On tipping the dominoes then walking away …

shutterstock_77378713A couple months back I was one of a number of people interviewed for a research project of Grantmakers in the Arts. The interview was aimed at understanding my influences as a funder (when I worked at the Mellon Foundation) and drawng out some lessons learned. At one point in the discussion I found myself saying that I had probably left grantmaking just in time because I was not sure I understood how to be an effective arts grantmaker over the long haul.

While at Mellon I found myself continually questioning whether it was better to provide stable support to a few over a very long period of time (forsaking all others) or to “cycle out” grantees after a reasonable period of time in order to make room for new entrants.

No matter the choice, the questions that ensued were maddening: If “fewer but larger” which few given that so many worthy organizations needed support? If “spreading the wealth” then what was a “reasonable” timeline for ending support given that organizations and their projects were chronically underfunded?

Without a doubt, a common funder’s dilemma.

And there were other aspects that troubled me.

For one, since no single funder is generally a “majority stakeholder” in most arts organization, the fate of any organization is a factor of actions by quite a number of private and public donors, who can have competing values, rationales, measures of success, and goals.

And perhaps most disconcerting, as time went on it felt increasingly difficult to see the sector with clear eyes. As in any organization, attention in a foundation is focused on some problems but not others. The lens is narrowed and the field is seen through the logic of the current “regime” and through the eyes of current grantees. Problems are problems only insofar as they can be addressed by and classified within existing program areas and can be grasped and articulated using the house rhetoric. Whole swaths of the sector and their issues, by necessity, become invisible in order for the funder to maintain any sense of purpose and potency; to think about everything one can’t fund is to invite a nervous breakdown on an organizational level.


About a month ago, I was reading an oft-cited essay from 1970 by Zelda Fichandler, co-founder of Arena Stage in Washington DC and pioneer of the resident theater movement. The essay is called Theatres or Institutions?* Perhaps because this GIA interview had been on my mind I found myself circling back to a couple of paragraphs in which Fichandler questions and reflects upon the impact of first receiving funding (when the Ford Foundation, NEA, and others first began to support theaters) and then losing it a little over a decade later. (Emphases added by me.)

She writes:

What happens when the money comes in a little? When you get enough from the Ford Foundation or the National Endowment to move ten squares and buy the Atlantic City Boardwalk? Is it migraine headache time? What time is it when you are suddenly endowed with all the blessings of institutionalization? (Mind you, the blessings aren’t something that are forced on you. They’re something you asked for without quite knowing what you’re getting.) Time for the Table of Organization? Time for the specialization of labor? Time to begin to consider the internal distribution of wealth now that you’ve got some? The promoting, marketing and distribution of the product? Ways to increase efficiency, ways to rationalize use of time and manpower, ways to diversify so as to appeal to a broader base, ways to close the gap between income and spending? It’s headache time and Surprise! Surprise! Time. One has become a private enterprise in a capitalistic society. The “not for profit” in your papers really says No Parking. Shades of Adam Smith and the Ford Motor Company of American and Pan, where hast thou fled? (p. 109)


We’ll need more money than we are getting and we must get it in a different way. Arena Stage has just received a terminal grant from the Ford Foundation which, partially matched by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts will just about cover our deficit for the last season and for this one and the next. We have also received other grants from these and from other foundations, among them a three-year grant for a workshop program for our acting company, a three-year grant for the training at minimal salaries of young craftsmen under a production intern scheme, a three-year grant to increase the salaries of a ten-person nucleus of an acting company. This was very early on, around 1958 or 59—to entice actors from the magnetic field of New York. …

I mention these in particular to make the point that while it may be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, these grants had such a seminal meaning for our organization that when they were withdrawn, or, more accurately not renewed, the trauma was so intense that one wondered whether it would have been better not to have had them than to have had them and lost them.

Not knowing from one year to the next whether there will be a spring, or only summer, winter and fall, one simply does not know how to organize one’s closet. I suggest an end to this tithing tease. I suggest a recognition that subsidy is here to stay or we cannot possibly. (p. 110)

Reading this last line, in particular, brings to mind some of Scott Walters’ recent posts on the need for artists to create new business models that are not dependent on contributions in order to maintain their independence (summarized here by Laura Axelrod).

