“Play the Long Game.” Talking Philanthropy and Theater With a Seasoned Arts Leader

Matusciac Alexandru/shutterstock

Matusciac Alexandru/shutterstock

It’s safe to say that Susan Medak is expertly attuned to the evolving challenges facing nonprofit theater organizations and fundraisers. She has served as Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s managing director since 1990, served as president of the League of Resident Theatres and treasurer of Theatre Communications Group, and chaired two panels for the Massachusetts Arts Council. She has also served on program panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Joyce Foundation and Arts Midwest.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Medak about some of the big issues facing the sector, and in the process, came to appreciate her refreshing contrarian streak concerning some of arts philanthropy’s hottest buzzwords—like social impact, engagement and impact.

Our discussion began with Medak laying the conceptual groundwork, underscoring what she considers the fundamental tension between the classic organizational governance model and the funding community’s growing predilection for “creative disruption.”

“Philanthropy has shifted, as you know, in recent years, from sustaining institutions and organizations with the intention of providing stability to an almost sacred and universally shared commitment to disruption and an inherent distrust of institutions. Theaters, and most arts organizations, for that matter, operate on institutional models because over time, they have proven to be the most resilient structures for supporting art, artists and audiences. So right there, we have a problem.”

Medak wondered “if a factor impacting this is that the Gen X generation, that generation that is notorious for being distrusting of institutions, is increasingly moving into leadership positions in foundations, corporations and family foundations.”

Questioning “Impact”

Medak also talked about two tangible and intertwined challenges facing nonprofit theater organizations—the relentless push toward measuring impact, and the steady decline in arts education, which has forced theaters and fundraisers to play catch-up in terms of articulating the value of their work to the general public.

“Philanthropy’s growing focus on impact,” Medak said, “in and of itself is a valuable idea, but it often becomes an insurmountable obstacle for most arts organizations when addressing their core activity— making art. Impact almost demands that it be measured. Without metrics, impact can’t be observed.”

And so organizations often find themselves checking off boxes and filling in spreadsheets at the expense of cultivating artists and producing compelling work. What’s more, many of these metrics do a poor job of articulating the true depth and impact of a fundamentally nuanced “arts experience.”

“How do you measure in an online survey that a person who just experienced a play may be transformed by it?” Medak asked. “Or that a kid who writes a play while in juvenile hall may reference that experience as a pivotal one for him… but maybe not until he is 40? And how, when most theaters are committed to the development of new voices to reflect who we as a people are at this moment, do you measure what is the art that will speak not only to us now, but to generations in the future? How do know at this moment what will stand the test of time, and that it is therefore worthy of support?”

Of course, organizations can make an effort to measure some of these things, but the opportunity costs of doing so far outweigh its benefits. “As an economist friend of mine said to me many years ago,” Medak recalled, “‘just because something can be measured doesn’t mean that it should be measured.’ Basically, the things you can measure may not be the most important reason for your existence.”

A Lack of Arts Fluency

Compounding matters is the fact that, according to Grantmakers in the Arts, total public arts funding, when adjusted for inflation, decreased by 12.8 percent over the past two decades. In real dollars, state arts agency appropriations decreased by 25 percent, local funding contracted by 9 percent and federal funds have remained virtually flat. The result, Medak said, is “almost two generations of people who don’t have fluency or literacy in the arts that either helps them access complex work, or that would lead them to understand the value of it. Which does contribute to how difficult the case for cultural philanthropy has become.”

But a spendthrift Uncle Sam and legions of distracted, tech-obsessed millennials pale in comparison to what Medak considers the “scariest threat to philanthropy” for theater organizations—the allure of money-making Broadway productions.

“We live in an age when everyone gets the benefits of investing,” she said. “We all read about startups that produce huge returns, the generation of dot coms that has discovered Broadway. Broadway has offered the same risk/reward model as most dot coms, and has done so for generations. But now, it is awash in more money than anyone can remember. So someone who, 20 years ago, would have donated to a nonprofit, now invests in a Broadway show.

“If it makes money, boy wasn't that fun! Great party, rubbing elbows with stars, watching how the sausage gets made! If it loses money, it was a business loss, and you still got a great party, etc. If you donate money, there is no opportunity for financial gain, and when it’s Berkeley or San Francisco, it’s just not as sexy as a Broadway show.”

“The Holy Grail of Philanthropy”

I mentioned recent coverage on IP suggesting that while fundraising has always been hard, it seems to be getting even more difficult, thanks to changing demographics, declining government funding, and the proliferation of options vying for people’s time. I asked Medak if she agreed with this takeaway, and if so, what theater organizations could do to “make the case” more effectively to donors.

“Yes, you are absolutely right,” she said. “Years ago, the futurist Peter Schwartz met with me, and when I asked him whether the future appeared bleak for the theater, his response was, ‘Are you out of your mind? You are live, authentic and unmediated. That will have greater and greater currency over time.’ He basically said, ‘You just may have to wait out some hard times until we get to that point.’”

