How Milwaukee Repertory Theater Netted a $250k Grant to Fix Its (Literally) Sinking Building

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater announced that it has received a one-time grant of $250,000 from the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) to help repair its building, located in the heart of the city. That's great news for Milwaukee, as well as other nonprofits looking for guidance about how to solicit funds to renovate dilapidated spaces.

Now, if you're like us and follow funding trends, most nonprofit groups make news by receiving grants for offering compelling programming or bold plans to expand their audiences. Money directed toward operational or renovation costs are usually bundled into "operational support" costs and they aren't always newsworthy or exciting. But the Milwaukee Repertory Theater made their dilapidated building an important element of their grant-solicitation pitch (although we won't go so far as to call it "exciting"). Here's how they did it:

  • They highlighted the imminent danger posed by the building itself. The money will be used to fix the settling of the building, which has been steadily eroding due to wooden pilings below the foundation. In fact, the building has sunk about a two inches in recent years. In total, the building's existing structural problems pose an immediate physical risk to patrons and employees. 
  • They underscored the space's centrality to Milwaukee's arts scene. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater (aka "the Rep") is the single most prolific arts organization in the city. This isn't just hyperbole, it's reality. It presents more than 630 performances a year (we did the math, and that's 1.7 shows a day), attracts close to 200,000 visitors, and generates $15 million a year. If the building gets shuttered, the entire city's theater scene would grind to a halt.
  • They showed how the funding will pay for itself. In the short-term, the $250,000 infusion to permanently fix the building's structural problem is a smart investment since, as previously noted, the theater generates $15 million a year in revenue. Throw in the ancillary economic benefits, as patrons inevitably spend their money at nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels, and this grant looks like a very sound investment. Furthermore, the grant helps to circumvent any long-term financial disasters. It's far cheaper for the Rep to fix the foundation now than to pay lawyers in the event of an accident later.

We should also applaud the UPAF for their foresight. The grant money for the Rep will come from the UPAF’s "Intangible Fund." The fund, which was created in 2002, is set aside to provide "distressed funding" in an "emergency situation." And as we've seen, the Rep made the strong case that they're facing precisely that.