by Isaac Butler
This week, the good folks over at TCG asked me to respond to some interview questions as part of a roundtable about the future of theater. I'm very proud of the results, which you can read here, in which I express, amongst other things, some skepticism about how ennobling art actually is.
I want to expand on that point in a later post, but for now I want to focus on this thing I said:
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
IB: To quote the O’jays… Money money money money … MUH-NAY. The theater field has never been adequately funded. When it was seeded by the Ford Foundation, the idea was that the Government would swoop in with a great deal of money and help create and support the regional theater system. This never happened to the extent that it was supposed to, and we’ve been plate-spinning ever since.
What is needed now, what is both our biggest challenge and opportunity, is reforming funding incentives so that they actually meet the needs of the field and reflect the principles we espouse. To put it in concrete terms, how do we spend more money on people and art and less money on fancy buildings to house them? This is a very complicated problem, more complicated than people want to admit. We have to reform funding guidelines, government regulation, how we view success, what donors want to contribute to, etc.
This came up in an interview I'm doing (as a reporter this time) for American Theatre. One of the sources said the following to me about running a theater, when I asked him what would surprise people:
How fragile the granting world is. Even when you get big grants, it's still, you have to have a good plan when you have money. At any given time a huge funder could say we're not giving to the arts anymore and then a chunk of your budget disappears. We're trying to build up our donor base, which we hadn't before, to make that much more robust.
Theres so many factors that go into consistent grating. Also it's a lot of project-based granting and not general operating cost granting. You'd think you should get money because of the mission, but there are way more program-based grants, which can end up burdening the organization with too much programming and the need to continue creating new programming. no one wants to fund the same program so you have to either come up with new programs every year or shift an existing program so it seems like the same program.
This is an incredibly inefficient, counterproductive. and harmful way to do business. Programs rarely reach fruition within one year. Nearly every theater in America is already short staffed. Burdening those theaters with having to waste time disguising existing programming, or inventing new ones, is a way that funders-- who genuinely want to help the field-- end up hurting it. Realigning funding incentives with the field's needs really needs to be one of our top priorities right now.