I am compelled by the dead-in-your-tracks ending of the last sentence of Fichandler … or we cannot possibly. Cannot what? Cannot conceive of any way, perhaps, to continue the revolution that the resident theater movement was intended to be if our comrades in the large private foundations and federal arts agency abandon the cause.

Less than a decade after she spoke these words major funding from Ford would be evaporating and funds from the NEA would begin to flatten before beginning their descent. And by 1978 there would be a palpable sense that the resident theater movement had taken a wrong turn at some point along the way.

I keep returning to these paragraphs from Fichandler’s essay because they illustrate poetically and potently what happens in the psyche of a grantee when a little bit of money comes in and when it, inevitably, goes away. In response to the question, Would it have been better not to have received these grants than to have received them and lost them? I finding myself wanting to shout back at the page, “Yes! You would have been better off never having received the money!”

No matter how good the intentions of most foundations over the past several decades it seems the “tithing tease” has debilitated rather than strengthened the sector. And by debilitated I mean weakened the ability of organizations to enact their missions.

So what is the problem? I find myself wanting to push past questions like whether or not the field would benefit from more GOS and less project-based support, or from longer-term rather than shorter-term grants and ask a more  philosophical question … Something like …

Is it ethical for funders to start what they cannot finish?

Cannot because they do not have the resources … Or cannot because they are unwilling to commit to full funding or long-term support because it is believed that these create an unhealthy resource dependency …  Or because there is a desire to keep options open in order to be able to pursue new initiatives or respond to new grantees at will.

The assumption embedded in the term “start” is that I’m not talking here about the kind of helping hand that simply wants to support ongoing programs or operations. I’m talking about the kind of hand that seems to want to push, pull,  prod, coax, launch, build, expand, change, or otherwise disrupt the status quo.

Some follow-on questions …

  • Is it ethical to de-fund organizations that are achieving agreed upon goals, if you know that removing support will destabilize the organization or the funded program?
  • Is it ethical to provide “seed funding” if the organization is unlikely to be able to raise the remaining funds needed to finance the initiative (in the start up phase and over time).
  • Is it ethical to start relationships with new organizations (i.e., cut the pie into smaller pieces) when those that are currently funded are already receiving inadequate support?

Fichandler says it all in those paragraphs: (1) Even small amounts of money can have undue influence. She isn’t just talking about new programs being started, she’s talking about a shift in the logic, the goals, and the processes of her theater. (2) When money goes away it can be traumatic–not simply because it’s hard to replace the cash but because it feels like, and signals to others, a withdrawal of support for the cause.

As far as I can tell not much has changed with funders since 1970. We continue (at times) to give organizations just enough money to encourage them toward one path rather than another (a choice that we know will consequently enable certain future paths and disable others) and then we walk away when they are just far enough down the path that they can’t really turn back.

We still call it philanthropy but perhaps we need another name for an action that essentially amounts to tipping the dominoes and then walking away.


PS – I am delighted (!) to have been asked to attend and blog about the 2013 Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Philadelphia in early October. I will be posting on the GIA website and also on Jumper.

*Essay published by the International Theatre Institute (US) in a journal called Theatre 3 (one of five such journals).

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  1. says

    Great post. And I have seen your name in the “created by” metadata tag on at least one excel budget file where I used to work, from your time at Mellon. Small world. :)

    As for some of the questions you raised above, here are my perspectives (in no particular order) as a financial manager.

    Even though I work on the grantee side, I do not think it’s healthy to get have any particular project or program funded in perpetuity. That encourages stagnation. Having to find new ways to fund a program keeps us focused on what makes the program or project valuable and supportive of our missions. If we don’t keep making the case, we’re more prone to mission creep or, worse, programs slowly losing impact over time without being held accountable.

    I definitely prefer general operating support. It’s much easier to find project support. In the meantime, janitors are extremely important, too, and must be paid. You also need to be in compliance with pesky little things like tax law, and somebody usually has to be paid to do that, too. Nobody will fund this infrastructure directly, so unrestricted GOS is immensely valuable. It also, of course, provides the organization with the most flexibility to do whatever is most needed.

