WASHINGTON — If there’s one thing as important to local theaters as presenting quality productions, it’s the ability to attract a younger and more ethnically diverse audience. Fortunately, savvy arts organizations throughout the country are doing just that and more, thanks to the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds.
D.C.’s Arena Stage, for example, is parlaying a $1.25 million grant from the WRDF into an energetic campaign to expand audiences and commission new plays that would attract them. An $800,000 grant to the Seattle Repertory Theater has helped the facility redefine its mission, launch more large-scale productions and increase its audience by 38%.
In the 10 years it has supported the arts, WRDF has emerged as a major player serving a valuable niche in arts philanthropy. Through direct grants to leading arts orgs, knowledge-sharing activities and partnerships with governmental arts agencies, it is aiding the growth of nonprofit arts facilities everywhere.
Its niche is defined by a succinct and down-to-earth mission: to help the public enrich itself through better schools, enhanced community activities and participation in the arts. To assist nonprofit arts orgs, it pursues a single-minded campaign to promote new standards of practice that will boost the public’s involvement in their activities. No other philanthropic foundation has targeted that agenda.
“We believe that active participation in the arts is a tremendous benefit to individuals, families and communities,” says Rory MacPherson, senior program officer at WRDF. “We seek out arts leaders by challenging them to think long-term and strategically about the participation issues that are most important to them, and opportunities to engage more people more deeply.”
To date, fund has doled out more than $31 million to arts orgs under its LEAP program (Leadership & Excellence in Arts Participation). Non-matching four-year grants support efforts such as Arena Stage’s “Beyond the Marble” campaign to forge deeper connections with local communities and develop younger and more diverse audiences. Other LEAP grantees include Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Co. and Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater.
Another grant program supports aud participation activities of state arts agencies, called START (State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation).
But the universe of arts groups assisted by the foundation is considerably larger than the relative handful of theaters, museums, dance companies, literary groups and community art centers that have directly received its largesse.
WRDF is exploiting the Internet like no other arts philanthropist. A year ago, it created a Web site, www.arts4allpeople.com, as a community for people seeking to broaden arts participation. The site offers an inviting array of learning and networking opportunities that include success stories from WRDF grantees (complete with audio and video highlights), surveys, links to arts groups and an interactive idea exchange for arts providers, funders and artists.
“We’ve learned that the value of ideas we generate, and the knowledge we put together by commissioning research, is how we can be effective beyond the dollar value of specific investments we make,” MacPherson says. “We maximize that by shining the spotlight on arts groups we do fund, promoting their efforts and making part of our grants investment in those groups the obligation to share their knowledge with others.”
Centerpiece of the site is a landmark research study commissioned by WRDF from think tank the Rand Corp. Called “A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts,” it is a comprehensive primer on how arts groups can increase audience involvement in their programs.
A companion handbook was posted in May. “Increasing Cultural Participation” is a step-by-step guide to applying the Rand framework, including sample budgets, forms and worksheets as well as advice on how to form a planning committee, examine the institution’s mission, develop strategies and evaluate results.
“The Rand Study has helped us realize that no arts group can serve everyone,” MacPherson says. “If they try, they will serve no one well.”
Ruth Eliel, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, says the Rand research “has confirmed some things we’ve done more or less by the seat of our pants,” such as expanding the ranks of young professionals in its audience. The site also is drawing a sizable international following.
Benjamin Moore, managing director of Seattle Rep, says WRDF’s programs are improving the health of arts groups. He says the LEAP program has forced the Seattle Rep “to think about audience participation as a mission for the entire organization.” He especially applauds WRDF’s practice of hosting regular seminars with grantees and others across arts disciplines. “Bringing a wide range of organizations to the table, including local funders, is a truly innovative form of networking.”
That view is seconded by Steven Richards, managing director of Arena Stage. Arena’s LEAP grant enabled it to mount its acclaimed production this season of “Polk County,” a musical by Zora Neale Hurston. “The key to this grant program is the partnerships it enables arts organizations to make,” he says.