A New Funder Invests in the Future of Seattle Arts

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Photo by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash

With gatherings restricted by the pandemic lockdown, the arts have been one of the hardest hit sectors in the economy, with 68 percent of all arts workers currently unemployed, according to Americans for the Arts. The business of staying alive while unable to unable to produce in theatres and concert halls and museums draws attention to how we fund the arts.

In a survey of American orchestras a few years ago, the League of American Orchestras reported that the orchestra business  had finally become a philanthropic enterprise; that is, the majority of orchestra budgets now came from donated funds rather than earned income. Over the past few decades, the arts world has debated what constitutes a healthy mix between philanthropy and ticket sales. In our capitalism-obsessed culture, earning more of your way through the box office has seemed somehow more legit than getting it donated – an indicator of consumer acceptance in the marketplace.

In the pandemic, of course, when everything has shut down, there’s little if any earned income. And as a general rule, the more dependent on earned revenue an organization was, the worse off it has been. Organizations that have tried hard to be more “independent” in earning their way through ticket sales have had a harder time. The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, for example, that city’s primary performing arts venue, and home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, depended on earned income for 93 percent of its budget, mostly rent from resident organizations, and said this week that it would have to rethink its entire business model if it is to survive.

Here in Seattle, the entrepreneurial and resourceful Seattle Theatre Group, which operates the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theatres, sent out an SOS this week, saying it has had to cancel 500 performances and lay off 70 percent of its staff. It faces a $15 million shortfall – and that’s if it can resume performances in January (a dubious assumption when many performing arts companies all over the country – including some of the biggest and most prestigious – have bowed to reality and canceled their entire seasons to next fall).

Ironically – given the obsession with earned income – many organizations that have more heavily depended on philanthropy for their business model report that in the first months of the shutdown philanthropic giving went up rather than down as fans pitched in to help.

All philanthropic support is not equal, however. And the pandemic lockdown demonstrates different approaches. Some of the biggest funders – Ford, Mellon – are both trying to bail out and prop up institutions, but also fund new projects that fit their priorities. They’ve collectively allocated more than a billion dollars in COVID aid, but they’re also seizing the opportunity to fund new initiatives that speak to the time. The past year has been a pivotal moment for social justice and equity reform, and cultural institutions are grappling not just with the pandemic, but the rising voices for social change. Mellon, for example has initiated big new programs to fund libraries for prisons across the country and launched a “monuments” project aimed at rethinking how America commemorates history.

Local funders have been more focused on helping arts organizations survive the shutdown. Seattle’s ArtsFund, for example, has raised $3.1 million for “COVID relief” in addition to its $2.19 million in general operating support. Such support is essential if institutions are going to survive, but the longer opportunity involves not just life support but encouragement for moving forward and reform.

Of what sort? Maybe rethinking how artists and institutions interact. San Francisco recently announced a program to give artists a basic income. The idea is that instead of always funneling support through institutions, perhaps it’s also effective to get support to artists more directly. In New York, Soho Rep started a program to support artists rather than just buying or commissioning their work. To that end, the artists who are funded have secure work through June 2021.

Jane and Richard Lang

This kind of thinking shifts arts support from “buying product” to “investing in culture.” Buying tickets is buying product; supporting the people and infrastructure it takes to make art is investing. The trend had already been underway for some time (witness the Orchestra League report), but the pandemic shutdown and collapse of earned income has forced the question.

One sign of enlightened local thinking is the appearance of a new funder – the Friday Foundation, created from the estate of Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who were art collectors and lifelong supporters of the arts.

Last week the foundation gave $9 million to nine local arts organizations – big gifts to the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera and Henry Art Gallery;  $100,000 each to ACT – A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle Rep, and the Seattle Chamber Music Society; and $270,000 to ArtsFund’s COVID-19 Arts Emergency Relief Fund.

What’s interesting is how the money is allocated. Apart from the ArtsFund money and $2 million more to SAM which is emergency relief money, the rest is investments in the work of the institutions themselves: the $2 million to SAM’s acquisition fund will help the museum diversify and build its collection. The Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, Henry Gallery and PNB money is for endowments for programs to create new work.  

PNB will use the money to commission choreographers, while the SSO will endow a program that “will be tied to a specific concert that features an emerging artist, a work by a living composer or an iconic modernist work that has reshaped symphonic repertoire in a fundamental way.”

The Opera’s new Creation Lab appears to be the most systemic (and potentially most impactful) investment. The Opera will use the Lab to help find, develop and promote new works by providing space, resources and mentors to artists. The company began accepting applications last summer and reports that the “majority of applicants were Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color (BIPOC)—and/or identified as women. The 16 artists selected will create 20-minute operas, which will be performed in Tagney Jones Hall at the Opera Center next year. Participants will receive support throughout the development process and refine their pieces through table readings and music workshops.”

Note that the Friday Foundation didn’t direct which work to buy or what to produce. As Davis’ daughter Lyn Grinstein, who is heading up the new Foundation, told The Seattle Times: “We’ve seen mistakes by some foundations. Donors making major gifts which there were no funds [or infrastructure] to support — so the institution can almost go broke trying to accommodate that gift.”

Giving money to help arts organizations survive is noble. Finding ways to support the infrastructure they need to make their work going forward is an investment in the future. If art is merely a transaction — buying product — when production stops, there’s nothing to buy and it goes away. If, on the other hand, art is an idea, communities have shown repeatedly that they will support it, witness the surge of giving since the shutdown. If the arts are to survive in places like Seattle they need not just a bailout but the investment in ideas.

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