Thursday, August 30, 2012

Crucial Support for the 21st Century

A couple of weeks ago I posted my testimony for the Illinois Arts Council and I have been asked by a few people to write a more detailed blog on the importance of general operating support for our theatres.

I realize I am preaching to the converted and I would never presume to tell anyone how to do their job, but I think we are at a critical point in the world of support for our organizations. In order for our organizations to adapt to 21st century realities, we are going to need to be able to experiment, particularly in the area of structure. We can no longer build theatres the same way they were built 50 years ago and we are going to need support from grant making entities and that support must take the form of general operating support so that our organizations can be nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities and adapt to change. We cannot do with less operating support and we must have more. I think project grants are important and impactful but I think we should take another look at operating support and its impact on the field.

There are very few organizations providing general operating funds to arts organizations. Grant making organizations are under pressure to hold grantees accountable and to show impact through their grant making. In addition, grant makers feel that artistic quality is a subjective judgment and so cannot make grants based on that criteria, leading to some funders making “democratic” grants – i.e. dividing up the pie among qualified applicants based on budget. I understand these issues but believe that we can work together to show that general operating grants in fact have the greatest impact on an organization and that new criteria be developed that can show that impact. If the “democratic” method isn’t working for grant makers, then we can work together to develop criteria for that as well. I am actually not a big fan of everybody gets the money. I think there should be specific criteria and I think it wouldn’t be very difficult to develop them.

General operating support grants are the support that allow us to be innovative, to take risks, and to experiment. While it may seem to a funder that small grants to small organizations have no impact, in fact, it is nothing less than what enables them to continue to do their work. In the unique ecology of Chicago theatre, we are nothing without our small and mid-sized theatres, our small and mid-sized theatres are where our artists grow and learn where new work is de rigueur and where audiences are engaged on a level that is not possible in larger institutions. As I said in my testimony, it’s not sexy, and it’s not an intellectual approach to grant making, but it is vital to our continued survival. If we want theatre to continue to thrive in Chicago, an investment in our theatres through general operating funds is the absolute best way to go about that.

Project grants are important, no doubt about that, but project grants do not pay the rent, they don’t cover expenses, in some cases, they may lead to increased capacity for the organization but in many cases, I’m afraid they simply don’t. In some cases I argue that project grants actually have the opposite effect, stretching an organization so thin that their capacity to make art actually decreases while the company resources are fulfilling the grant. In addition, companies twist themselves up to fit the criteria for these grants.

As an example, take a theatre with an operating budget of under $1 million, probably 10-20% of their income comes from general operating support. Not much, right? Not too big of an impact? Wrong. Losing those grants mean cuts, end of story. At that budget size, operations are lean in the extreme and there is no overhead to cut so the cuts come from staff or production, leading to a further spiral and that in turns lead to further reductions in income. The snowball effect of the loss of even a “small” grant cannot be underestimated.

So what can you do? Fight the fight. When grant makers send you surveys, let them know how important general operating grants are to you. If you have good relationships with your foundation funders, talk to them; ask them to try to influence their colleagues. When you do your final reports, make specific statements about impact. On the City, State and Federal level, talk to your elected officials, talk about what these investments bring to your communities.


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