With a Growing Stream of Grants, This Stalwart Arts Funder Helps Offset Ominous Trends

The New York City-based Shubert Foundation recently awarded $32 million to 556 nonprofit performing arts organizations—the 37th consecutive year that the foundation has increased its giving. Ranging from $10,000 to $325,000, the grants benefit a broad range of organizations in both rural and urban locations. The foundation, according to its press release, is “especially interested in providing support to professional resident theatre and dance companies that develop and produce new American work.”

Most encouragingly for its hundreds of recipients, the foundation remains committed to general operating support. “We are convinced that talented artists and administrators are best able to decide how to use the funds we grant,” President Michael I. Sovern said, putting him at odds with many philanthropoids. According to the National Center for Family Philanthropy, only about a fifth to a quarter of foundation grants take the form of unrestricted funding that nonprofits can put toward day-to-day operations.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some grantmakers are coming around to Sovern’s way of thinking. Arts funders, institutional players like the Ford Foundation and an emerging crop of new mega-givers have embraced this idea that the organization itself, rather than the grantmaker, is better equipped to effectively allocate philanthropic dollars.

When I looked at Shubert’s 2017 grant cycle, I positioned the announcement as yet another example of a major institutional arts funder stepping in to fill the gap left by retreating government agencies. I’d argue the foundation has further strengthened its position over the last two years. To see why, let’s take a look at larger giving trends across the performing arts field.

Changing Funding Patterns

Earlier this year, SMU DataArts released its latest report on national fundraising trends in the arts and culture sector. It found that individuals are the leading source of contributions for the average arts organization, and their giving relative to expenses has gone up in the past four years. Meanwhile, foundation support “varies less than 1 percent annually over time, relative to expenses… This indicates reliability and stability of relationships and consistent commitment,” reads the report’s executive summary.

Zooming in, foundation support for theater organizations declined from 7 percent to 6.4 percent from 2014 to 2017. Dance organizations saw a slight increase in foundation support during that same period—6.8 percent to 6.9.

The SMU DataArts report found that government support remained “fairly stable,” with 68 percent of the total coming from local sources, 18 percent from state funding and 14 percent from the federal government. While “stable” government support is certainly preferable to “unstable,” I can assure you fundraisers at performing arts organizations aren’t breaking out the champagne. This data needs to be contextualized across a highly disruptive 20-year span that unofficially began when the dot-com bubble burst.

Research from Grantmakers in the Arts found that total public arts funding, when adjusted for inflation, decreased by 12.8 percent over the past two decades. In real dollars, state arts agency appropriations decreased by 25 percent, local funding contracted by 9 percent and federal funds have remained virtually flat. Despite “nominal dollar increases” in recent years, “public funding for the arts has not kept pace with inflation,” wrote the report’s author, Ryan Stubbs.

At the same time, expenses at performing arts organizations continue to increase, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, many dance and theater troupes continue to grapple with lower box office yields, a shrinking subscriber base, and a fickle millennial demographic.

Performing arts funders have responded to these challenges. In 2015, the Wallace Foundation allocated $52 million to study how performing organizations can better engage under-leveraged audiences. In 2017, it highlighted Ballet Austin’s efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works, while last year, it explored how the Denver Center Theatre Company used market research to attract younger attendees.

Similarly, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) launched Audience (R)Evolution Cohort Grants in late 2015. Funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the program helps theater organizations design and implement audience engagement and community development strategies. In May, TCG announced the second round of cohort grants, awarding $750,000 to six projects representing 22 partnering organizations, with an additional $187,500 for general operating support. The total payout was slightly less than the cohort’s inaugural round in 2016, which stood at $1.18 million.

Persistent Shortfalls

Bottom line? For many organizations, “stable” foundation and government support, increased individual giving, and funder-supported efforts to boost revenue still may not be enough. The SMU DataArts report found that unrestricted contributions covered fewer expenses in 2017 than in 2014 for all sectors except music, opera and general performing arts.

Fortunately, performing arts grantmakers like the Shubert Foundation are digging ever deeper to support dance and theater organizations. Just how deep? The foundation’s recent $32 million commitment represents a 6.7 percent increase over its $30 million commitment in 2018, and a 42 percent increase over the $22.5 million it allocated in 2014.

“Every organization receiving a 2019 foundation grant has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the performing arts,” said Shubert Foundation Chairman Philip J. Smith. “We want to help lift some of the financial burden so that the companies we support are able to focus on producing thought-provoking, relevant work for the widest possible audience.”

Check out the full grantee list here.