    We all need to understand the value of diversified revenue streams. If we’re relying so heavily on a single source for significant funding, whether it’s project support or GOS, then we’re going to have this problem inevitably. Especially if that single source is a foundation or government grant program. And it’s simply unfair to blame our own inability to see this coming, or our inability to diversify our revenue streams, on a foundation. No, there shouldn’t be a “tithing tease.” There should be a clear-eyed acknowledgement by both the grantor and the grantee that a particular grant program is (or is likely to be) time-bound.

    That said, funders providing a very significant portion of a project’s budget are in a position to push the grantee to be more honest and self-critical about the actual lifecycle of a project (they shouldn’t all last forever), the likely funding sources for the next phase following the grant, etc…

    Financial decision making is hard for everybody. This is no less nor more true in the arts. A for-profit startup is just as likely to have more or less the same problems Fichandler cites when they run out of Series A venture funding. But foundations and other grant makers should absolutely not give their grantees a pass on making these decisions and navigating these problems. If you want your grantees to be insulated from such concerns, then just call it feudal patronage instead of grant-making.

  2. says

    It’s interesting that you focus on the end of the passage you quote. Less familiar with the essay than you are, the passage that jumped out at me with shocking clarity, espeically for its time, is this:
    “One has become a private enterprise in a capitalistic society. The “not for profit” in your papers really says No Parking. Shades of Adam Smith…”
    The decentralized and indirect arts funding in the US that libertarian economist Tyler Cowen touts as “creative successes” have resulted in what Zelda predicted 43 years ago — forced the nonprofit arts into for-profit modes of thinking and acting. Until recently, Europe and the Commonwealth countries have kept the arts at least partially protected from market requirements through government subsidy. Government subsidy would seem the only way to insulate the arts from those forces here (or anywhere). But, I am a pragmatist (hopefully in the best John Dewey sense of the word, but that is for others to judge) and understand that the arts do indeed exist in a market economy. Perhaps, then, the best kinds of grants are of two types: 1) direct grants to artists to make work because more art is better than less art and 2) seed grants to organizations to build the capacity they need to function effectively to connect art with audiences in the world in which we live (that is, as an enterprise in a capitalist society). I thought, perhaps, that the meltdown of 2008 would cause some real systemic economic change that could benefit the arts and the world, but absent an economic system nobody has yet conceived of, funders will need to make hard choices to facilitate the production and distribution of art now, in the world in which we live.

  3. Interested reader says

    This is a very interesting perspective. Yes, seed money does put an institution on a path to a new place. Serious forethought needs to be done about how that institution will sustain itself once there. An expansion, for example, isn’t simply about constructing a building–it will require increased staffing and mechanical expenses in perpetuity. Is the continued funding for all of these new maintenance costs accounted for in advance? Perhaps a 5-year plan isn’t enough. Institutions really need to think very long term when applying for grants to fund projects that will expand their buildings and budgets. Does their constituency warrant it? Or is the institution banking on attracting more people on the basis of the expansion? Is this realistic, or does it put the institution into a vicious cycle of staging expensive blockbuster events in order to fund its expensive overhead? How will the new, increased costs continue to be met farther down the line? Poorly thought-through expansion can ultimately result in institutional collapse. Who will take the blame? Generous seed money funding can indeed be a mixed blessing.

  4. says

    Great post, Diane! Some thoughts:

    “Is it ethical to de-fund organizations that are achieving agreed upon goals, if you know that removing support will destabilize the organization or the funded program?”

    No. But inherent in your question is an implication that one of the agreed-upon goals could or would not be such organizational or programmatic stabilization in the first place. In which case, you’re talking about more than an ethical problem but the fundamental mismanagement (I really wanted to write “pissing away”) of the funder’s resources.

    “Is it ethical to provide “seed funding” if the organization is unlikely to be able to raise the remaining funds needed to finance the initiative (in the start up phase and over time)?”

    Yes—IF the funder specifically directs the expenditure of the funds to improve the likelihood of financing the initiative. Should the funder not to engage in that level of direction, I say they’re abdicating responsibility for the outcome. Let’s think of this like investors: Would you invest your money in a business that you know with near-total certainty is set to fail? Well, maybe: you’ll make a judgment call based on what “unlikely” means—that is, if you know the difference between terrible, awful, million-to-one odds and odds that are simply not favorable. (The history of commercial theatre is predicated on precisely this calculation.) What is unethical to me is not to factor in those odds—not to make that judgment call. The wording of your question makes me wonder if such due diligence would even be performed in the first place. If it is performed, and if the judgment is to take a chance nevertheless and fund the initiative anyway, then I think it’s ethical. If due diligence isn’t performed, then it’s unethical.

