King of the Road: A Stalwart Funder Expands Its Support for Touring Theater Outfits

photo: Lois GoBe/shutterstock

photo: Lois GoBe/shutterstock

A big trend in the arts philanthropy space right now is the growing influence of institutional funders operating in fields like dance and theater that traditionally lack robust support. Their influence is likely to increase further should the Trump administration succeed in its desire to drastically cut or eliminate federal arts funding. 

We should view the latest round of funding courtesy of the New England Foundation for the Arts’ (NEFA) National Theater Project (NTP) within this context. By promoting the development and touring of artist-led, ensemble, and devised theater works, the NTP addresses a critical niche area in the theater space. 

Since its inaugural round of grants in 2010, the foundation has allocated over $6.31 million into the field through the program, which receives lead funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the Doris Duke Foundation.

It may not sound like a lot of money given the seemingly endless number of mega-gifts flowing to universities—a $200 million gift for "integrative medicine!"—and museums—$150 million to the Los Angeles County Museums of Art!—but in the historically underfunded area of theater, NEFA's resources are significant.  

In the most recent grants round, the foundation allocated a total of $840,000 to eight NTP Creation and Touring award winners. That’s an average award of $105,000. Each recipient will also receive $10,000 towards capacity building for touring the project. This is real money for theater troupes.

Also consider the program's less quantifiable but equally important downstream impact. To date, 57 new theater works have been supported through Creation and Touring grants. Touring of these works has reached 43 different states. In an arts philanthropy space where "engagement" is the coin of the realm and certain regions of the country provide few theater offerings, that's an impressive reach.

"These are eight amazing and important projects, reflecting the diversity of artists and issues in today’s theater. This is theater that is relevant and engaging, and we are very happy to be able to offer NTP support," said Quita Sullivan, program director for theater at NEFA.

I opened this piece by alluding to the growing influence of institutional funders in fields like dance and theater. But how can we attempt to measure this? In an arts philanthropy ecosystem in which funding equals influence, one way is to simply run the numbers.

In the case of the National Theater Project, last year's funding cycle found the NEFA awarding six recipients a total of $630,000. The foundation awarded the same total amount in 2014 and 2015. Yet this year, as noted, it allocated $840,000 to eight winners. That's two more awards plus a significant 33 percent jump in total funding allocated. What explains this increase?

For a possible answer, we turn to the evergreen institutional funder behind the institutional funder. That would be the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Back in April of 2017, Mellon provided the NTP with a three-year $3.77 million grant. The funding was earmarked for the NEFA to make permanent a host of pilot programs, including expanded regional meetings.

It isn't much of a stretch to suspect that Mellon's infusion gave the foundation some financial flexibility to boost its overall payout to NTP recipients.

Lastly, consider some "softer" metrics illustrating the growing role of institutional funders. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, is, as previously noted, a supporter of the NTP, and has a huge footprint in areas like dance, jazz, and theater.

The foundation wound down its Doris Duke Artist Awards as planned in 2017, only to resurrect it in a slightly modified form this year. Commenting on the award's revival, Duke CEO Edward P. Henry said, "For us, it’s pretty simple: Like our programs in medical research, child well-being and the environment, we recognize that the arts also are critically important to our communities."

Henry's commentary, especially viewed in light of the current administration's hostility towards the arts, illustrates why institutional funders are ramping up support for organizations in historically underfunded fields like dance and theater.