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A Change in the Support System

Theaters must find new ways to convince corporations to extend their support for the arts.

The Guthrie Theater gets major support from Target
(© Sally Wagner)
We often want to know where our tax dollars going. Similarly, when we buy a corporate product or service, we want to know where that money ends up. Less and less, unfortunately, that money is going to support the arts.

A recent survey by Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C-based organization dedicated to advancing the arts, noted that corporate giving to the arts as a percentage of total philanthropy has been declining for a decade. More recently, a majority of non-profit theaters surveyed by Theatre Communications Group reported that government and corporate support declined last year.

While the recession is partly to blame for this downturn, Will Maitland Weiss, executive director of the Arts and Business Council of New York, a division of Americans for the Arts, says there are other factors to consider. "The focus of many givers is on what they perceive as more needy," he says. "Look at the recent earthquake in Haiti, which is reminiscent of the 2004 tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. You had companies step up to the plate in those situations. The question is, 'How does a theater company compete with the realm of social services, health care, disaster relief, education?' In many ways, it's now up to the theater to make the case as to why they should be a potential business partner."

Symphony Space
(© Symphony Space)
Not all the news is bad, however.For a recent season, the multi-disciplinary Manhattan performance venue Symphony Space received $250,000 in season support from Zabar's, the legendary gourmet store located less than a mile away. "Each of us has our potential Zabar's," says Weiss.

Target, the Minneapolis-based retailer, is one of three corporations at the $100,000+ sponsorship level at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In addition, Target underwrites national tours by the children's theater group Theatreworks USA, and the company sponsors 2,200 "Target free" days at more than 100 museums and performance venues throughout the country, including Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

"There are always companies whose missions include arts funding as part of their sponsorship, marketing or social responsibility budgets," says Eileen McMahon, Senior Director of Publicity and Publications at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. "Many companies do know that art is important to the culture of people."

"New York is one of our key markets," notes Target spokeswoman Sarah Boele. "Our guests there value theater and it's our mission to deliver what our guests want and need." (Target's first Manhattan store will open in East Harlem in July, and there are already branches in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.)

Still, Weiss notes that theaters may have to think outside the traditional box. "In some cases, it won't necessarily be the corporate foundation writing the tax-deductible check; it's going to be more about sponsorship and co-branding and marketing deals," he says. "Theaters need to look for experiential tie-ins and relating a promotion of a product or service to a great experience at their theater."

In the end, Weiss says he's optimistic that support will rebound as the arts exert their age-old attraction. "It's the intangible magical rush of experience and live creativity," he notes. "Who wouldn't want to be associated with that?"