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Dollars and Sense: Arts Organizations Get Creative to Keep Funding

Local arts organizations are staying connected to people—and funding


When Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser made stops in cities across the country--including Boise--last year, he gave arts organizations something to think about.

As with the corporations that once made huge annual donations to not-for-profit arts organizations, the people who made up the audiences had suffered the ravages of the recent recession. They may have still had an income but little to none of it was discretionary.

Even before that, though, patrons of the arts were aging and, frankly, dying off, and performing arts organizations were not seeing young faces taking their places. Those groups had consistently worked at trying to make their performances more interesting to much younger people but still weren't seeing them in the seats. One suggestion Kaiser made that several local organizations latched on to was to shift tactics: Don't ignore the 18- to 30-year-olds but understand that they may not be making the arts a major part of their lives ... yet.

Kaiser said that it isn't until people are in their 40s that they begin to view attending events such as dance, theater, opera or symphony--and then donating to them--as elements of their cultural enrichment and vital to their everyday lives. Robert Franz, music director of Boise Philharmonic agrees. He sees his audience as "Discovery Channel lovers."

"I think that's our exact audience. It's people who like to watch shows where they learn something," Franz said. "Eighteen to 40 is a dark zone for people ... Think about people's minds, think about what you do in your 20s and 30s. You're working your ass off to try to figure out how to make your career successful."

These people are also having and raising families and trying to figure out what they want in life. By about the age of about 40, many of them begin thinking about not only enriching their lives but also giving back to their communities. They start thinking about being a part of something.

"They start to lift their heads up out of the sand because their kids are out of the house, right?" Franz asked. "So you have these empty-nesters who all of the sudden have the time to connect in their communities."

But to survive and thrive, Franz and other heads of local arts organizations know that it is not enough to know who their patrons are. Individual donors are now the backbone of organizations' financial health, and to get those 40-somethings to give money above and beyond the tickets they buy to performances, the word "connect" is the key.

No longer can a maestro keep his back to his audience after conducting a symphony performance. No longer can a choreographer sequester himself in a studio, only granting an audience to a wealthy patron. No longer can a not-for-profit administrator hide behind a sheaf of spreadsheets, emerging only to ask a board of directors for more money. The heads--as well as the staff and performers--of local arts organizations understand that and are working to see that their audiences know the people who comprise the organization as well as they know their shows.

And those arts organizations must also look at the tried-and-true funding methods, i.e. grants, and find ways to make the process of obtaining them easier and more profitable.

With a yearly operating budget of roughly $1.5 million, Trey McIntyre Project Executive Director John Michael Schert is all too aware of the importance grants play in sustaining an arts organization. However, he said, contributions from institutional funders--foundations, corporations and government--provide little. Corporate gifts account for a mere 2 percent of TMP's budget, although it does receive generous corporate donations on occasion: Eagle-based company Camille Beckman has given TMP $20,000 on two different occasions. Assurant, a health insurance company out of Milwaukee, Wisc., gave TMP $100,000 over the course of two years.

"But we don't count on that," Schert said.

TMP does rely on ticket sales or earned income to meet its budgetary needs, but Schert said that individual giving is the driving force of any not-for-profit organization. The only way to get individual donations in the amounts necessary to help sustain an operating budget is to have a personal relationship with donors and for those donors to feel they have a personal stake in an organization's success.

"A third of our budget comes from individuals," Schert said. "Our board of directors gives 12 percent of our budget themselves ... our board this year gave $190,000, just among 16 people."

To be clear, TMP also applies for grants whenever and wherever possible. In 2008, the company was awarded $28,000 from the National Dance Project and $35,000 from the Multi-Arts Production Fund. In 2010, Dance/USA gave TMP an "engaging dance audiences" grant for $110,000; Mayor Dave Bieter named TMP the city's first ever cultural ambassador, a title that came with $25,000; and TMP also received a $2,000 Boise Weekly Cover Auction grant.