What Can We Learn From the Biller Foundation's Recent Give to Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre?

I majored in English in college. Guidance counselors and other adult-type people around me endorsed the decision. "Major in what you like," they said. "Sure, you'll want to get a job later, but if you despise accounting, there's no sense in majoring in it."

The logic seemed sound at the time. The economy was booming and most of my peers were able to find work after graduating. But — and you knew this was coming — times have changed.

Whether it's nonprofit arts organizations or university humanities departments, it isn't enough these days to simply say a student will be "enriched through the arts." Our society demands more. And so arts organizations and universities must calibrate their marketing messages.

Followers of our humanities coverage will note that foundations like Andrew W. Mellon like to fund programs that supplement humanities curricula with "real-world" skills that, for example, put art history majors on a clearly delineated career path.

Nonprofit arts organizations are wising up to this new reality as well. Take Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, for example. The theater recently netted an unprecedented $300,000 grant from Seattle's Biller Family Foundation. The grant, which is to be spread over three years, will fund the theater's innovative Rising Star Project, in which high school students present a production on the 5th Avenue Theatre's mainstage under the direct mentorship of theater professionals.

The project, however, goes above and beyond your typical theater educational offering by instilling — and we're quoting Managing Director Bernie Griffin here — "professional skills that will serve them throughout their lives, skills like critical thinking, problem solving, responsibility, accountability and more." (It's worth noting she said "accountability," not "accounting.")

The theater allocates approximately $3,500 per student, but the grant will help keep the program tuition-free. Further, at the end of the three-year grant period, the theater hopes to have in place a "Rising Star Project Toolkit" that can be "shared with organizations across the country who would be interested in making a similar commitment to the next generation of artists, technical professionals, and administrators working in the business of theatre," according Les Biller, the founding director of the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation. 

Taken in total, there's no doubt that the Rising Star Project is one of the more innovative and exciting theater education programs in the country. It's no surprise that the Biller Family Foundation, which does most of their theater funding in Seattle and Los Angeles, felt compelled to open their wallet.

After all, not every theater student will end up as a professional actor. But organizations can instill other skills — the skills we liberal arts majors so valued many a year ago — to equip them to be constructive and independent citizens in the "real world."