A Quick Look at the Lilly Endowment's $100 Million Give to Indiana Arts Organizations

Every now and then, we come across news calling a large grant a "game-changer" for a recipient organization. It usually warrants some investigation.

Is the grant a "game-changer" simply due to its historic size? Or is it important because it addresses the root causes that inhibit long-term financial sustainability at recipient organizations? In the case of Lilly Endowment, which awarded $100 million in grants to 14 Indiana arts and cultural organizations—a move arts leaders are calling 'historic' and 'game-changing'—the answer seems to be "yes" to both questions. And that's a good thing.
To the former, the grants range from $5 million to $10 million to support museums, performing arts organizations and other cultural institutions. And yes, the windfall is historic. The gifts represent the largest grant the Lilly Endowment has ever given individually to specific recipients such as the American Pianists Association, Dance Kaleidoscope, and Heartland Film. What's more, the grants are in addition to the endowment's regular annual support of arts and culture in Indiana.

Now to the latter question. If Lilly felt compelled to, say, earmark a large grant to the Indiana Repertory Theater (IRT) for the construction of a new auditorium, we wouldn't begrudge them. It's their money, of course. But as we've noted elsewhere, such expensive and audacious capital expenses oftentimes fail to account for unintended long-term costs.  

The same thought occurred to the Lilly Foundation. Its $7.5 million to the IRT—the largest gift in the company's 44-year history—will bolster the organization's existing $12 million endowment, cementing the IRT endowment as one of the largest for a theater company in the nation, according to Janet Allen, IRT's executive artistic director and CEO. In a piece of astute commentary, Allen noted, "This is conservative arts investing. Sustainability is very meaningful to the community." In other words, a $7.5 million renovation for construction can be risky. Socking money away for a rainy day, on the other hand, can be called "conservative"—or simply smart investing.

Of course, some of the money will be used for capital projects. But to hear Lilly Endowment Communications Director Judith Cebula tell it, they had more big-picture goals in mind. "We realized one of the best things we can do is to help them think about long-term financial sustainability, not just fund a capital project or a new initiative."

To that end, we were particularly intrigued by Lilly's $10 million grant to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Readers of our music vertical realize that many symphonies have reached a crisis point in recent years. As we've previously noted, one of the most pressing challenges facing symphonies, regardless of their location, is securing stable and lasting labor agreements with their musicians. 

And so the orchestra announced it would use the money to stream some of its concerts, add to its endowment, and most critically, bolster its musicians’ pension plan. Vince Caponi, the chairman of the orchestra's board of directors, said the orchestra would "expand its reach beyond the walls of our concert hall, will help fulfill an important commitment to our extraordinary musicians, and will help secure the future of the institution."