Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=36353
Story Retrieval Date: 5/20/2013 4:12:43 AM CST
For Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, outside funding means a chance to present ideas about civil rights in dramatic form to Chicago Public Schools students.
For Uptown’s Black Ensemble Theater, outside funding allows the theater to help children in foster care develop life skills through the arts.
Writers’ Theatre and Black Ensemble Theater represent a tiny fraction of the theaters benefiting from two new arts funding increases at Chicago-based foundations. Last month the MacArthur Foundation announced $14 million in new, five-year grants to 14 arts organizations, among them Writers' Theatre. In addition to the new grants, the foundation plans to give away $5.5 million this year to arts groups, up $500,000 from its 2006 total.
Last year several local foundations banded together to create the Arts Work Fund, designed to support local arts groups with annual budgets of less than $1 million. Since December 2006, the fund has given $625,000 to 54 organizations.
The vast majority of Chicago’s 140 resident theaters are not-for-profit. They rely heavily on the kindness of Chicago’s arts funding giants such as the MacArthur, Polk Bros. and Donnelley foundations to make up the perennial shortfall between their ticket sales and operating expenses.
Of all the arts in Chicago, theaters stand to receive the largest percentage of new local arts funding since there are so many of them. Director Marcia Festen of the Arts Work Fund said that of the grants that have been given so far, 35 percent have been awarded to local theaters.
“It’s been really interesting to see how many theaters [there are] here,” Festen said.
The Effects of Giving
Both the MacArthur Foundation and Arts Work Fund award grants for an organization’s general operating budget, a change from the much more specific grants that many foundations have given in the past. “We want to empower organizations to use their money in the best possible way,” explained Aly Kassam-Remtulla, program officer with the MacArthur Foundation.
However, many of the theaters have used their increased funding dollars for outreach programs. When a theater is adequately funded, it can offer free performances at local schools, educational activities in its own performance space or reduced-rate family shows. These programs typically cost far more than they bring in and can be a severe strain on theaters with limited budgets.
Writers’ Theatre launched a new outreach program in January, “The MLK Project,” that uses the civil rights movement as a conversation starter for the racial tension facing students in Chicago’s schools. A $200,000, five-year grant in April from MacArthur Foundation has allowed the theater to extend “The MLK Project” into 2008.
“The MLK Project” follows the story of a fictional high-school student named Alaya. A composite character, she was created from conversations that playwright Yolanda Androzzo had with key figures in the civil rights movement, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Until this year, Writers’ Theatre was indirectly funded by MacArthur through one of the foundation's partners, the Prince Charitable Trusts. MacArthur directly funds only organizations with annual budgets of over $2 million, but it provides annual grant money to Prince Charitable Trusts and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, whose focus is smaller groups. As the Writers' Theatre budget has grown, a previous $20,000 annual grant from Prince has doubled into a $40,000 grant from MacArthur.
“Anytime that an organization receives a $40,000-a-year, multi-year grant, it’s a welcome blessing,” said Sherre Jennings Cullen, Writers’ Theatre’s Director of Development. “It means a lot to have this vote of confidence.”
"The MLK Project" has reached 8,700 students since January, 6,500 of them admitted free of charge. Post-show discussions with the students have sparked conversations about everything from the use of the “n”-word to students’ own experiences with discrimination.
“I can see that they’re transformed after the show," said LaRonika Thomas, Writers’ Theatre’s Director of Education. "Our goal is to bring them much more than a production.”
Kassam-Remtulla said that a theater’s outreach programming is one of the major factors MacArthur considers when deciding how to award grants.
“We think that [community outreach] is part of the civic benefit of having art in the community,” he said.
Touching a Whole Community
When it comes to community outreach, it’s hard to find a theater that has gone further than Black Ensemble Theater. Founded 30 years ago by schoolteacher Jackie Taylor, who also serves as the theater’s executive director, Black Ensemble’s goal has always been to reach its surrounding community through art. Today, the company's outreach programs encompass the entire city.
“In order to be a successful teacher, you have to be able to increase focus and concentration and help children understand,'' Taylor said. "Those are not techniques that are readily present in schools. Theater can teach those skills to children.”
Programs at Black Ensemble Theater include “Strengthening the School through Theater Arts,” which is supported by Polk Bros. Foundation, a contributor to the Arts Work Fund. The program helps CPS teachers incorporate theater into the classroom and offers workshops for parents on helping their children with their schoolwork.
“Strengthening the School through Theater Arts” reaches 2,500 students annually and has visited over 200 schools since its inception in 1977. Nikki Will Stein, executive director at the Polk Bros. Foundation, said that Black Ensemble Theater’s programs fit well with Polk Bros.’ commitment to directly help low-income areas.
Black Ensemble Theater also reaches out to children in foster care. “New Directions,” a program that serves 45 wards of the state annually, was inspired by Taylor’s work with foster children in the early 1990’s.
“They write, they produce, they play music and they develop a clearer understanding of how to cope,” Taylor said. “If you have been a dependent, once you’re 18 and you are dismissed, you need life skills. Our purpose is to give these young people those life skills so they can be successful on their own.”
Other outreach programs at the theater include “Plays with a Purpose,” a series of four music plays staged for students on the South Side, and “Theater for Special Men” and “Theater for Special Women,” which teach theater skills to 45 men and 45 women with mental and physical disabilities annually.
A Growing Trend
As theaters across the city put their grant dollars to good use, Chicago’s local funders hope that they can continue to increase the size of their grants. Festen said that the Arts Work Fund had been on the back burner for years, but that a 2005 survey of local foundations suggested they were finally ready to increase arts funding.
“Back in the late 1990’s, Judith [Stockdale, executive director of the Donnelley Foundation] wanted to spearhead the effort to create it, but the timing wasn’t right,” Festen said. “The survey in 2005 showed that arts funding was a top priority for the coming year, which reinvigorated the conversation.”
Kassam-Remtulla said that the MacArthur’s increased funding aimed to offset the rising costs of local theater operation. In 2005, MacArthur provided $4.5 million in arts funding for Chicago; that number rose to $5 million in 2006 and $5.5 million in 2007.
“Part of it is that funding was not increasing every year, and inflation was increasing,” Kassam-Remtulla said. “We wanted to recalibrate.”
That’s good news for theaters such as Writers’ Theatre, which wants to turn “MLK Project” into a multi-year program, and Black Ensemble Theater, which hopes to start a new program that teaches preschoolers theater skills.
As local theater continues to grow, foundation support will need to grow along with them. As the Arts Work Fund gets its feet wet, Festen hopes that its number of recipients and amount of grant dollars increase.
“We’re definitely going to be around for a while,” she said.