if you have a union space that demands that you need a union crew in there all the time to move a chair in a rehearsal, that’s going to be a significant financial investment for somebody to give you that space. I mean, there are some very real logistic things that you have to work out around spaces. Unfortunately, one of the things —and this isn’t unique to theatre—is you often see people try to create literally, or communities try to create literally affordable spaces for small ensembles to work in and out of the best of intentions, decide to unionize the house.
Then, none of the ensembles can afford to produce there because it’s out of their price range. So there’s a lot in that. I mean, I’ll say there have been things like Bill bringing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, bringing in UNIVERSES to Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Martha Lavey during her time at Steppenwolf would look at a small theatre in the community, I remember at one point it was Congo Square, at another point it was... shoot, the group that works with young people a lot, and said, “Look, we’re going to give you access to our upper space for a year and we’ll produce you. We’ll help publicize you. We’ll help you do that. More than that, we’re offering you sort of unlimited access. So you’re going to come in and to the degree you want to, we’ll bring you into the marketing department and we’ll bring you into the boardroom and we’ll bring you into the software and technology.”
I mean, the learning you can do beyond just having a place to perform with the objective that properly spent, let’s share with you what we know both by giving you visibility, but by giving you a kind of depth of capacity, structure and understanding that’s going to serve you when the next group comes in. And you go wherever the life takes you. There’s that. Just as a generative artist, Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company used to take in somebody, and the people he took in were famous. Garland Wright was one, Daniel Fish was another Michael took in. Garland did the same thing. Garland did the same with Bart Sher and Charlie Newell and Lisa Brennan[-Jobs], basically saying, “I’m going to make a two-year investment in you. You’re going to assist me. You’re going to get embedded in the life of the organization. You will direct on the mainstage and this is a two-year gig and then you’re gone.” If we’ve done this right—because I’m going to bring somebody else in—but if we’re doing this right, we’re developing the capacity and the talent for the field.
I mean, it can be as simple as— And boy, this is a bigger conversation than just the theatre field, but I remember loving this that after 9/11 there was, I think it was Portland, Oregon, but there was a conscious attempt among all the arts organizations to help promote each other. So when you went someplace, if you went to the ballet, before the ballet, I would watch the museum director saying, “Boy, don’t you love being at the ballet? I love being in the ballet. I run a museum. It’s down the street. I hope you’ll come see it, but let’s sit back and let’s enjoy what Mark Morris has done for us tonight.” And you would go to the theatre and the theatre would begin and say, “Hi, I run the symphony.” And you’d go to the symphony and the symphony will go, “Hi, I run the local dance…”
So there was a cross, just, promotion, just to say, “We hope you like us tonight. We realize you may not, but no matter who you are, there is a theatre out there that will have stories that are meaningful for you.” How do we just promote each other’s work. I mean, that’s sort of not rocket science necessarily. So, there was a guy that we used to work with at TCG, Barry Nalebuff, who talked about competition. He said, “Look, your choice is you can fight for a piece of a fixed or shrinking pie or you can do ...”—his book was called Co-Opetition—he said, “Or you can cooperate to grow the pie for everyone, even while it’s inevitable, you’ll continue to compete for a piece of it.”
So the real emphasis is how do we think about this not as competitive, but as co-opetitating, to grow the supply, to grow the resources and frankly, in this moment in our industries, to grow the demand, because as you’ll remember, if you— Well, maybe you don’t know this, when I was at Doris Duke, we started a program which was called, not Audience Development, we called it Building Demand because we were saying we need to focus on the demand, the supply and demand side of the equation, what would it mean to build demand, which might manifest itself in audience attendance, but might manifest itself in hundreds of other ways. It might be that people want to take acting classes from you. It might be that if you’re a museum, people start painting and collecting work.
It may be that they will never come into your door, but if the demand grows, the public receptivity grows, arts referendums that are positive for public funding will grow. I mean, how do you think about the demand equation in a different kind of way? So I mean to get back to your question, where it started with the ensembles is, it can run a gamut of investments from nurturing infrastructural capacity to giving visibility, to affording resources to play, to just surrendering of unutilized space to simple cross promotion. It doesn’t feel to me complicated necessarily, but it is something that I think people do out of that same values equation, because I think people recognize our loyal audiences aligns with us because of our values. Who else out there will they find alignment with? How do we think about expanding it that way. Does this make any sense at all?
