The Good Kind of Drama: Behind Another Campus Arts Gift

One trend in arts funding worth watching closely is how donors are increasingly bypassing big cities and instead using their deep pockets to transform small towns and cities into formidable arts destinations or centers of cultural learning. (Call it the Alice Walton Effect.)

Higher ed institutions are often a key part of the picture. Some gifts are earmarked for the construction of new on-campus museums. Others, meanwhile, focus on programming. A recent gift from Regent Andrea Fischer Newman and her husband Frank Newman to the University of Michigan, on the other hand, is a little bit of both (and more).

The couple's $1 million gift to the Department of Theatre & Drama at UM's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance has three key components.

First, the new gift sets aside $200,000 to establish the Regent Andrea Fischer Newman and Frank Newman Theatre Scholarship Fund, an endowed fund that will provide need-based scholarships to theater students.

Second, $300,000 will upgrade one of the most-used facilities at the Walgreen Drama Center, currently known as Studio One. According to the school, the space is "critical to the professional development of student actors, directors, designers and stage managers, preparing them for their professional lives."

The remaining portion of the gift, $500,000, supports the Regent Andrea Fischer Newman and Frank Newman Endowed Fund for Theatre Showcase. The fund sends acting majors to the country’s top entertainment capitals to perform for agents, producers and casting directors.

According to Dean Aaron Dworkin, the gift "supports the life cycle of theater students at Michigan: scholarships that help us recruit exceptional students, regardless of means; facilities that contribute to dynamic training opportunities while enrolled; and introductions to industry professionals that will help launch careers."

As for the donors, Andrea, a senior vice president at Delta Air Lines, and Frank, the former president and chief executive officer of the Stow Company Inc., had previously given approximately $250,000 to UM to date.

Which brings me back to donor money flowing to the arts in places not named New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Many of these programs don't operate in their own little vacuums. Instead, they work closely with regional groups and funders, and, as we see in the UM gift, they establish networks with their big city theater brethren. (It's probably no coincidence that half of Newman's gift went to the school's talent showcase fund.)

The net result isn't just an on-campus talent pipeline, but also a vibrant theater scene in their quaint small town.

To see this phenomenon play out (pun intended) in greater depth, head 167 miles to the southeast and check out our take on how Cleveland became nothing less than a modern theater mecca.