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Bay theaters target donors

Fundraising efforts shifts to individuals

SAN FRANCISCO — In today’s post-dot-com-bust, post-9/11, post-Katrina financial reality, the fund-raising landscape has shifted radically. As government arts orgs continue to feel the pinch and corporations curb their generosity, the San Francisco Bay Area’s nonprofit theaters are joining a national trend of targeting individual donors for funding.

In Silicon Valley, foundations once supportive to the arts have either left the area or refocused on social issues, according to Michael Miller, CEO-exec producer of the American Musical Theater of San Jose. As for corporations, Miller says where they once thought globally and acted locally, they now have a global one-track mind.

Not that traditional funding sources are a completely lost cause. As part of the city’s $4 million Arts Stabilization Fund, the San Jose City Council recently extended a $1 million line of credit to AMTSJ and a $2 million line of credit to the ailing San Jose Repertory Theater.

Nevertheless, with a $12 million annual budget, the bailout is only a stopgap for AMTSJ, not a long-term solution, Miller says. The theater is part of a citywide consortium, the Arts & Culture Roundtable, whose chair, Daniel T. Keegan, recently sent out letters asking patrons to be generous.

Why not just raise admission prices to compensate for the shortfall in foundation, corporate and government funding?

“We want to keep our tickets affordable,” explains California Shakespeare Theater managing director Debbie Chinn. In 2004, Chinn and staff realized their play programs listed donors who had contributed thousands — which might make less well-heeled patrons think their five bucks were meaningless.

So they initiated pre-show pitches, asking for spare-change donations, which yielded $90,000 over two years.

In downtown San Francisco, the 99-seat Actors Theater was squeezed out of its longtime space when the landlord announced a 20% rent hike. Moving costs for the 21-year-old company led to a $60,000 deficit. An emergency fund-raising letter warned patrons of possible closure. “I hated to say that,” confesses founding artistic director Christian Phillips, who’d never before solicited from individuals, “but I guess every nonprofit gets to do that once.” The letter generated $20,000.

“The end-of-the-year donation letter is a no-brainer,” says Lisa Mallette, exec a.d. of San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company. City Lights took that concept further, telling patrons what their donations would buy: $100 funds an intern for a month, $1,000 covers one entire production, etc. “People like to see where their money’s going,” Mallette says.

Appealing to individuals is the only growth area, in terms of contributed income, since 2001, says Brad Erickson, exec director of San Francisco’s Theater Bay Area service org. “In some places, government funding is starting to come back, but not so much here in California,” he laments. Indeed, California ranks 50th in the country in per-capita funding for its state arts council, according to the James Irvine Foundation.

Erickson points out that in San Francisco, both the Magic Theater and American Conservatory Theater are celebrating their 40th birthdays, an opportune time to appeal to individuals.

“They feel the government’s tapped out, corporate dollars want to go elsewhere, and foundations — well, they’ve probably looked under that stone,” Erickson says. Contributed income, he says, is the one source that hasn’t been depleted.

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