Jeffrey: No, absolutely. Absolutely. You’re just spurring so many other questions out of that. I think again, we’re trying to build demand again because I think a lot of folks have gotten into the single-ticket buying system because of like, I can’t predict if I’ll have COVID next week. I mean hence we’re having a conversation two weeks after we expected to, because I caught COVID, just these moments of like, I don’t know what the future is going to be, so I’m going to wait on my single-ticket buying experience. Then, as you’ve notably mentioned, the live arts are constantly in competition now with Netflix and electronic arts and video gaming and all of these other mediums that demand our attention. I mean, shake your crystal ball with me and how do we create more demand in the next— for our live and performing arts?
Ben: Yeah, I’m going to push back slightly about your observation about single tickets being a kind of COVID-related phenomenon… In twenty years— It’s interesting because the advantage of getting ready to turn seventy is that you want to take stock of what you’ve done. So, I was reading documents from my very first TCG conference, which we had defined as “Across the Great Divide.” We said the divides we need to be thoughtful about are the divides of race, generation, and technology, which in 1998 was not a bad list and it’s still a list we need to be thoughtful about. So maybe—
Jeffrey: A group of three things.
Ben: Yeah maybe, okay. But even then, we were saying subscriptions are sliding down, single tickets are sliding up, and not only your single ticket is sliding up, people are now distinguishing between subscriptions, single tickets, and day-of purchase. Rather than being COVID-related, I’m old enough— The bad example I always used to give was: When I was a wee lad and it was Easter, it came time for my mother to buy me my Easter suit to go to church, we always went to the same department store, because we had a loyal relationship with that. So it was like, Get in the car, it’s time to go to Van Stories because it’s time to get your suit. By the time I was a teenager, It’s time to get your suit. Let’s look in the paper to see who’s got a sale.
So that loyalty, affinity, relationship that has plagued us as a theatre is a manifestation of a larger shift of decayed institutional allegiance that hits every industry and every—with the exception of people like me who are old—most people I would bet pick their flight based not on the airline, but based on convenient schedule and price. Because of my frequent flyer at miles, because I have so many now, I always fly United, but that’s just me. That’s about a different set of priorities than it is about loyalty, and subscriptions were a manifestation of loyalty. So this phenomenon is a big one and it’s not unique to us, and there are a lot of other ways other industries have tried to think about how you cultivate that.
I would say two things. One is I think that during TCG, we did an initiative where we were doing a thing called Free Night of Theater. You may never even heard of this. Okay. We did Free Night of Theater and we did it first in three communities. The first year when we test piloted it, we did Austin, Texas; Philadelphia; and San Francisco. I will eternally be grateful to the service organizations, the local service organizations, in those three cities that partnered with us. So we spent a lot of time on the phone with James Hoskins, who’s actually now here running the Guthrie, and Brad Erickson and a woman named Leticia, who is in Circle of Austin Theaters, to make this all work together, and we tested two different ad campaigns.
The first one was images of Bernadette Peters and Nathan Lane and their local equivalent. So in the San Francisco it was pictures of Marco Barricelli and the members of ACT’s [American Conservatory Theater] core company. Celebrities and people that already saw themselves as going to the theatre and as having a relationship with the theatre looked at those and they go like, “Oh my God, I love the theatre. Oh, I’ve got to go back. Oh, I haven’t been in a while. I need to go back.” They totally responded. People that didn’t think they liked the theatre would be like, “Okay, well yeah. Okay, next.” The other campaign was images of people jumping out of their seats and applauding. It was parents taking their children by the hand into the door. It was young couples nestling up against each other as they watched the stage.
