To build operating reserves for five midsize Atlanta-area theatres
Form an organization to go before major foundations to raise money
Building a community of artistic and managing directors
The goal to raise $1 million dollars to shore up reserve funds at member theatres
Focus on audience growth and cross-promotional opportunities
During the last economic recession, two of Atlanta’s beloved theatres closed: Georgia Shakespeare and Marietta Theatre in the Square, both after three decades in operation. These closures happened a couple of years after the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta conducted a fiscal health study of 40 arts organizations in Atlanta. The study revealed what many arts administrators already knew: Most arts organizations had only one month of reserve funds.
Georgia ranks 49th in arts funding, so fundraising has always been difficult. The recession brought new challenges, as corporations and foundations changed their giving priorities and individuals grew more hesitant to give because of the collapsing mortgage and automobile industries. Artistic and managing directors at Atlanta’s theatres knew that they would have to come up with a new long-term financial strategy if they were going to survive the new millennium.
Then Lisa Adler, the producing artistic director at Horizon Theatre Company, had an idea. She recognized that all of the city’s midsize nonprofit theatres were asking the same funders and corporations for the same small pool of money (the Georgia Council of the Arts, for instance, has had to split $1,111,501 among 114 organizations). Her idea was to form a collective of theatres so that when they went before funders, they presented themselves as one organization with a multimillion dollar operating budget, instead of as individual, small-budget theatres. It’s a smart idea borne out by data; according to a study by the Oakland, Calif.- and Brooklyn-based Helicon Collaborative, called “Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy,” multimillion dollar arts organizations receive 79 percent of all arts funding around the country, despite making up only 10 percent of the arts ecosystem.
In 2011, the Atlanta Intown Theatre Partnership (AITP) was born, comprising Actor’s Express, Horizon Theatre Company, 7 Stages, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, and Theatrical Outfit. Their budgets range from $400,000 to $1.9 million; combined they are a $5 million organization. As AITP, their initial goal was to try to raise money for operations, because all had $100,000-$250,000 gaps in operating funds. Finding money to make up those shortfalls would be a step toward financial stability.
“Large organizations have a team of people devoted to this kind of stewardship and cultivation,” says Atlanta Shakespeare Company artistic director Jeff Watkins. “Taken together, our total audience and total economic impact are very large, so we thought it would be an attractive funding opportunity.”
The theatres also formed a board to put a structure in place for AITP, with two voting representatives from each of the thea-tres. AITP had some initial successes securing funds from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and used those funds to hire a consultant to help them devise their mission, create bylaws, and refine their structure. Then they hired an executive director for AITP who would write grants, schedule meetings, and run the day-to-day operations of the 501(c)(3) organization.
Once they had a structure in place, it was time to begin asking for money. They started out by hosting parties for the high-level individual donors at their respective theatres to pitch the idea of AITP. The goal was to generate positive word of mouth and garner support for all five theatres. Then they started to go before foundations and corporations for private gifts.
Though at first they were moderately successful, receiving a grant from the Imlay Foundation, getting more foundations to pony up proved to be more difficult. Convincing foundations to give money for operation funds to order supplies, enhance production values, increase staff and artist salaries, and build reserves was a tough sell. Much of the feedback they received was that funders wanted to be aligned with specific projects or productions that fit their missions.
“We found that we were having a hard time getting the funding community on board with what we were trying to do,” Adler says. “Foundations were having a hard time understanding how this was going to work. They kept asking about a specific project, and we tried to explain that helping us to hire more staff and support operations was the project. That did not resonate with donors.”
After months of pounding the pavement for private dollars, the artistic and managing directors regrouped to discuss a change of direction. They agreed that audience growth and marketing were also priorities, especially since all of the theatres are located within a few miles of each other. Actor’s Express, Horizon Theatre Company, and Theat-rical Outfit wanted younger, more diverse audiences. The Atlanta Shakespeare Company and 7 Stages wanted more seasoned audience members with the ability to support the theatre beyond buying tickets. So they consulted with the DeVos Institute for Arts Management, led by Michael M. Kaiser, and TRG Arts to put together a plan to explore cross-promotional opportunities, and to learn how to employ more sophisticated digital marketing techniques.
“The type of work that we do does not attract corporate dollars,” admits Mack Headrick, the managing director of 7 Stages. “Our work tends to attract the more downtrodden parts of the population that do not have the economic mobility to support the work. That type of work has been a part of our mission for more than 39 years, so our individual giving base is very small because the content of our work is not mainstream.”
Despite setbacks, AITP continues to try to grow their audiences; the theatres are now participating in the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Audience Building Roundtable, which includes $100,000 to conduct a study of the correlation between arts patrons and MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) riders. All five organizations are contributing their data with the hope of encouraging more patrons to use public transit. With the results of the study, the participating theatres hope to find a shared solution.
“We get a lot of complaints about traffic and parking in Atlanta,” says Lee Foster, Theatrical Outfit’s managing director. “When I-85 [freeway] collapsed, MARTA use went up exponentially, so if they will take it in that scenario, we hope that they will take it in other scenarios.”
Though they have raised only about $400,000 so far—less than half of the hoped-for $1 million, intended for operational support at all five theatres—they have gained a greater appreciation for each other.
“It’s really instructive and inspiring to have regular contact with my colleagues, and that’s sharpening our artistic processes and our work,” says Tom Key, artistic director of Theatrical Outfit.
Freddie Ashley, the artistic director at Actor’s Express, agrees. “I think any time organizations step outside of their daily grind and join forces for the collective good that’s a really great thing. These five theatres are working together with the sole intent of lifting each other up.”
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta.