The simplest way to get an understanding of emerging and traditionally under-leveraged demographics in the arts engagement space is to look at the funding behaviors of the foundations. Recent evidence suggests that arts organizations should reexamine their outreach efforts toward a significant demographic in their own backyards — military personnel and their families.
We have noted an uptick in funding to organizations that engage the military community through the arts. In 2015, we reported on the Blue Star Theatres Grant Program, created by Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and Blue Star Families, the country's largest chapter-based military families nonprofit organization. The program awards $5,000 each to help select theaters engage with veterans and members of the military community.
Later in the year, we looked at how the New England Foundation for the Arts plans to identify strategies to effectively use the arts — especially theater — to address military and veterans' issues with the help of a $101,250 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation.
Beyond engaging the military community through the arts, both grants also lean heavily on theater as their medium of choice. And with that as a backdrop, recent news out of San Diego should come as no surprise. San Diego's Cygnet Theatre received a two-year, $187,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation's Exploring Engagement Fund to "begin the research and implementation of a plan to provide quality theatre programs and mainstage shows for low-income military personnel and veterans in the San Diego area."
While Cygnet has received Irvine grants in the past, this one seems to be the first specifically earmarked toward engaging the region's large military community. But this grant didn't appear out of the blue. Cygnet deserves credit for responding to San Diego's demographic realities in a thoughtful and pragmatic manner.
San Diego has always been something of a "military town," but the theater freely admitted it saw limited participation from the city's military community. So it decided to do something about it. It became a Blue Star Theatre in February 2015, offering discounted $20 tickets to active duty military, veterans, and their families. Then, in September, it launched its Seat for Soldiers program, enabling patrons to subsidize tickets for members of the Armed Forces and their family.
Which brings us back to the Irvine-funded new phase in Cygnet's ongoing efforts, characterized by Executive Director Bill Schmidt as "bigger, more experimental methods of engagement." The two pillars of this phase include rolling out interactive theater workshops and bringing engaging productions at site-specific locations where military members and their families already reside — the classic "don't come to us, we'll come to you" strategy.
As previously noted, the Doris Duke grant to the New England Foundation for the Arts aims to "identify strategies to effectively use theater to engage the military community." We encourage the foundation and other theater organizations with nearby military communities to take Cygnet's approach to heart. Their outreach efforts across the last 12 months can serve as a roadmap to help theaters incrementally earn the trust of and engage with members of the Armed Services and their families. Throw in the fact that the Pentagon provided $3.7 million for an independent production company to visit 50 military sites and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles for service members, and you can clearly see some sort of pattern emerging.
So what explains this connection between the theater and the military community?
We have some theories — and they aren't exactly mind-blowing. Theater is interactive. It tells stories with immediacy. It builds a sense of closeness between actors and the audience. Theater-related workshops give participants a voice. And, as we've seen with the Irvine grant, it enables organizations like Cygnet to take their show on the road, ensuring that those with minimal exposure to theater have a better chance of getting to see it. When viewed through this lens, theater-related arts outreach seems particularly attuned to members of the military community.
Meanwhile, in related news, the Irvine Foundation is now accepting applications for its Exploring Arts Engagement Program. Grants of up to $125,000 per year (up to 10% of annual operating expenses) for up to two years will be awarded for arts engagement projects proposed by organizations with operating budgets between $100,000 and $5 million. Grants of up to $250,000 per year for up to two years will be awarded for projects proposed by organizations with operating budgets of $5 million or greater. Click here for the RFP.