Claire Yells About Arts Nonprofit Funding

A very smart actor friend asked a question on Facebook about why Portland arts organizations seem particularly risk-averse when it comes to programming new work.  Why are plays that have been workshopped in Portland getting premieres in New York – often at small companies, in modest spaces – before Portland companies (even the large ones, even the ones that invested in workshopping them) will give them the time of day?  Without disparaging the work of New York artists, but openly acknowledging that those productions aren’t objectively “better” than what we can do here, why is it so hard to move those shows to a production in this city?  He posits that maybe it’s a funding issue, whether maybe the theatres in New York producing these shows have a revenue base that allows for financial risk if a show flops . . . a revenue base that even Portland’s heavy-hitter theatre companies lack.

I’m a playwright, but I’m also a grantwriter and a nonprofit consultant and a former development director, so the whole question of how this community approaches the question of artistic risk is one I can (and do) see both sides of.  As a fundraiser I’m hyper-aware of the infinite and ever-mounting pressures on arts nonprofit budgets in a changing world and why artistic directors get scared of new work by unknown playwrights.  As a writer I’m hyper-aware of how hard it is for Portland playwrights to get Portland theatre companies to produce their work.  (Or any theatres anywhere to do ANY of our work, before it’s been tested and verified as something that made money at somebody else’s theatre.)  I get where the temptation to focus on guaranteed sellers – whether it’s Shakespeare or The Nutcracker or Monet – comes from.  And there is nothing, by the way, wrong with programming Shakespeare or The Nutcracker or Monet, and nothing wrong with audiences who enjoy it.  The question on the table is: what’s the mysterious X factor that makes some companies willing to take the leap on something bold and risky and untested, and some companies fearful?

I started to write a Facebook comment on my friend’s post and then, well, THINGS ESCALATED, and then it was like three pages long and I realized I couldn’t fit all my thoughts into one Facebook comment so HERE WE ARE.

Here is the cycle of problems as I see it.

#1) Portland just plain doesn’t have the base of institutional funders that other major cities have. We’ve never had a fraction of the number of major international corporations in other cities like Seattle or San Francisco or New York; their nonprofit sectors are fueled by corporate giving on a significantly higher level than ours. We built our nonprofit arts infrastructure on the backs of, like, five timber families and the Schnitzers.  Steel and lumber are dying industries, and that money’s never coming back.

#2) The major corporate funders we do have tend to place the arts as a low priority, because this city has so many other pressing social problems like homelessness and underfunded schools.

#3) Institutions who DO support the art are finite, and their funds are dwindling.  The Miller Foundation was always designed to spend down its endowment. It won’t be around to hand out six-figure gifts forever. Less than a decade ago the Allen Foundation was one of our go-to funders for large-scale arts support and now they hardly fund anything in Portland. And the Meyer Memorial Trust’s new funding priorities basically sliced arts funding right out altogether. For some arts organizations that could add up to like 10-20% of your whole fucking budget.  RACC does great work, but they can’t be everywhere at once.  And a lot of the money given out by government arts agencies is subgranted from the NEA, which means it’s often at the mercy of the House Appropriations Committee.  And even though arts funding is an embarrassingly tiny percentage of the federal budget, it’s a fun thing to threaten to cut when you want to make a theatrical gesture to your constituency about how tough you are on pork-barrel spending.

#4) Arts organizations are often unhealthily dependent on earned revenue because without that institutional funding cushion, you need every show in the season to be profitable. That can lead to risk-averse programming.  You start picking a season by saying, “Okay, what can we get the rights to that has a small cast, one set, runs under 90 minutes, written by a household-name playwright, with New York Times review pull quotes we can use on the poster?” instead of starting by asking, “What excites the hell out of us?”  In an organization with a healthy budget, you want a higher percentage of contributed-to-earned income because it relieves you from having to focus on only programming work that’s guaranteed to net a profit. But that sword cuts both ways – if you haven’t budgeted realistically, if a show is less profitable than you planned, the development director ends up in a panic on the phone to board members during the last week of the fiscal year pleading for bridge loans to keep the whole company from ending the year in the red.

#5) The need for every show to be profitable often skews budgets in favor of ever-increasing ticket sales, pricing out the exact sectors of the audience who tend to support risky work and locking the organization in a self-perpetuating circle.

#6) The nonprofit organizational model hasn’t evolved to keep up with the changes in where money is coming from. We’re all still running development departments like it’s 1998 and the old patterns will exist forever – because it’s so much easier to hope for $100,000 from Miller than to invest in trying to hunt down a thousand new $100 donors and build relationships with them.

#7) Young and hungry artists who want to dig their teeth into risky, meaty, challenging work – emerging playwrights without a New York pedigree, up-and-coming directors, designers just coming out of grad school with no professional credits yet – can’t get a gig at the big companies for all the above reasons, so they go start their own companies in order to do the work that nurtures them as artists.

