Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in new york. Eileen_10/shutterstock
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in new york. Eileen_10/shutterstock

Back in January, I spoke with Brooke Flanagan, the executive director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, about how organizations could best make the case for the arts in the upcoming year. She encouraged leaders to solicit funding for “start-up cash” so organizations could prepare to safely reopen in the fall.

Flanagan wasn’t alone in her thinking. In mid-August, the Lincoln Center announced it received a five-year, $20 million gift from philanthropists Lynne and Richard Pasculano to help its constituent organizations restart productions. “This fund will be very helpful in making it possible for us to get our doors open as soon and as safely as we can,” said Katherine Farley, the chair of the center’s board.

When, exactly, the center’s doors will be fully open remains an open question. The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández reported that “while the center is planning a return to live performances this fall before fully vaccinated audiences, it is still unclear whether the public will return in large numbers.”

Unfortunately, recent developments suggest that the center—and the performing arts field as a whole—won’t be getting much clarity anytime soon. Three days after the center announced the gift, New York’s Signature Theater postponed its return to the stage, becoming the latest in an ever-growing list of organizations that have tabled or canceled performances in recent weeks due to the surging COVID-19 delta variant. Other organizations are sticking to tenuous reopening plans while implementing stringent safety protocols.

Nine months after my conversation with Flanagan, performing arts organizations are once again adapting to changing circumstances. But what about their funders? Has the delta variant forced them to alter their grantmaking priorities in response to organizations’ ever-evolving needs? And how can arts organizations best engage funders during this uncertain time?

I recently posed these questions to three arts funding leaders—Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) Program Director for the Arts Maurine Knighton, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund Executive Director Rick Luftglass, and Bonfils-Stanton Foundation President and CEO Gary Steuer. One big message: The struggle is far from over, and funders must remain nimble.

“Just as arts groups need to pivot to respond to the shifting COVID and racial justice imperative, so do funders need to be flexible and not bound by their usual processes and budgets,” Steuer said.

Grantees’ biggest needs

Performing arts organizations’ most urgent challenge is what Luftglass called the “need to offset the loss of earned revenue.” This, of course, should come as no surprise. An infusion of emergency grants and federal stimulus kept organizations afloat in the early days of the pandemic. Those funds have since dried up, and with performances back on hold, some leaders are once again staring into a financial abyss.

Organizations “are truly desperate to get back to live performances in front of a live audience,” Bonfil-Stanton’s Steuer said. “Eager not just for the renewed earned income, but also for the communal experience with an audience that cannot be duplicated with virtual performances and events. And I think they need their core supporters to stay with them and continue to be flexible and understanding.”

Steur told me that the foundation’s grantees are moving forward with scheduled performances while putting in place guidelines to keep patrons and performers safe, such as requiring proof of vaccination and mandatory masks. While these guidelines may not be financially onerous, they nonetheless represent an opportunity cost for organizations. Moreover, arts leaders realize that the variant may keep audiences from attending performances entirely, further eroding their earned income stream.

The DDCF’s Knighton told me the funder’s grantees need “flexibility, trust, partnership and commitment: flexibility within and outside their organizations to respond nimbly to evolving conditions; equally nimble funding partnerships within which funders trust grantees’ judgment and management capacity; and ongoing commitment that sees beyond the immediate crisis.”

“A long-haul enterprise”

All three of the leaders I spoke with said that the delta variant has yet to drastically alter their grantmaking strategies. “We always understood the shift from pre- to post-pandemic realities would be a long-haul enterprise,” Knighton said. “When I look back at where the field was a year ago, early forecasts already predicted an extended and uneven recovery. Even then, researchers and journalists tracking the evolving impact of the pandemic on the arts agreed that a full recovery for the sector will take years as artists struggle to survive financially and organizations are forced to reimagine business models, reengage audiences and recoup lost income.”

Knighton told me that “this lingering set of conditions calls for DDCF to stick to its knitting, maintaining our commitment to flexible funding that trusts organizations to self-identify their priorities and to be true partners with them as they navigate the road ahead with still-limited visibility.”

In a similar vein, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund’s Luftglass told me the spread of the delta variant has reinforced the funder’s work, which includes the Arts in Health Initiative, an innovative program that uses the arts as a tool for healing in New York communities, with a focus on mental health challenges among communities of color.

“Even with a gradual reopening, there’s still tremendous uncertainty, and that uncertainty contributes toward mental health challenges,” he said. Luftglass cited CDC data showing that rates of depression and anxiety had begun to decline beginning late last year in tandem with the vaccine roll-out. “The concern now is that the uncertainty could bring another uptick, and people who experienced the greatest challenges and traumatic incidents early in the pandemic may move into a phase of prolonged impact.”

In July, the fund announced the RFP for a new program, Arts & Mental Health, which is open to New York City-based organizations that use the arts to address mental health challenges in communities disproportionately affected by the COVID 19 pandemic. The fund plans to make the grants over the next few months.

“We want to be clear that the arts are not a panacea and are not a substitute for essential mental health services, but research has demonstrated that they can be a highly effective tool as an entry point to address many mental health issues, particularly ones resulting from trauma and stigma,” Luftglass told me. “And the fact is that many people will not seek formal mental health services, will not step into a therapist’s office. You need other ways to reach people. With the new Arts in Health program, there will be more opportunities in more communities.”

Steuer, meanwhile, told me his team will continue to look at grantees’ needs on a case-by-case basis. “If the delta variant results in a worsening public health situation requiring performing arts groups to start canceling performances, I am sure our board would consider continuing our [elevated] grantmaking of the past two fiscal years in response to COVID.”

Advice for arts organizations

Leaders were unanimous in their belief that arts organizations need to keep the lines of communication open with funders. “Explain what you’ve learned that will make you stronger and increase impact,” Luftglass said. “Be specific about the changes, how it’s affecting the organization and its constituencies now and in the future.”

Funders “are not in the business of being punitive,” Steuer said. “We only succeed in our missions if you succeed in yours. If COVID prevents you from doing work you were funded to do, just let your funders know and be honest about the impact and the alternatives.”

Knighton picked up on this theme, telling me that arts leaders need to “strike the right balance between being honest and open and conveying a sense that you’ve made a responsible and sober assessment of your needs.” Leaders shouldn’t over-promise, nor should they keep their funders in the dark. “No material changes should come as a complete surprise to a current funder,” she said.

In addition, arts leaders shouldn’t assume that funders are only interested in providing financial support. “Often, because of interactions with multiple grantees, we might have learned of ideas or know of resources that could be of interest,” Knighton said. “We are partners to our grantees, and sometimes, we can deploy resources beyond funding like connections and technical assistance.”

Lastly, organizations need to ensure that their digital footprint remains a key component of ongoing funder discussions—especially if the delta variant forces programming back online. “While organizations have been buoyed by the acquisition of new attendees, they were at a loss as to how to convert existing and new audience members into paying ones,” Knighton said. “As it becomes apparent that artists, organizations and audiences alike will rely on digital footprints as we move forward, grantees will need to invest in digital readiness and capacity.”

Luftglass agreed, telling me the Illumination Fund’s grantees have “seen unexpected benefits in virtual programs, so they don’t plan to abandon them entirely.” The challenge, he said, “is how to keep the benefits while managing costs, such as staffing and tech.”