Bridging the gulf Essay

Published: 2021-09-12 00:20:09
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Category: Culture

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The relationship between a grantmaker and a grantseeker can never be equal. One is the benefactor, the other the supplicant. One holds the purse strings, the other wants to loosen them. But recently, that relationship has become more distanced–and sometimes almost adversarial.
A recent study of foundation and corporate arts funding commissioned by Grantmakers in the Arts and conducted by the Foundation Center, observed: “The relationship between nonprofit arts organizations and the funding sources on which they depend has been the subject of much debate during the past two years, largely as a result of two major developments: a) fiscal and organizational instability faced by the arts groups, and b) political attacks on the content of the artists’ visual and performing works. The heated nature of the debate has contributed to a general impression that a vast and perhaps unbridgeable gulf has emerged between the artists and their funders, both governmental and philanthropic.” While the study ultimately found that there is much agreement, differences did emerge on some issues, and opinion and action often do not seem to mesh.
There is growing concern throughout the theatre community, for example, that segments of the philanthropic community are reallocating grant dollars to fund special initiatives such as education and community outreach programs, and abandoning support for artistic development, production seasons and infrastructure. The recent controversies surrounding government arts funding may be one reason private foundation and corporate grantmakers are growing more cautious and choosing increasingly to earmark funds for specific projects–especially projects that have a social service focus. But this trend, coupled with the decline in public funding from federal, state and local sources, could serve to marginalize the arts in philanthropy–and some feel it raises the disturbing prospect of the further marginalization of the arts in American society as a whole.
Grantmakers and theatres urgently need to enter into a constructive dialogue to explore these issues if the theatre is to survive and flourish. Following are some questions that might begin such a dialogue:
* Only a few private funding sources are supporting theatre nationally today. Why have many grantmakers reduced or eliminated their arts funding programs? How can theatres$make a convincing argument for support of the arts?
* According to TCG’s latest “Theatre Facts” report (published in the April issue of this magazine), foundation giving to theatres increased an impressive 22 percent in 1993, but closer scrutiny reveals that half of all foundation funds went to just 16 percent of the theatres studied, and 42 percent of the theatres reported declines in 1993 foundation giving. Should there be a more broad-based distribution of funds among theatres? Should more theatres be brought to the funding table even if it means that there is less for everyone?
* In the Foundation Center survey, 61 percent of the grantmakers and 93 percent of the grantseekers agreed that unrestricted operating support is the most critical need of arts organizations, yet operating support is increasingly difficult to obtain. What can be done to encourage more funders to consider supporting this basic need?
* It appears that many grants are available for special funder-initiated programs, but these programs may not always be organic to a theatre’s mission. How can theatres avoid the dangers of grant-driven art? How can they resist self-censorship and avoid the “will-it-make-a-good-application” (or “art by guidelines”) syndrome?
* Currently, many grantmakers emphasize education programs and community outreach services. How can theatres make the case that while education and outreach programs are absolutely integral to their work, these programs can exist only if the theatre’s central mission and operations are financially viable? How can effective arguments be made for supporting artistic development?
* Responding to America’s increasing cultural diversity has become a priority for many funding agencies, as well as for many theatres. Yet there are those who argue that some grantmaking in this area has inadvertently served to divide, rather than bring to-gether, various multicultural and ethnic-specific theatres. How might theatres and grantmakers both be more sensitive to the impact of funding programs that promote cultural diversity?
* While grant-seekers hope for grantmakers to be sensitive to their needs, the arts community has little understanding of the policies and directives guiding grantmakers. How can theatres be better informed about what is taking place in foundation and corporate board rooms today? How are grant programs developed? To what extent do funding criteria emphasize artistic quality? The size and scope of audience served? Financial need?
* Some foundations and corporations have recently begun placing greater emphasis on evaluation and systems of accountability. Why has this trend come about, and how can theatres be better prepared to fulfill the additional requirements?
There is no doubt that the gulf between grantmakers and grantseekers is widening. Our ability to engage in a constructive dialogue with funders without biting the hand that feeds us in the process may well determine the future economic and artistic viability of the nonprofit professional theatre in America. There will be no easy answers, but it is time to contemplate the questions.

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