Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Fantasy Life: Boston Theatre Endowment

The discussion on Monday about the poor economic model of theatre in America brought back an idea that I'd had before but never really explored in depth: the idea of a Boston Theatre Endowment. There are foundations in our area that currently fund some theatrical work, but none devoted exclusively to funding theatres and theatres artists. In my ideal world, we'd set up a Boston Theatre Endowment that would do just that.

Part of this is just an acknowledgement that the economics of theatre, especially smaller, non-commercial theatre, just don't add up. In an economic world where growth and increased productivity is key to survival, working in an artform where it still takes the same amount of people to put on a play as it did a century ago, for the same sized audience, is not going to work without outside help.

The Boston arts community has proven that it's capable of raising large sums of money to build new theatre buildings. But what about money for the people who are to work on the stages of those theatres?

My fantasy also acknowledges the fact that the NEA is unlikely to return to strength, and unlikely to fund individual artists in a meaningful way (at least in my lifetime).

A significant amount of energy is spent raising money for small and mid-sized theatres around town. But most of these theatres have a relatively limited life cycle. They're around for a few years, the money raised got used for their productions, and is now gone.

What if some of that fundraising energy was put into raising money for a permanent endowment that handed out half its earnings to individual theatre artists and half to theatre companies? And the money received by theatres could only be used to pay artists--this would enable some small theatre companies to move up the food chain a little and have access to Equity actors that are normally too expensive.

For the individual artist grants, I'd want to see significant funds given out, rather than $1000 here or there, maybe $10,000, and maybe a handful of large grants ($30,000), so some of these people could really focus on their art for a stretch of time. They could be Boston's theatrical MacArthur awards, if you will.

The MFA raised what, $500 million for their new wing? Good for them. The new Arsenal Center for the Arts cost $7.5 million. The BCA cost a pretty good chunk. Various parties are putting $70 million into renovating the Paramount. It's great to have all these buildings, but we have a town where most actors can't afford to pay their rent by acting on these stages. What if we had a $10 million Boston Theatre Endowment, paying out $500,000 in grants to artists and small theatres every year? $20 million in the bank, giving out $1 million in grants every year? Fundraising for the Endowment could be a continuous process, trying to get it to keep growing.

I know the conventional wisdom is that buildings get built because it's easier to get people to donate when they know they'll see their name on something concrete. Too bad. Because the impact from funding artists directly would have the potential to affect hundreds of artists, hundreds of productions, and thousands and thousands of theatre-goers.

Anyway, that's my latest theatre fantasy. (There's no reason why this couldn't work for other cities. But I think it's important to have the Endowment focus on a local region, because theatre is an inherently local artform.)

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