    “Is it ethical to start relationships with new organizations (i.e., cut the pie into smaller pieces) when those that are currently funded are already receiving inadequate support?”

    What is “inadequate”? This makes me think of the scene in “History of the World, Part I” when Mel Brooks, as Moses, comes down from Mt. Sinai with the third tablet containing Commandments 11 to 15. If you look at the screen, you’ll notice that the tablet Moses drops does not contain the inscription “Thou Shalt Fund Nonprofits in Perpetuity.” If an institution supported by a funder for a long time (whatever “a long time” means) can’t make it without that support, whose fault is that? I am being purposeful in using the word “fault,” by the way. Maybe not in 1970 or 1980, when no one could have foreseen either the explosive growth in the nonprofit arts sector or the structural issues with supporting it, but certainly for any cultural organization in 2013 to be knowingly, willfully overdependent on any one benefactor or group of benefactors is foolish.

    But back to my original question: what is “inadequate”? What cultural organization is ever going to stand up and say, “No thanks, we’re funded adequately”? Sometimes a funder has to be (pardon my language here) smarter than their recipients.

    Here’s my question: Is it ethical for funders to continue relationships with organizations when they know the recipient won’t acknowledge or address their overdependence on those funders?

    As evidenced by the Fichlander quotes, the mistake was leading nonprofits to assume that largesse is open-ended. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing should.

  5. Susan Ferziger says

    Thanks as always for your insightful commentary, Diane. From the grantee side, I would like to add that some of these issues could be greatly improved (though not solved) through better grantmaker-grantee communication. Grantmakers often do not communicate their decision-making process with grantees, and rarely do they inform grantees in advance that their funding is about to disappear. A renewal is often assumed by the grantee until the rejection letters is received :”Sorry, we changed our guidelines… sorry, we cycled out your organization to make room for other grantees.” A word of warning in advance to grantees that the grantmaker’s funding will be going away would help immensely in being able to plan to replace those funds (or cut expenses to balance the loss).

    I know there needs to be better communication going the other way as well. Grantees are often fearful of honest communication with grantmakers, feeling that if we communicate that a program didn’t succeed in all the ways we laid out in the proposal, we will lose future funding. Many of our communications with funders are based on trying to put on our best face to secure future grants, rather than having an honest dialogue.

  6. says

    Thank you for this post, Diane. You continue to bring up the tough issues in a thought provoking way!

    The dependence created by this cycle of funding makes me love matching grants more and more. I believe in funding the arts, yet I also believe in the arts learning to fend and fund for themselves. It is good that they received the funding in the first place, but they also should have realized that this type of funding is touch and go and not guaranteed from year to year. Perhaps the problem is not so much the ethical issues regarding this funding as much as the way the funding is perceived. We can learn to be more self-reliant while being grateful for the support from foundations when/if it trickles in.

  7. Marcus Overton says

    This topic makes me remember a time in the late 1970s when I sat on the Dance Advisory Panel at the NEA. Those who are old enough will remember CETA rants (Comprehensive Education and Training Assistance.) These grants were dispensed with the clear understanding that organizations receiving them would…yes, educate and train the folks who were hired with the money to…yes, be prepared to continue raising funds (for their own salary and for the future activities of the company)..when the CETA funds ran out (and a clear time-table was attached to each grant.) What happened? As soon as the CETA funds were depleted, small dance companies (the majority of the recipients) deluged the Dance Program with funding requests to replace them — very nearly the exact opposite of the CETA program’s aims. Misunderstanding or mismanagement? I was rounded upon with fury when I pointed out that it seemed unwise to simply replace one form of federal funding with another when the recipients didn’t follow through on their end of the responsibility. Theodore Bikel, at that time a member of the National Council on the Arts, agreed with me which provided a little cover, but it appears that this question still vexes.