People who thought they didn’t like the arts said, “Where do I get that?” I mean, in an odd way, what we’ve done as an industry in our attempts to attract market is we have emphasized the product of what we do, which is we’ve emphasized the producer, not the consumer. When you think about useful industry campaigns, “Got Milk?” is not about the cow farmer, it’s about the person that drinks the milk and has the mustache. “Pork and the other white meat” was not about the pig farmer, it was about the people carving the bacon at the table. “Got Cotton?” is about people who look like me, who wear a cotton shirt, et cetera. Successful industry campaigns emphasize the people that consume, not the people that produce. So the question for me really, as we think about the future of theatre, is: Do we have the courage to talk not only about the product and the excellence of what we do and the critics saying it’s four stars? Can we talk about the social experience of being in that theatre? Can we talk about the unique thing it means to be in a room with other people, to have a common experience: is the social, the portal, through which people who may feel disaffected will walk.
Because we did a study while I was at TCG— or during my Doris Duke days, about what would it mean to create demand for theatre. And one of the things we learned from people was the biggest value people placed on theatre, or on the arts, was: the arts connect me more deeply to myself and to other people. So how is it we exploit that social connection as the basis for which we interact with our audiences? That’s not the way we’ve historically done it. So I think the emphasis on the social is the portal that we need to be increasingly thoughtful about, increasingly self-rigorous about, and increasingly strategic about.
The reason I say the issue about, self-rigorous about, is I think really if you’re a theatre, you have three options in this moment. You can call people out. You can bring people in to say, “This whole system is— We need change and people are bad. We are living in a world where people are denied what is rightfully theirs. We can take injustice and anchor to demands for justice and our commitment to a more just world, absolutely to the stage and call out injustice, or we can call in.” Not rather claim— We can call people in. I always say when you’re calling people in, what that means is that doesn’t mean getting them in the house to tell them how wrong they are. If you’re going to call people in, you are genuinely invested in what they believe and what they have to say. And that means you have to find something in them to love.
There’s the famous story I always tell about [Laurence] Olivier, when Olivier was in a bad production of Arms and the Man and he knew he was bad in it and either Richardson or Guinness came backstage, I don’t remember which one it was, and Olivier turned to them and said, “Why am I so bad in this?” They said, “Because you don’t love the character. You found nothing to love in the character.” And he said, “Once I found something to love in the character…” It became one of his definitive performances. So if we’re looking to call people in, what is it we love in the people we’re trying to call together? That’s a different equation.
The third one is, we’re just going to call together. We’re going to sit here and maybe it’s a musical, we’re not even going to— But this world right now, when we have a congress that can barely tolerate being in the same physical space with people of the other party, is there value in bringing people into an auditorium where they consciously sit with people with whom they passionately disagree? If we can exploit that value, that’s phenomenal. So, I think part of the issue that we are facing right now is: How do we switch our attention from the emphasis on the product we offer to the social value we may have of the social experience we offer? That’s a big different way for us to think.
Ben: I do think the way you alluded to with technology is, however, an important piece that we’re going to need to cling onto. I think when you look at other industries, Target stores didn’t go entirely online and shut their stores down, but you can shop Target online or you can go in the real store. That’s true for most industries. A lot of people I’m seeing right now said, “Oh, well, we did technology and we did Zoom because we had to, during COVID. Now, let’s get rid of it.” I get that it’s a drain and it’s a hard thing to do. My bad analogy right now for technology for theatre is it’s takeout food, and there are a lot of people who want takeout and they don’t want to come, and a lot of people will come to your restaurant after they get takeout and it’s going to expand your audience.
I don’t take that lightly, but it’s not the same thing as being in the restaurant and having the waitperson come up and attend to you and hearing the music and having the conversation. It’s a different thing, but boy, is there an opportunity in that to offer takeout. I’m watching a lot of restaurants here that had to do only takeout during COVID. They’re not getting rid of takeout, now that they’re seating people down. So how do we think about that in that same way? You were probably regretting that you even called me because I’m just yammering. I apologize.
Jeffrey: No, these are the answers that I’m looking for. Thank you. Thank you. I want to switch gears a little bit and you talk about the changes that are happening and I want to bring our focus onto boards a little bit. As I mentioned to you, one of the first things I ever read of yours was the foreword to The Art of Governance, which is a publication by TCG, which if you— I read it as I was preparing to step onto a board for my first time. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I better know what I’m talking about. I better feel like I have some examined thoughts of how these thinkers are thinking about boards and governing bodies and whatnot.” Your opening very first line was, “I love boards.” And I was like, “Hey, that’s great.” And I think that’s amazing. So in the recent moment, we’ve been having a lot of pushback on the way that boards are developed and built and what they’re currently doing.
