What a Foundation’s Backing for "Social Impact Theatre" Says About the Arts Funding World

Back in 2015, I looked at how the Seattle-based Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation revamped its theater funding priorities with an eye toward what it calls “social impact theatre.” Its pivot came at a time when funders of all stripes were reframing the performing arts as a means to drive social change and boost community engagement.

Fast-forward to the present day. The foundation will announce the first cycle of grants for social impact theatre—defined as “artistic content that promotes dialogue around relevant social issues”—in mid-May. And while the news may sound like a run-of-the-mill grant offering from a regional funder, I’d argue that the foundation’s work is newsworthy for two reasons.

First, its focus on social impact theatre provides another illuminating example of a funder embracing the red-hot field of socially focused arts programming. And second, its work underscores the growing influence of institutional funders operating in fields like dance and theater that traditionally lack robust individual and government support.

The foundation, whose other core mission areas include public education, supportive care, and “career pathways,” previously focused on “organizational excellence in small and mid-sized theaters.” For instance, during a four-year stretch, the foundation awarded $275,000 in funding to 17 Los Angeles-based theater companies. As far as theater grantmaking goes, it was pretty standard stuff.

However, upon “recognizing that that theatre has the power to address important and somewhat provocative issues,” the foundation shifted to a model of production-specific support for shows that “take on relevant social issues,” prioritizing musical theater productions. The program supports nonprofit theater organizations based in Alaska, California, Oregon or Washington state.

True to its word, that foundation has funded cutting edge-productions like Seattle Children’s Theatre’s And In This Corner: Cassius Clay; the Latino Theater Company’s Members Only, which explores the protagonist’s “journey of discovery as the AIDS epidemic threatens to come out of the shadows” in 1980s New York City; and Portland Playhouse’s Crowns, a “celebration of African American spirituality, dance, song, and cultural history.”

The foundation fosters the field of theater by “expanding access to inspiring productions and immersive educational experiences,” and supporting “artistic content that promotes important conversations around timely social issues.” Further, the foundation believes that “active engagement before and after performances provides additional access points that are welcoming to new and underserved audiences.”

Reaching Critical Mass

The foundation’s talking points reveal an ancillary benefit of socially focused programming: its ability to serve as a natural springboard for greater community and audience engagement.

Add it all up, and it should come as no surprise that over three years after the Biller Family Foundation’s pivot, funders’ interest in socially focused art remains strong, as these efforts generate a considerable bang for the buck. But this fact alone doesn’t explain the surge in giving for initiatives that explore the intersection of art and social welfare.

The larger context is that funders are responding to the highly charged political and social climate. Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs summed up the unsettling zeitgeist upon announcing the funder’s spring 2018 grant cycle, which focused on the intersection of “artistic engagement with political and social issues.”

“This work is inspiring at a time when many groups in this country feel threatened—women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, to name a few,” Wachs said.

Another piece of anecdotal evidence testifying to funders’ growing interest in socially focused art is the fact what while institutional funders like the Ford, Robert Rauschenberg, and Shelley and Donald Rubin foundations initially took the lead a few years back, individual patrons have also warmed up to the idea. Most notably, back in 2017, collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund bankrolled the $100 million Art for Justice Fund based at the Ford Foundation to safely reduce the U.S. prison population.

Here’s a more recent example. Upon making a $27.5 million donation to the Shed, Jonathan Tisch lauded the center’s “ambitious and risk-taking” programming, which includes a free, citywide program that explores “social justice issues through dance” and “Powerplay,” a woman-centered celebration of “radical art and healing.”

That said, individual donors have a long way to go before they match institutional funders’ footprint in this niche space, and understandably so. Patrons often lack the administrative infrastructure needed to assess and select viable, socially focused initiatives. Others remain enamored with funding big-ticket capital projects. But the narrative is changing, thanks in part to shifts in demographics. As younger donors ramp up their giving, the transactional “old world” model of arts philanthropy is being supplanted by a more immersive approach that views the arts through a social justice lens.

Performing arts organizations could certainly use an infusion of support from socially focused patrons. NEA funding has declined in real terms, leaving institutional funders like the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Shubert Foundation, and the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation to step up and fill the breach. Expect their influence to increase further should the Trump administration succeed in its desire to drastically cut or eliminate federal arts funding. 

Click here for more information about the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation’s social impact theatre grant program. Grant cycles generally begin in mid-January and mid-July.