From the Office: Why fund the Arts?

jeansWhat would you do with an unexpected influx of $115 million cash?

Foundations across the United States operate for the benefit on thousands of non-profit charitable organizations. Most of these foundations support a variety of causes, from youth education to domestic violence prevention to mental prescription drugs with no prescription health awareness to arts and culture. Donors and funding officials, quite rightly, want to see funds dispersed along a variety of giving streams in their communities; they hope that with a balanced portfolio each dollar of charitable contribution has more of an opportunity to do good for those who need help, further multi-faceted educational efforts to our youth and build relief and safety nets in community centers. If one non-profit organization is unsuccessful, for whatever reason, chances are good that another has stepped up its game.

So how do the arts remain competitive in an environment of diversified giving?

Last June, a man who studied theater and worked as an actor and stage manager before entering a monastery for six years became the winner of the largest Powerball jackpot payout in the state of Tennessee. And he wants to provide funding for large American theater companies to produce epic, sweeping theater projects that could not be done elsewhere or with less financial support.

To date, he has made large grants to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre to produce expansive new scripts- one written by American playwright Tracy Letts and the other adapted by American director Robert Falls.

“My real satisfaction is to see people’s faces when I can make it possible for them to fulfill artistic dreams that they had put on hold for a long time,” he explains. “The American theater is in desperate need. There is nothing I could do with this money for myself that would make me feel as good.”

Theaters large and small across the United States receive funding from their State Arts Councils; some are large and established enough to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. All operate with support from private donors in their communities, without whom the majority of arts centers would be forced to close. The earned-to-unearned income split of U.S. performing arts centers is generally reported at 55% vs. 45%. If an American theater wants to take a chance on a large production that has never been done before, on a piece of art that speaks of and responds to national trends that need to be discussed in healthy, public forums… it needs to find funding first, because there is no guarantee that audiences will appreciate or support such an endeavor through ticket sales alone.

This is why our lottery-winner is focusing on funding large artistic projects by American theater companies, rather than diversifying his winnings among the usual mix of non-profits servicing needed shortcomings in their communities.

“I think society is in trouble when culture is ignored,” he says. “People can be duped by the first political wind that blows their way. They can be persuaded to vote against their own self-interest. Culture is what enriches us all. We are all in trouble when the arts are not supported, when there is no seed of change.”

For the full article on the Powerball-winning benefactor of large American theater projects, click here.

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