  8. says

    The Arts (oh how I hate that term) may as one poster above suggests, “exist in a market economy”, but let’s not forget that the arts don’t naturally exist in a market economy. They were placed there. Subsequent problems of funding arise from our misunderstanding that things have to remain the way they are now.

    • Marcus Overton says

      Bravo. We are dealing with a series of wrong turns that took place inthe early 1970s, just about the time that the Big Five orchestras all achieved 52-week kcontracts — in the face of overwhelming evidence that that kind of performing schedule was all but impossible for most if not all of the other orchestras in the country. Years of”make work” activity followed – projects that almost always cost more to implement than they could ever make in revenue. The same kind of attitude percolated through the dance and theatre communities, ,with predictable results. A small number of folks sitting on the NEA panels tried to discuss this situation from time to time and were almost always shut down.

      We have reaped what was sown.

    • says

      When I think about arts in a market economy, I think about the philanthropic world as another kind of “market.” There’s a government funding “market,” too. And all it really boils down to is convincing whoever is providing the funding that what you have to offer is valuable, and that they ought to contribute. That goes for the price of one ticket from a concert-goer on up to a multi-million dollar endowment or sustaining grant from a wealthy individual, foundation, or government agency. In my opinion, there is no great reason that artists should be insulated from explaining in a convincing way the value of what they create, and that puts them in the “market” in some way or another.

      Having supported the crafting of many, many funding proposals in my career, I frankly wouldn’t be that thrilled to see the lion’s share of the revenue mix coming from governments, because they have, from necessity, a cookie cutter approach to grant-making with too many layers of bureacracy and approval. But they are an important part of the funding ecosystem.

      • says

        “In my opinion, there is no great reason that artists should be insulated from explaining in a convincing way the value of what they create, and that puts them in the “market” in some way or another”

        Asking artists to explain the *value* of what they do assumes that art has no intrinsic value.

        Is there any other profession in which the practitioner is expected to continually prove the value of their field? Do scientists have to make a case for the scientific method every time they apply for a research grant?

        My particular field is experimental theatre. Like some other forms — modern dance, new music, avant grade jazz, experimental film — it simply cannot exist without subsidy. It cannot draw the audiences large enough to support it through ticket revenue. Even if a large enough audience for that kind of work existed, the spatial limits of the venues such work needs severely restrict potential revenue.

        Very soon, barring some surprising changes, the only kind of art that will thrive in the U.S. is that which can succeed in a market economy. I believe that in years to come this situation will impoverish all the arts, the same way that loss of one species can lead to further extinctions.

        I don’t know what the best source of subsidy for non-commercial, outside-the-market-economy art forms is. Government? Foundations? Individual patrons? Contributions from the commercial side of the “Art Industry?” But I do know that I want to live in a culture that recognizes the value of art and does not view a lack of market success as a sign of the artist’s failure.

        • says

          To answer your rhetorical questions, YES, scientists do have to make a case for their methods every time they apply for a research grant. A grant to the NSF, which can run to 14 single-spaced pages, must explain not only the research question, but why the research should be funded (its “value”) and what methods will be used to anwer it. Significant attention is paid to assessing the value of the research and the soundness of its methodology. Arts advocates weaken their argument when they place the arts in competion or comparison with other fields and sectors for the very reason you note – art has intrinsic value. This is why the economic impact argument for arts support has had only limited success.

          As Doug Borwick says in his post this morning elsewhere in ArtsJournal “the arts will always exist. It’s the arts industry/infrastructure/establishment that is of concern here.”

        • says

          Either you’re not replying to my argument or you haven’t really heard it.

          I completely understand that experimental theater won’t exist based on ticket sales. A very small slice of theater can. And art that can’t sell tickets certainly can be extremely valuable for a society. But this simply means that you have to operate in two markets at once. One of them is the market to sell tickets. The other is the market for philanthropy (or subsidy, if you will).

          You don’t have to convince me that the form itself has value. But if you were to ask me for a donation, you would have to convince me that your work has value. In the same way a scientist doesn’t have to prove the value of the scientific method. But she or he absolutely does have to convince a funder of the value if her or his research that uses the scientific method.

          There’s plenty of garbage out there, both in science and in the arts. If I think that I should be funded only because I claim to be an artist, without taking any responsibility to demonstrate how my art can actually be good for something or someone… well, that’s nonsense.

