Meet the Foundation With a Soft Spot for Theater Iconoclasts

Blanka Zizka of Philadelphia's Wilma Theater recently won the $100,000 Vilcek Prize in honor of her lifelong achievements, and her reflections on her career in theater were pretty interesting. As previously noted in a post on the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Theatre, the mission of the New York City-based grantmaker is to "raise public awareness of the outstanding contributions of foreign-born scientists and artists living and working in the United States." The foundation was founded in 2000 by Czech immigrants Jan and Marica Vilcek.

Zizka moved to the United States in 1977 and founded the Wilma Theater in 1981 with her husband Jiri. In the intervening years, according to the New York Times, she "collaborated with artists like the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, as well as Tom Stoppard and Paula Vogel. She remains the Wilma’s artistic director, and recently directed Mr. Stoppard’s The Hard Problem."

We've written about the "Bilboa Effect" in the arts a lot lately. It's the idea that an architecturally exciting project makes an institution more of a destination. It worked for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in northern Spain in 1997, and as a growth strategy, it seems like a no-brainer to many museums in New York City as of late.  

It's tempting stuff. And while smaller arts organizations like Zizka's Wilma Theater lack the budget of, say, a MoMA, the allure of proportionately ambitious capital expenditures is ever-present. It's also an allure that Zizka, after 35 years in the business and well-aware of the effect's risks, wisely avoided.

According to the Times:

Throughout the Wilma’s history, Ms. Zizka said, she has fought against the trend of regional theaters falling into corporate structures in which "the life of the institution is more important than creating the art." For her, she said, "the work is the center of everything."

Now, the "life of the institution" can mean different things to different people. But one can reasonably infer that the phrase alludes to the idea of the institution as, say, a brand or a destination. Zizka pushes back against this line of thinking, and her argument seems particularly timely given the attraction and ubiquity of the Bilboa Effect.

Two final thoughts. One, the fact that the Vilcek Foundation awarded this generous grant to Zizka suggests there are still foundations out there that appreciate an iconoclastic—or is it pure?—approach to the arts. It's not as if every foundation is hopelessly smitten with the Bilboa Effect.

Which brings us to our second point. A recent DeVos Institute report highlighted the severe structural and financial challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations. Fortunately, the authors provided concrete recommendations for those struggling "diverse" arts organizations to address these challenges and inequities. One such recommendation? "Successful arts organizations prioritize investment in great art — not buildings." 

It has an eerily familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, in related (and optimistic) news, another extensive report, this one by Theatre Communications Group, tracked the performance of 1,770 U.S. nonprofit theaters and found a number of bright spots across the sector. Click here for an overview and our analysis.