Next month, American Theatre will feature Theatre Communications Group’s annual survey analyzing the fiscal health of America’s theatres. This is the 11th year we have conducted the survey and it is fascinating—albeit confusing—to see the changes in the sources of funds that stoke the boilers of our institutions. Most encouraging is the quantum leap that corporate support has made. From 1974 to 1982, corporations were always in last place among the five leading funding sources, behind donations from individuals, foundations, and federal and state governments. By 1984, however, there was a substantial increase in corporate support and it now occupies a most impressive second place. Only gifts from individuals provided more funding for our theatres in 1984.
The true impact of the increase in corporate support of theatre can be seen by looking back to the first year of our survey. At that time, foundations occupied first place and were an even more important source of funds than individuals which then ranked second. Foundations have now slipped to fifth position.
A solid mix of funding sources is terribly important; it balances the differing priorities that the various funding entities bring to their support criteria. Clearly, a multinational corporation is going to have different reasons for funding a theatre company from those of a state arts agency. The interests—and consequently the roles—of the various partners in the funding consortium are markedly varied. For better or worse, here is an attempt to analyze some of the differences:
1. Foundations. While their role has changed significantly in 10 years, they remain the funding source capable both of pursuing both a specialized agenda, and of taking the most risks. By targeting the theatre as an area worthy and needful of support, foundations in the late 1950s made it known nationally that nonprofit theatres were crucial community assets. Without their early support, and the concomitant visibility thus provided, it is very doubtful that the nonprofit theatre “movement” would have taken root. The time has long since passed when a major foundation’s funding to any specific theatre provided a majority of its support. Arts activities do not now seem to be central priorities for most national foundations. Nevertheless, because they can respond to topical or programmatic priorities and are not constrained by geographical or political considerations, foundations are capable of taking the greatest risks in their support programs. They can and do support experimental and controversial theatre activities for which it is always difficult to find funds.
2. Individuals. Contributions from individuals are central to the funding of all nonprofit institutions. Individuals are the most intimately involved with the work of the theatre because they comprise its audiences and support its work by purchasing tickets, as well as by making contributions. They will continue to be the primary source of support simply because they are the most involved in a theatre’s activities.
3. Federal Government. The establishment of the National Endowment took place at the very time that an explosion of arts activities occurred throughout the country. The private foundations were finding the fields increasingly complex and their staffs were sorely taxed trying to deal with increased national activity. The National Endowment developed the administrative mechanism capable of responding to this arts explosion and at the same time evolved peer panels to establish priorities and deliberate on funding levels.
As a federal agency answerable to Congress, the NEA cannot escape being influenced by political considerations in making its decisions, and as a tax-supported agency, it must make accommodations for geographical considerations. It is not truly insulated from partisan politics, and changes in Administrations can radically change the philosophy by which funds are allocated. It is the only source with a staff large enough to deal with the complexity of activity within the field and consequently acts both as a bellwether and as a source of continuing, as opposed to project, funding.
4. State Government. State arts agencies are the only funding sources which are as concerned with the needs of the audiences as with supporting artistic assets. State funding has risen consistently over the past five years and state agencies are now contributing more to our sample group of 37 theatres than is provided by the National Endowment.
5. Corporations. As already noted, corporate support for the 37 sample group theatres has grown extraordinarily-from $2.3 million to $5.3 million in five years. Only corporations and individuals have shown steady gains in each of the last five years.
While corporations can neither be expected to take the major artistic risks that many foundations are free to pursue nor provide the continuing support that public funds make possible, corporate support is most closely aligned to individual support where the interests of the community are of primary importance. Because most corporations support theatres through their community affairs or public relations divisions, they are naturally concerned that their contributions are very visible. Corporations use contributions to the arts to foster good will and consequently cannot usually be expected to support work that will cause controversy.
The growth of corporate support is the most significant development since the establishment of the National Endowment in the delicate balance of support to our theatres.
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