          • says

            The market to sell tickets and the market for funding subsidies have now become the same the same thing. The neo-liberal language used by the NEA and many state arts organizations and that of more and more private foundational funding is that of a populistic, poll-the people, community involvement ideology that mirrors that of mainstream marketing,e.g. -ticket sales.

            We are cultural doomed if we succumb to the notion that art is something that has to demonstrate it’s worth BEFORE it actually happens. How would the public even know that they would love Star Wars or the emotionality of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial if they never have seen such a thing before?

          • says

            You managed to articulate the point I failed to communicate in my earlier post. Thanks. The problem is not about having to be accountable. It has more to do with the tail-wagging-the-dog phenomenon that happens when one gets caught in a seemingly endless cycle of proposal submissions — especially when a project is in an embryonic — or earlier — stage. If I were to have been really honest back when I was writing proposals for new work, I would have said, over and over, “I don’t know.” Instead, I would repeat formulas that had been successful in the past. Increasingly, the demands of “fundraising” became disconnected from the work of making theatre and existed as a rather separate and specialized endeavor.

          • Aaron Andersen says

            I certainly agree that some BS is unfortunately encouraged by the typical grant-making process. I would like to see that greatly reduced, and I don’t think that, “I don’t know what the outcome will be,” should be an automatic disqualifier. But if the honest answer is, “I don’t even know where I’m going with this,” then I personally don’t think the project ought to be subsidized.

            If you’re trying to accomplish something new, I wish it were more effective to say so as a way to assert the value of the work. I do agree that too many funders are too risk-averse and seek sure successes, which sort of defeats the purpose of seeking funding for work that can’t sell enough tickets or copies or whatever to support itself. That model just ends up supporting higher compensation for well established artists who’ve already proved themselves.

          • says

            It is completely fine for an artist to be more focused on her/his artistic vision than the public benefit. I have no problem with that. But I disagree, then, that this artist should be publicly subsidized.

            And institutions that produce or present artistic output (performing arts orgs, museums, festivals, etc) and that have 501(c)(3)’s have already made a public committment, in the process of getting that 501(c)(3), to be focused on the public good, particularly in an educational capacity. If you are working for or represent such an institution, then you must keep your mind on serving the public. That’s the deal you made. Otherwise, please rescind your tax exempt, nonprofit status.

          • says

            The public doesn’t benefit when an artist does average work. The public benefits the most when they are exposed to the best, the most excellent of artistic work. In a sense the public gets the most from their dollar when they get to experience excellence.
            The public good isn’t served by presenting something that has been done time and time again or having an exhibition that was just like the last exhibition. The public good is best served by arts organizations providing the public with the best available artistic endeavors, the richest experiences and artistic excellence.
            Artists achieve excellence by following their unique artistic vision or path. They achieve excellence by perfecting their art to levels others have never achieved or by introducing unique visions or abilities that no one has experienced before. They don’t do that by copying what someone else has done or just repeating what was done in the past.
            So then how does a arts organization rationalize taking NEA funding to present the best to the public and fulfill their obligations when the No. 1 criteria for them getting a grant is… “The creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence”?

          • says

            Richard, you are saying that the best way to serve the public good is to do your best work. I am not offering any argument against that.

            When you previously implied that one can’t produce their best work if one is keeping the public good in mind, that’s where I heartily disagree.

            Keeping the public good at forefront is not the same thing as copying previous artistic efforts. Copying previous efforts is a more reliable way to get grant funding, which is a problem, yes.

          • says

            Thanks for sticking with this sidebar discussion.

            Aaron, No I am not saying the “best way to serve the public good is to do your best work.”

            I’m saying , when it comes to the public good in regards to art, the public is best served, the public good is best achieved when artists are allowed to do their best work. It has nothing to do as an artists with keeping the “public good at forefront.”

            To repeat, the first priority in the NEA guidelines on grant funding is “The creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence” not creating work of high standards that keeps the public good in the forefront.

          • says

            Yes, I hope Diane doesn’t mind hosting the sidebar!

            That may be what the NEA guidelines say, and unless I’m mistaken, individuals and groups without a 501(c)(3) can apply for several NEA grants. Is that the case? And that’s fine. Everybody ought to make their best case for funding, and artistic excellence should be part of that case.

