In late March, hundreds of artistic, managerial, engagement and education leaders from theatres in more than 30 states came to Milwaukee for the inaugural Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where I serve as managing director. The goal of the convening was to give space to practitioners for reflection, inquiry, and collaboration as our theatres nationwide move toward engagement at increasing frequencies. With more than 50 speakers curated by a planning committee of practitioners, we hoped that the weekend would better inform our individual and institutional practices in an increasingly challenging world.
Particularly given that the April issue of American Theatre magazine had Native American theatre as its theme, and the May/June issue’s theme is immigration , it was apropos how the summit kicked off and ended. John Kordsmeier, retired president of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation and current chair of Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Mpact Council, welcomed everyone by noting, “The name Milwaukee comes from an Algonquin word meaning ‘good, beautiful, or pleasant land.’ Other interpretations say it is a Potawatomi phrase meaning a ‘gathering place by the water.’ No immigrant lived where Milwaukee stands today until 1675, but our natives, the original people of this land, appeared here 12,000 years ago…We, and now you, are surrounded by sacred places. Later immigrants from across the world settled in Milwaukee and contributed to the evolution of the city we see today.”
In doing so, he reminded us that while some are quick to label others as “immigrant,” we all have roots in other places—a message also carried by the final performance of the summit, the world premiere of Catherine Trieschmann’s brilliant new play One House Over.
But if engagement was the purported organizing theme, keynote speaker Carmen Morgan of ArtEquity, immediately complicated it, asking provocatively, “Do we really need community engagement? What I’m wrestling with is, what do we mean by community, and then what do we mean by engagement? For some communities, engagement has led to genocide and enslavement, so if you come from one of those communities, when you hear ‘community engagement,’ you are going to be a little suspicious. I’m wondering if it is not so much community engagement we need but community justice. We can’t really have community, let alone engagement, unless all of us are seen and treated as human.
“I think all roads lead back to justice,” she continued. “So I’m really wondering why this isn’t this being framed as a community justice conversation…If I am on the parameters, on the outside of this conversation, the unrepresented, I’m not sure I would want to engage. On the other hand, if I know you are committed to community justice, I might show up very differently.”
As a gay white male Midwesterner, and a theatre leader, I enter discussions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and engagement with a mix of apprehension, admitted ignorance—and an earnest desire to create a theatre that is welcoming and inspirational to all. As such the summit was challenging—logistically, intellectually, and emotionally—for many of us. We were asked to interrogate our own biases and privilege, to equitably engage populations that historically have been underrepresented in our theatres, and to recommit to using the resources invested in us to serve as catalysts of positive change in our community. Weeks later, I’m still processing, and I view that as a metric of success. But I will admit that I keep finding myself returning to Carmen’s introductory remarks about creating institutions of justice.
As a manager, I’m often tasked with developing resources and systems to maximize mission fulfillment and achieve strategic priorities, so purely from an occupational standpoint, I find myself gravitating to how our theatres would operationalize this goal—to become institutions of justice. Presently there are 505 theatres in the U.S. that are members of Theatre Communications Group, all of which are 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations. (It’s a requirement of TCG membership, in fact). But many of our theatres did not begin as nonprofits. Prior to the establishment of the modern tax code, which created 501(c)3 organizations, many theatres—including my current and previous employers Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Arena Stage—were founded as for-profit stock corporations. By the mid-1960s, most theatres had transitioned to becoming 501(c)3s, successfully making the argument that our missions are primarily educational in nature and therefore our institutions are deserving of tax-exempt status. This transition allowed us to create much more stable business models, as we could now solicit tax-deductible charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations, and government entities. With this stability, however, came restrictions.
Title 26 of the U.S. Tax Code established 29 types of nonprofit entities, of which the 501(c)3 is the most restrictive, as 501(c)3 entities receive the best tax treatment under federal law, including being tax-exempt and being able to collect tax-deductible contributions. The trade-off for having these benefits are limitations on certain activities, including a restriction on being able to support or oppose a candidate for public office (private foundations are heavily taxed on their lobbying expenditures and there is a low limit on annual dollar amounts an organization can spend on lobbying, with burdensome reporting requirements). Combined with the fact that the penalty for overstepping could be the immediate revocation of tax-exempt status, 501(c)3 organizations tend to err on the side of caution when approaching such limitations.
It seems to me that if a theatre would like to move from engagement to justice, they may need to step beyond education and into activism, as historic methods of seeking justice include lobbying for legislation, endorsing candidates, contributing financially to campaigns, and grassroots organizing. As we are beginning to see with a small group of theatre kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, these are among the core competencies theatre artists possess from young ages. But these activities are restricted at most nonprofits given the way we’re structured. This dilemma brought to mind my previous work at Americans for the Arts, which is organized as both a 501(c)3 and a 501(c)4, allowing them to more aggressively advocate under the banner of their (c)4 status. That’s because 501(c)4 social welfare organizations, while tax-exempt, don’t accept tax-deductible contributions; in turn they’re able to engage in unlimited political activity.
Interestingly, last year the country underwent a change in the tax code authored by the Trump administration that has many nonprofits nervous about the future of charitable giving, due to changes in the estate tax cap and a rise in the standard deduction. The threat to tax-deductibility on charitable gifts has been seen as an insurmountable obstacle for many 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations. But there may be an opportunity in this: As individuals and families who take the increased standard deduction opt not to deduct their charitable gifts as itemized deductions (because their giving typicaly does not surpass the new standard deduction levels), perhaps their motives for giving will change. Rather than giving so they can get a tax deduction, they may induced to give primarily in support of a mission they believe. So if a regional theatre were to launch a 501(c)4 to cover its justice and advocacy work, alongside a 501(c)3 that could serve as the umbrella for its standard performance and education activities, a donor could choose which entity to support—and it would give theatres a legal entity through which to move fully into social justice work.
For those theatres fully invested in what the House Theatre’s Erik Schroeder has called JEDI work (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), the 501(c)4 could be the next horizon of their evolution. As I find myself more and more these days, I’m reminded of the words of Zelda Fichandler, who argued for the establishment of nonprofit theatres, then later said, “While we are gathered here in the name of the nonprofit corporation (and, indeed, without the nonprofit income tax code, our American theatre would simply not exist), being nonprofit does not really define us—our goals, our aims, our aesthetic, our achievements. What defines us, measures us, is our capacity to produce art.” I would only ask Zelda to consider a slight revisiono: What defines us is our capacity to fulfill our missions. While I believe the vast majority of theatres would agree that quality artistic work is the foundation on which we stand, it is limited in its capacity to propel positive change in our communities without the help of engagement, outreach, and justice work. To fully do the latter, we may come to realize that our operating paradigms are holding us back from our full capacity.
Chad Bauman, the managing director of Milwaukee Rep, contributes this monthly American Theatre column.