For example, in American Theatre in January ’21, Michael J. Bobbitt said, “Boards are broken.” Then, he goes on to outline and put forth the ways in which they can be better thinkers and better listeners and how they can bring more to the table, and Victory Gardens is having a huge issues around the appointment of their executive leadership and artistic staff as well. “We See You White American Theater” also brought a lot of big concerns at the table, about what it means to have someone on the board who is representing a corporation and maybe not representing necessarily the art on the stage. I guess my big question for you is there’s a big sea change happening for boards in the way maybe we develop them.
Historically, it’s like you want to have your lawyer on the board. You want to have a banker on the board. You want to have an architect on the board. Someone who’s going to help you make decisions for the building of your, maybe your physical space or maybe otherwise, but are we looking at a sea change when it comes to board development at this point in time?
Ben: Okay, you got five hours because this is my favorite topic in the world.
Jeffrey: How about twenty-seven minutes?
Ben: Yeah. Okay. I will say my favorite part of my job is my board meeting. I am insane about my board. I’ve been blessed with a great series of people on the board over time, but I will say a few things. One is there are good boards and there are bad boards. There are boards that absolutely.... Peter Coleman at Center Stage back in the day, had one of the greatest boards I’ve ever seen. There are great board leaders and there are terrible boards that are rampantly out of control. I think we all have the boards we deserve.
That’s going to be— I hate to put it that way. I’m going to take three steps on this. First of all, A) I think there are different kinds of boards that are appropriate, given where you are in your own history as an organization. There’s a founding board, where you really need a board who’s going to dig in and get things done. Yeah. You need a lawyer. You need an architect. You need somebody who’s going to get out and call their friends to sell subscriptions. Especially, when you’re starting up, you generally are paying two people or one person and they’re probably being part— Your board is an extension of your workforce. At a certain point, you need a governing board, which is a different thing. Transitioning a working board into a governing board is very complicated, I’ll just say, because you’ve embedded people in management and now you’re trying to get them to move to a plane where you’re saying there’s a difference between governance and management, and I chose you because of your ability to be in management and now I don’t want you to do that. Now, I need you to stop doing that.
That’s a big [lifting sound] and anytime you change your kind of boards, it’s about a four or five year period of [lifting sound] to get to the next stage. It’s not that you necessarily will get to all three, but different than a governing board is an institutionalization board where you say, basically, “Our job is to set this up for a longer-term perpetuity.” Okay. So there are different kinds of boards, there are different phases of boards, there are different moments of boards. I will say as a general rule that in my experience, I have learned a couple of things that I think are worth pondering. One is when I say people get the boards they deserve, I think that the boards where I’ve seen the most unhappiness—I’m going to say this rather badly—is I think that we often lose sight of the fact that by agreeing to come on the board, somebody is giving us a huge gift.
They’re giving us time. They’re giving us money. They’re giving us counsel. It’s a generous thing to do, to agree to be on the board. On some level, it’s also a testament that you believe in what the organization is doing. You believe in theatre, you believe in it. In some way, they’ve had a meaningful experience on your life, and I think often we just forget that very generous impulse that underlies the board’s presence in the room, and we don’t honor that. That’s number one. Number two about this is I think we often see the most disaffected problematic boards when essentially we have focused on the board as being entirely chosen because of its fiscal capacity, and we expect them to be walking ATM machines.
We really want them to just give us money, shut up, and get off to the side of the room. And these are smart, committed, intelligent people who could stay home and write the check, but they’ve agreed to be on the board. That’s a different thing. They have agreed “We’re going to hold this in trust for the community.” They have legal responsibilities that they have by agreeing to come on the board whether we like them or not, and I like them. The duties of the fiduciary of care, loyalty, and obedience are the three things that boards has to have to do. Okay, so you’ve got that. I think where I would say that boards have fallen, where I’ve seen the richness of the boards and where I like boards the most, is as we recruit boards, how are we thinking about recruiting the board?
Because for me, our board recruitment here at the foundation doesn’t start with, “Oh, we need a lawyer. Oh, we need a financial person. Oh, we need this. Oh, we need that.” It doesn’t even start with, “Oh, we need a dance person. Oh, we need this.” We basically take people out to lunch and we talk about values and we talk about what are you seeing down the road in the next ten years and what do you think is more important? What do you think of our values? Ultimately, in choosing our board, what we’ve asked ourselves is: What do we want the world to look like in ten years? Who needs to be at the table now to call that world into being? So my board right now is quite diverse in terms of its aesthetics and in terms of its discipline base.
From the theatre community, we have both Sarah Bellamy from St. Paul on our board, but we also have Daniel Alexander Jones is on my board. Our board is 80 percent BIPOC. Our board is generationally diverse. My youngest board member is thirty-one. So we’ve been thoughtful about: What do we want in an equity-driven world, for the world to look like? What does that mean, who has to be at the table now to do that? And what that means for me is yes, the board has legal responsibilities of oversight, but I’m recruiting my board based on values and their capacity for insight and foresight. Oversight is not what the meetings are about. That’s the paperwork and the reports. We get that done between meetings. Meetings are about insight and foresight.
What are we wrestling with? How are we going to move forward? What does this mean? What are we seeing? That’s what I love about being in boardrooms, is how do we maximize and amplify and honor both the impulse that has led them to align with us, but also use the insight and the foresight that they have at their deepest level to help us achieve a world of values that we’ve all signed onto before we came into the room. I actually, now, more and more as I’m looking at staff hires, as well as board recruitment, thinking that values is the mortar that holds an organization together, because I’m going to hire an IT person and I’ve got the person who knows everything about IT and I’ve got somebody who knows a lot about IT but doesn’t know everything.
The one who doesn’t know the most holds my same values and one who knows doesn’t: I’m hiring the guy who doesn’t know as much because I can train that person up. I can’t unhinge your values and we’re going to hold together as an organization because of our values of affinity. So when we think about the boards, are we recruiting boards based on professional expertise, like law, architect, whatever. We may need to do that or are we recruiting them based on values. Are we recruiting them based on their capacity for insight and foresight? Are we asking them to rise to the level of governance in a meaningful kind of way? Are we thinking about, almost like, a diversified investment portfolio? Does our board represent— does it have financial capacity? Does it have reputational capacity? Does it have intellectual capacity? Does it have community capacity?
There are different parameters that go into the board beyond the checkbook. For me to say that we’ve got a board that’s out of control…. I often think, you’ve got the board you wanted. You may not like what they’re doing now, but if we’re thinking now, How do we get the board we want? And I think it’s that grounding in a diverse capacity for insight and foresight and alignment for values, that can lead to deeply nourishing and fantastic boards. And that to me is not saying that the boards are broken. It’s just saying we’ve not been deeply cognizant of the consequences of the choices we’ve made in assembling the boards we’ve assembled. That’s a different question.
If you’re going to call people in, you are genuinely invested in what they believe and what they have to say.
Jeffrey: I guess the thing that continues to stick in my craw about folks who may occupy the board for corporate reasons or because of a capitalistic reason is that should we continue the nonprofit structure as is or does that deserve to be shaken up as well in some way?
Ben: Well, I’m going to answer this in two ways, because I always answer everything in multiple ways. To your point about corporate presence on the board, I mean, I think that a good board will properly cultivated and properly led, will have the self-discipline to say no. I think that a good board will say, “I know you, as a corporation, want to put somebody on our board but no” or that “This was the person you want on the board, but no.” In the same way that I hope every art— I remember Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth, I always loved it, said, “Every funder wants us to do an education program for kids. It’s not who we are. We do transgressive, controversial, offensive work by design. So no, we’re not going to do it. Even though there’s a lot of money attached to it, the answer is no.”
I always just said “Yes!” for you because that check is not going to last forever, and you’re going to be stuck with that program and over-leverage, you’re going to fire people, blah, blah. So again, my first impulses on the board is to say part of board cultivation is not— kind of like my career, it’s not just the yeses, it’s having the clarity of when to say no to a potential candidate or a potential choice, so that’s one thing. To your question about the nonprofit structure, I would first of all remind us that the nonprofit theatre industry is a chapter in a much longer history of theatre in America, and that theatre in America and orchestras in America and museums in America were by and large founded as commercial entities.