            But the majority of art in the U.S. that is not rather commercial in nature is presented or produced by nonprofit organizations with 501(c)(3) status. Those organizations have most explicitly and publicly made a committment to serve an educational mission for the public benefit. There simply is not a 501(c)(3) mission category labeled “artistic.”

            That’s not just a technical argument. This tax-advantaged nonprofit status is supposed to be used by organizations that serve the public good, which is why we agree via legislation to give these organizations and their donors tax breaks.

            There are ways to get subsidized without such a status, but I’m sure we all know it’s more difficult. Lot’s of funders won’t even consider funding you without a 501(c)(3). That should also change, in my opinion (though I also acknowledge that foundations have their own regulations to follow that appear byzantine or opaque to outsiders).

            Richard, my question for you is, if funders require less explanation of desired outcomes and expected public benefit from an artistic endeavor, and leave more space for the artist to come up with something unforseen and remarkable, how will they choose who to fund? There are limited dollars to go around. And I’m going on the assumption that we should not just fund somebody because they claim to be an artist with a new voice and vision. In other words, I do assume there is some scarcity that requires careful decisions about allocation. How do you suggest those decisions get made?

            And, footnote, I think that scarcity is not an altogether bad thing. I used to be an actor, but I wasn’t very good. I certainly wasn’t adding any artistic vision nor voice to the community. I’m much better at what I do now. I think the public is better served because I’m an arts finance/administration specialist than if I were still trying to be an actor. Scarcity was one of the things that “encouraged” me to let go of being an actor.

          • says

            First it’s important to remember that the current level by which we as a government fund the arts is at a ridiculously low level. It’s almost laughable if it wasn’t so damn sad. At our current NEA appropriations we spend,less than what we do on one new F-35 fighter jet. And we have 2000 on order. So making a case against direct funding to artists because it might be wasted once in awhile is not even worth making.

            Your question of how would artistic excellence be decided in a funding process is a fair one. But, once again, it’s important to remember that we had a system for over 20 years where grants were award to artists for creative work based on professional peer review. The same type of professional peer review that is used to award money in the sciences. The same professional review that the Nobel Prize, MacArthur Foundation and other respected funding sources use. The NEA process even evolved where some laypeople were invited into the process. That system was killed during the cultural wars that began in the late 1980’s.
            That system wasn’t perfect and could be improved upon, but it’s not like we’d have to reinvent the wheel.

          • says

            Richard’s most recent post gets to the heart of this discussion, IMHO. In a system of arts funding that promotes an abundance of scarcity, overthinking the question of how to best divvy up the crumbs may not be so useful. In over thirty years making theatre in the non-profit system, I saw very little “waste” or misuse of funds among small to midsize organizations or individuals. I’ve spent little time in large resident theatre and none in other large arts organizations. But the hundreds of theatre-makers I’ve met on the front lines of ensemble, experimental, and engaged theatre know how squeeze a dollar “till George Washington screams.” by necessity, unfortunately.

  9. Zak Berkman says


    Thanks so much for this. It’s beyond fitting you’ll be in my neck of the Delaware River next month given the seismic shifts happening here with PEW and William Penn. Could easily be a case study in all you question and discuss here.

  10. says

    If the Theatre organization mentioned cannot survive without continuous grant support, if they are running in the red year after year, then in my opinion, they are; 1) Not worthy of continuing support. 2) Do not know how to run a business. 3) Produce navel-gazing shows that only their friends like. In all cases, why should this be funded?
    Having received seven touring grants over 12-years, I am deeply grateful for the depth of change in my life. Many many others, in far flung communities were emotionally touched. Those matching funds grants were very powerful. They effected families, people of all ages. It worked.
    During that time, I was continuously inspired to create new material, to research, write, practice, refine, and perform new shows. Those grants of yesteryear are long gone, but from it, I learned to respect myself as an artist. The worth of the vision and creation..I continue to write and perform new material.
    I cast a hearty vote for a small funding to new creating artists in all forms…to get their wings and a push out of the nest. But, as far as those that regard decades of grant funding as “normal”…, if one can’t survive without money from home….daddy or a grant….then adulthood is a long way off.


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