Schwartz’s comments need to be contextualized. A recent report from SMU DataArts found that contributions to theaters from individuals, corporations, foundations and government funders were higher in 2017 than in 2014. Theaters experienced a decline in trustee giving. In other words, at least according to SMU’s data, these aren’t painfully “hard times” for the theater sector—and that’s the problem. If economists are correct, things could get much worse as soon as next year if the country is plunged into recession. So what can theaters do?

“Capitalize on what we do well—we tell great stories that are often topical and meaningful,” Medak said. “We need to be smart about looking for philanthropic partners for those projects. And we have to reach out aggressively to the X’ers and millennials. We have to keep caretaking the relationships we have with the boomer generation, but we can’t rely on them exclusively.”

Larger demographic trends confirm Medak’s assertion. As boomers slowly cede the stage (pun intended) to their heirs, one report last year estimated that transfers to Gen-Xers and millennials over the next decade alone could yield more than $2o billion a year in new grants to nonprofits. This explains why business advisory firm M+D, with support from the Knight Foundation, launched the Art Funders Forum in 2018 to increase private support for arts and culture with an emphasis on engaging emerging philanthropists.

M+D co-founder Sean McManus told me that this emerging generation views giving as “more process-driven than transactional,” in contrast with an older donor class. “This is the e-commerce generation,” he said. “The arts experience has to be nuanced, exciting and original.”

Medak agreed, but also implored arts organizations to remain true to their core principles. “We have to approach generational philanthropy differently,” she said. “We’d be nuts not to. Motivations, style, passions... they are different. But our goal, the holy grail of philanthropy, is likely to always be a committed, shared sense of values and priorities. So while younger philanthropists may start out with a different point of view and different approaches to giving, I think we have to play the long game on this.”

“The Most Overused Word in Culture Right Now”

Medak also had thoughts about the idea of engagement, which she said is the “most overused word in culture, right now.” The Wallace Foundation famously devoted $52 million to helping performing arts organizations boost engagement across fields like theater and dance. Everyone is for engagement, but just like the idea of impact, no one can seem to agree on precisely what it means.

Medak argued that the idea of engagement is, to a certain extent, redundant. Arts organizations, by definition, engage with the communities they serve. Elevating “engagement” so that it becomes some refined and imperfectly measurable goal can distract organizations from their core work of producing compelling work.

“For me, meaningful engagement is relationship-based,” she said. “It is not one-offs. It doesn’t just check a box. In a theater like ours, we always say that any engagement activities that are not a matter of producing plays (and those can ignite engagement in robust and thrilling ways) must still emerge from the work that we do on our stages. We consider all the work that happens in our Berkeley Rep School of Theater is about engagement. In our school, whether you are eight or 80, a working artist or a teen whose family doesn't speak English at home, we consider the goal of engaging you in the acts of making and seeing theater is all about engagement.”

On “Chasing Social Impact Money”

We ended our exchange exploring what is perhaps the hottest trend in arts philanthropy at the moment—donors’ desire for organizations to articulate the social impact of their work. While institutional funders have led the charge, this idea of the arts intersecting with social justice also resonates with Gen X and millennial heirs poised to inherit billions, said M+D’s McManus. “It’s one thing to experience traditional works of art, but what are institutions doing to drive social change?”

We’ve seen this dynamic play out in the theater space. Back in 2015, the Seattle-based Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation altered its theater funding grantmaking to prioritize “social impact theatre,” defined as “artistic content that promotes dialogue around relevant social issues.” Earlier this year, the foundation announced the first cycle of grants for its revamped program.

While Medak doesn’t dispute the way the winds are blowing across the arts philanthrosphere, she nonetheless cautions that donors’ rush to embrace socially driven art may have the unintended consequence of making life more difficult for arts organizations and the artists they serve.

“The new ethos,” she said, “is that art does not have value in its own right. It must serve a social purpose. Many of us fought for a generation for the right of artists to have their work validated purely on its own terms. It is a bit disheartening to some of us to find this growing pressure to serve other agendas. That’s not to say that much of the work we are all doing doesn’t serve a social purpose, and that there is a preponderance of very exciting, politically and socially charged work. But when philanthropy is only tied to work that serves another purpose, it is hard to tie money to art… If you want to fund a social statement, it’s so much easier, less expensive and direct to fund a billboard. It doesn’t require nuance.”

Organizations that chase social impact money may also find themselves beholden to donors with a social agenda that doesn’t mesh with the organization’s mission and values.

“We had a guy who really cared about the free speech movement,” Medak said. “He supported a project we hosted about that subject. He assured me that once he started giving, he’d remain a committed supporter. But over time, I found that what really excited him was a narrow band of issues. There was just no way we could find his sweet spot each year, and as a result, we couldn’t sustain his support. He had supported us because he saw us as a vehicle for his agenda. He didn’t support us because we were like-minded, and many of our plays touched on themes near and dear to him.

“I fear companies will chase social impact money, and don’t believe it will ever turn into the kind of support we want or need it to be. And by the way, much of that is driven by foundations. Any of us who have been around know that foundation priorities change all the time. If you live by foundation support, you are likely to die from lack of it, as well.”

In the end, Medak doesn’t think that social impact money is going to “provide the bread-and-butter philanthropy that sustains a theater. I still believe that our most important responsibility is to make good art that moves audiences.”