Only when Ford Foundation really as the leader stepped in in the 1950s did this whole nonprofit impulse move. So in my lifetime, theatre became a nonprofit industry, really. So it’s a moment. I spend a lot of time right now with people saying, “Should we incorporate as a nonprofit in order to get grants?” I always say to people, “I can’t tell you if you should be a nonprofit or not, because there’s a lot that goes with it, and there’s a lot of great richness of reward in being a nonprofit. I’ve spent my whole career in it. So I don’t want to trash the system by any means. But I want you to understand, if you think that being a nonprofit is only about getting grants, your life is now going to be about board development and it’s going to be about board recruitment and it’s going to be about audits and it’s going to be about public— Your whole life is going to change.”
If that’s what you want your life to be, absolutely incorporate. If you think it’s about a grant, you may get the grant in year one or two, but you may not get it in year three or four, and then your whole life is upside down. So you need to be cognizant of the consequences for that. I think more and more funders are trying to think about how can we… Can we fund LLCs [Limited Liability Company]? Can we fund fiscal agents or fiscal sponsor? I always get fiscal sponsor and fiscal agents mixed up, but whichever one is considered the charitable deduction. So are there ways we can accommodate that? Frankly, one of the big reasons that we shifted and created the fellowships the way we did and shifted a significant portion of our organizational support to artists since I’ve arrived at Jerome is my own belief really that I don’t know what the next structure is for the theatre field.
I do think we’re on the cusp of something different that’s not going to be congruent with what has been. I’m not the smartest person. I don’t have both— the years left in my life to try to figure this out, but I’m also necessarily not the person to figure it out. But I do think that artists are going to find that path. Just like in the fifties when Mac Lowry at Ford— Mac didn’t found— His funding didn’t start with Arena Stage, Mac said basically to Zelda, “I believe in you. Let me get you money. You need to incorporate now to get it, but I’m going to fund the art.” It was, “I’m funding Tyrone Guthrie. I’m funding Bill Ball at ACT.” I mean, a lot of the origins of the resident theatre movement came because of the confidence people had and the artists who were trying to organize the organizations, not the desire to fund existing entities.
In the same way that I think Mac Lowry believed in the ability of artists to define that future, I think what we’re trying to say as Jerome is we don’t know the structure, we have certain limitations to legally what we can do within a foundation, that inhibits our choices, but at the same time, we have confidence that artists are going to be expansive, so let’s get as much money in artists’ pockets as we can and give them some flexibility to try to do things with it. So that’s the origin of a lot of our practice. There are more options. There’s crowdfunding now. There’s collaborative funding. There’s the exchange economy. There are a lot of things that are now coming up. Again, I think it’s going to be different. I don’t think the not-for-profit theatre is going to go away entirely by any means.
Just like the commercial theatre did not go away when Mac started doing this. We have a great commercial theatre industry now between presenters and tours and Broadway and blah, blah, blah. I think we’re about to go into something different. Something different. Ironically, it may be kind of a re-unpacking of some of the roots, of osme of what are now big independent theatres. You know, the Goodman started as part of the Arts— at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Guthrie started as a tenant of the Walker Arts Center. The Guthrie used to have a Boy Scout troop. There’s a lot of that kind of deeper community, cross discipline, hybridization connection. I think universities and colleges are going to have a huge potential role to play in the arts landscape in terms of how they support artists beyond the artists they’re instructing. Again, I don’t know what it is, but I think we’re on the cusp of cracking something open.
Ben: And again, if you’re a foundation, the IRS is very explicit about what you can and cannot do. So there are limits to what you can do, but we’re trying to maximize those as far as we can.
Jeffrey: Yeah, as we started, we said, this broadcast may or may not happen after your official retirement begins. We’ve had some time here to look back and think what’s brought us to this moment in time, and I’m wondering if there’s a teacher or a moment that was a teacher for you in your career, who or what was that teaching moment that was influential in your career?
