Under the Influence: A Major Funder's Growing Footprint in the Theater Space

 photo:  aerogondo2 /shutterstock

photo: aerogondo2/shutterstock

In a recent piece on the Shubert Foundation's most recent grant cycle, I explored the growing influence of institutional arts funders in fields lacking robust individual and public support. The New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) plays a similarly outsized role in the theater space—and it's been expanding.

Over the summer, NEFA announced $630,000 in six new grants, ranging from $90,000-$125,000, during the seventh year of the National Theater Project (NTP). In addition to the Creation and Touring grant, each recipient will also receive $10,000 toward capacity building for touring the project. Click here to see all six grant recipients.

Since the project's inception in 2010, NEFA has given over $5 million to support the development and touring of new theater works. To date, 57 new theater works have received support; tours of those works have reached 42 states across the U.S.

Indeed, the scope and breadth of the NEFA's support for theater suggests a broad degree of influence, but as I noted in the Shubert piece, "influence" is a relative concept in the siloed world of arts philanthropy. While stronger than the dance sector, the theater space lacks the kind of support we see in, say, the visual arts. Consequently, NEFA's influence, further bolstered by a recent cash infusion from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, isn't just important. It's vital. 

A consistent supporter of the NTP, Mellon provided the program with a three-year, $3.77 million grant back in April. The funding will enable the NEAFA to make permanent a host of pilot programs, including expanded regional meetings, Finalist Development grants for applicants who do not receive Creation and Touring grants, and Transition Grants for NTP alumni.

In other words, the money enables the NTP to provide additional funding for more ensembles while building an end-to-end support structure that's unique among institutional theater funders. And why is it unique? One word: differentiation.

The theater sector may not be as flush as the visual arts space, but its donor base is sufficiently expansive. In addition to the NEFA, the space has its fair share of institutional funders, as well as an array of New York-centric patrons, alumni donors, and newcomers like Qualcomm co-founder Dr. Andrew Viterbi, actress Diane Lane, and even a Powerball winner, one Roy Cockrum.

An expansive funding base yields differentiation, as more funders lend their support to more causes. The theater space is no exception. Recent gifts aim to remedy the theater world's gender imbalance, cultivate aspiring playwrights, and engage the military community. Given this proliferation of niche philanthropy, there aren't as many funders actually supporting the development and touring of new theater work as you'd expect, especially on a massive scale like the NEFA.

NEFA's total payout to this year's winners—$630,000—is the same as it was in 2014 and 2015. This would normally suggest the NTP isn't expanding in the conventional sense. But the recent Mellon gift alters the equation. Thanks to this new cash infusion Mellon, the NTP's charter and offerings will broaden, and NEFA's influence, like that of the Shubert Foundation, should keep growing.