#8) The quality range of companies founded by artists who just want the chance to do the work they want to do is wide. Sometimes they are filling a crucial gap in the Portland arts scene and they find an audience hungry for the work they’re creating. Sometimes they’re ego-driven vanity projects and they fold after just a few years. But 99 times out of a hundred, they decide that the key to their success is 501c3 nonprofit status, so they can apply for grants. Because – and this is literally the bane of my professional existence – people seem to think that grants are magic.  (Free money that drops into your lap from the sky and all you have to do is fill out some boring paperwork?  WHERE DO I SIGN UP???)  This means every time a new company pops up in Portland, the competition for those dwindling contributed income dollars gets fiercer and the cycle begins anew.

“BUT CLAIRE HOW DO WE FIX THIS” is something nobody ever asks me although sometimes when I’m drunk and shouty I yell in people’s faces about it anyway, but for what it’s worth, here’s my advice.

For my money, the smartest nonprofit model in the whole city of Portland right now is Skinner/Kirk Dance. They’re umbrella’d by BodyVox so they have access to their resources for marketing and admin support, they have a space, and they have a built-in audience of subscribers. They’re a nonprofit, so they can apply for funding if they want to, but they don’t produce an entire season. Which means they don’t need a full-time permanent staff.  They produce a show when they have a show, and BodyVox presents it. This, to me, is genius, and if smaller companies shared resources more effectively it’s super replicable. Everyone wins. Skinner/Kirk has access to the resources of a larger organization and their audience; but because their aesthetics, while compatible, are very different, Skinner/Kirk can bring in new audiences to BodyVox. Competition heightens panic about risk, but collaboration and resource-sharing can reduce the risk on all parties.

Consider just doing a show when you’re ready and not forcing yourself to program a whole season. Consider strategic partnerships. Consider not becoming a nonprofit and being an LLC instead. Consider the difference between what you want and what you need. (Do you WANT your own building, or do you NEED your own building?) Consider what you’re spending money on. Invest in people first, stuff second. Consider the gap between the highest-paid and the lowest-paid members of your organization – for my money, a far better tool to evaluate an organization’s health than simply looking at what percentage of the total funding is spent on admin. If your artists are making minimum wage or lower, but your artistic director is pulling in six figures, quit patting yourself on the back for changing the world through theatre and take a good honest look at your fucked-up power dynamics.

As a general rule, wealthy audiences skew more conservative.  (Ronni Lacroute, obviously excepted; but we only have one of her.)  If you want to do risky work, for the love of Christ don’t build an organization based on an outdated nonprofit management model that’s going to force you to become dependent on conservative white millionaires.

It’s a myth that millennials don’t support arts and creative projects.  It’s a myth that if your audience skews middle-aged and white, that your middle-aged white staff and board can fix this problem by offering rush tickets or spending more on ads in the Portland Mercury.  It’s a myth that the barrier is always the price point – that if you create boring art that doesn’t speak to us or reflect our stories onstage, but offer it for ten bucks and a free glass of chardonnay, we’ll show up with all our girlfriends and then come back for the next show.  The young, diverse audiences you want actually do spend money on arts and culture.  We might not make six-figure gifts to opera and ballet companies, but we’ll fly all over the country to attend music festivals and spend huge chunks of our income investing in indie gamers and filmmakers we find online.

For our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, donating to charities was part of the social contract if you were a rich person; you might not personally enjoy going to the symphony, but you understood that having a world-class symphony was part of what made your city a nice place to live, so you’d throw them $200K a year for the tax write-off, put your wife on their board and maybe once a year you’d show up at opening night.

That’s not how it works anymore.

The rise of the Kickstarter funding model speaks to a desire on the part of the new generation of arts supporters to BE A PART OF SOMETHING. Something that isn’t just about writing a check, but is about making an awesome thing happen and benefiting from it directly. When I donate on Kickstarter to support the creator of a new board game, I’m doing it because I want to reward their creativity and acknowledge that they had an idea that excited me, but I also get to benefit from it myself. This isn’t because, as we are so often painted in the media, Millennials are selfish; it’s because we like to get our hands dirty, we like to get up close, we like to be active participants in the thing we’re investing in.  We don’t make donations for the tax write-offs; we look for other benefits instead, and we want them to be personally meaningful.

Smart arts organizations with nimble, flexible, creative funding models can harness this desire for engagement, and several in Portland are doing this already.  The ones that don’t will die.  Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next season or the next, but they WILL.  DIE.  The pendulum’s not going to swing back the other direction, and the longer it takes any given organization to realize it’s not the 1980’s anymore the more screwed they’ll be when the Miller grant they’ve depended on every year dries up and they don’t have a backup plan to fill that budget hole besides “Desperately Hope Another Major Funder Drops Into Lap.”

I realize that, as I am a career grantwriter, you may be wondering why I am basically yelling at people to stop relying on the fundraising tool that pays my electric bill, funds my artist career and keeps me in ballet flats and chocolate-covered pretzels.  And obviously I think grants are great and important.  But I’ve worked for too many awesome companies that deserve to survive and seen them make deeply troubling long-term budget decisions that prioritize institutional survival over vibrant, audacious art, and I think we can all do better than that.