Ben: I would say, I’ve had probably three teachers that have had an insane impact on my life. One was— We wouldn’t know it from this broadcast, but I do a fair amount of public speaking and I’m good at it. I know the difference between— Sometimes I’m like, “Yeah, okay, that was fine,” and sometimes I get off stage and I go like, “Okay, that was good.” I’m smart enough to know when that happens. There’s a latter one that doesn’t happen very often, but I have the capacity to be good. Frankly, I owe a lot to a woman named Ruby Dannenburg, who no longer lives among us, who was my speech coach in the National Forensic League in high school, and taught me debate, and original oratory, and dramatic interpretation. And a lot of what I do, Ruby Dannenburg taught me how to do, so I owe her that.
There was a guy named Tom Haas who was a theatre director who by—and for many years was the art—until he was run over and killed by a member of his own board, that’s a whole other story—was the artistic director at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Tom, for whatever reason, believed in me and gave me opportunities. Tom taught me things. Tom taught me, as a director, things. There are certain plays I cannot ever see because of what Tom taught me about them. Tom taught me how Shakespeare worked. He taught me Shakespeare doesn’t play tricks. He taught me, if you can’t figure out how Shakespeare works, you start at the end of the scene and you work backwards.
So in Tom’s production of Othello, the big thing about where does Othello find the knife to kill himself, that thing about— and there’s always the bad thing about it. In Tom’s production, it’s the dagger that Iago leaves in Emilia’s body on the stage when he stabs and kills her and nobody thinks to take it off the stage. Well, you see it happen and it changes— it’s hard for me to see anybody else’s production.
Ben: Tom taught me things about, but he also gave me…. My first week at Indiana Rep, I was supposed to stage manage and I’d never directed a play in my life. I arrived and he was starting cabaret space. He said, “Okay, here’s the deal. There’s been a change of plans. You’re directing the first show. We’ve cast it in New York. They arrive on Monday.” I was like, “I’ve never directed.” He said, “You’ve performed a lot. You’ll know what to do.” I was like, “Okay.” Then I said, “Where’s the script?” He said, “Well, that’s the other thing. You have to write it. It’s musical tribute to Cole Porter. Here’s the books, here’s all the music Cole Porter ever wrote. You got a week, good luck.” And you have a week of rehearsal and then it’s on. That first experience, by the end of the year, I was directing on the mainstage, and then I was an associate artistic director. I mean, Tom gave— For reasons I will never know, Tom saw something that he believed in and gave me that capacity, so I will say that.
Then, the third person I owe a lot to more than anybody else is a woman named Ronnie Brooks, who used to run a thing here in St. Paul called the James Shannon Institute for Renewing Community Leadership. She’s the one who taught me about values, and she basically said— She taught me two things that I’ll never forget. One is she said, “It’s terrible when people burn out and leave. It’s worse when they burn out and stay.” She said, “There’s a difference between physical exhaustion and burnout.” She said, “Physical exhaustion is real, but if you care about something deeply, you can work eighteen, twenty-four hours and, say, keep bringing it, keep bringing. I may need to take a nap, but bring it, bring it, bring it.” If you’re working on things that are disconnected from what you care about two hours, you’re like, “Kill me now.” She said, “Burnout is not exhaustion. Burnout is disconnect from core values.” If you don’t know what your core values are, how can you possibly keep your life of meaning on track and recognize whether an opportunity gives you the chance to pursue and deepen your values or stalls or throws your life off track?
So a lot of that grounding for values orientation that I have, and that I believe is personal as well as an institutional, is Ronnie Brooks. She’s still around. She’s still in St. Paul. She’s still associated with the institute. If I said, “Who changed my life to get me professionally where I am today,” there are especially those three, even though Judy Rubin, who’s the chair of the Playwrights Horizons board helped, was leading the search committee, when I got the TCG offer.
Peter Zeisler at TCG told me.... like I have learned so much from so many, many, many people, all of whom have taught me and I’ve learned from, but if I really had to say life-changing fundamental through my life in a different direction, it would be those three.
Jeffrey: Ben, thank you so much for your time and thanks for that. That is so insightful, and thanks for helping us learn a little bit more about your insights and where Jerome is going and where you’re going and where you’re coming from, and all of those comings and goings and et cetera. So thank you so much for your time today. It’s been such a delight to talk to you and thank you.
Ben: Yeah, no and I will just say, I mean not to— I don’t know what I’ll do after retirement, but I’ve had the opportunity recently to be invited into several organizations just to ask some of these same questions in the presence of their board in order to simulate their board’s thinking as they began to.... And I’m finding that work really rich and useful, and if for you, personally, Jeffrey or if for anybody who’s out in the field, if I can be of use to people in some way, I hope people won’t hesitate to track me down and see if I can be of use to them, because I don’t assume that I’m of use or anything is going to be used with this, but if I can be of use, I’m happy to be of it.
Jeffrey: Yeah, slowing down, but not stopping, that’s retirement.
Ben: Maybe. Maybe. We’ll see. I’m definitely slowing down, but it may be stopping. Who knows?
Jeffrey: Charisma with a capital C came through the call from me on this one. Could you feel it too? Before we break it down for the heartbeats throughout this call, let me first say thank you to my Zoom sponsors, Quasimondo Physical Theatre for letting me have this uninterrupted Zoom line. Thanks, you all. Also, let me catch your first impressions. Email me at [email protected]. Hit me up on Instagram and Twitter @FTGU_Pod or @ensemble_ethnographer. I want to know what you liked about this or any of these convos and where you want them to go. So thanks in advance for that.
There is a lot to balance on behalf of a financial organization like Jerome. Like Ben said, how do you balance the implicit and rightful and important need to trust and allow flexibility for funds with the inevitable accountability that we’re required to have to the government and our own board about ensuring that we understand how funds are spent and how it aligns with what we exist to do?
He was full of these big idea quotes that I am so enamored with. Two more for you really quick, but these are a little bit shorter. Fundraising and grant-making is the ability to speak to where the funder is listening from. Just sit with that for a hot second. Take that one away with you. Then, the final quote, do your values and what you are seeking funding for align with the values and the structures of the potential funder? Right? So again, who’s listening? Both sides need to listen on that front. I also love the area on core values that he spoke of and how each value has to have an opposite. When he said that, I was like, “Of course it does. What are you working against?” And it also ties back to Carlos Uriona in season three, episode two, who said, “I don’t want to be anti-anything. I want to be pro.” Really great connections for me. How are we pro, but also actively working against something, but highlighting that pro.
All right, you all. Many thanks for listening. I know you usually get a lightning round about this time, but once again, I’ve got something a little different. Ben and I caught ourselves talking about the late Martha Lavey from Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It was just a really touching and thoughtful thing, and I thought it would be great to include it in here for you all. All right. Take care artists. We’ll see you next time.
Ben: Did you ever know Martha Lavey?
Jeffrey: No. No. I think she had passed just before I got there, I think. So I never got…. But quotes of hers just stick in my brain. I’ll be working along and I’ll be like, yeah, that’s something that Martha had written about or spoken on. Yeah, her lifetime, her life really inspires everyone in a lot of ways. It’s amazing.
Ben: Yeah. She was one of my best friends, and she was on my board at TCG, and I spoke at her memorial.
Ben: Yeah, and actually, I mean, you’ll appreciate this. I felt the best speeches at Martha’s memorial were Bruce Norris, first of all who— We were all told you have four minutes, not a second longer. Bruce talked for twenty-five minutes and told the most inappropriate stories I have ever heard in my entire life. Told all the forbidden stories in graphic and gross terms. Then, Amy Morton, who basically used her time to turn to Jessica’s mother, Mary Ann Thebus, who had been close to Martha and say, “This is what you gave Martha, and this is what you meant to Martha.” It was the most generous thing I had ever seen. Amy Morton, I’ll never forget on this. No, Martha was the one who probably I think about more than anybody else in this moment for every organization, because Martha’s long-range planning was not about how do we get through the next five years. Her planning was grounded in a single question of: What would greatness mean for Steppenwolf? What would greatness mean?
Ben: And would it matter other than to us? That was the animating question that drove her planning, and I think about her all the time and what she would make of his model. I miss her more than I can think. On that note, just a pleasure.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.
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