Who gets the grants? Many factors affect arts funding
Those who decide how much to spend on which visual art, music and theater institutions in St. Louis must consider a long list of factors, including programming, financial viability, public outreach and diversity.
In 2011, for example, the Regional Arts Commission allocated 40 percent of the $2.7 million it gets from the hotel tax on combined gifts to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra ($508,000), Opera Theatre St. Louis ($174,000) and the Repertory Theatre ($160,000). The remainder was divided among about 70 other organizations and programs: $65,000 to the Black Rep, $20,000 to the International Institute and $6,000 to Gitana Productions.
Of the $2.8 million awarded to 206 St. Louis-area organizations in the fiscal year ending in 2011 by the Missouri Arts Council, $247,000 went to the Symphony, $151,000 to the Art Museum and $119,000 to Opera Theatre. The Black Rep got $31,000, the Millennium Arts and Culture Center for minority arts netted $9,000 and the Gateway Men's Chorus received $5,000.
St. Louis' Arts and Education Council, which funneled $989,000 from individuals and corporations to local organizations, declined to reveal how its numbers broke down among grantees. Its 50 grant recipients range from the Symphony and the Sheldon, to Dances of India and St. Louis Storytelling Festival.
Susan Rowe Jennings, vice president for administration and grants for the Arts and Education Council, said the council looks at the quality of programming and fiscal responsibility record of the organizations.
"Our mission is to offer diverse artistic programming to a wide range and scope of organizations," Jennings said.
The Whitaker Foundation awarded $722,000 to the arts last year. Of that, $250,000, went to the Symphony and $100,000 went to Opera Theatre. The Contemporary Art Museum and Jazz St. Louis received $70,000 each. Sample grants to smaller, less mainstream organizations include $20,000 to Springboard for Learning education programs, $18,000 to Prison Performing Arts (half of a two-year, $36,000 award) and $5,000 to HotCity Theatre.
RAC grants are divided into eight categories, based on the amount of the request and whether the applicant is an arts organization or not. Each category has a six-to-eight-person panel. For 2011-12, 57 panelists were chosen from nominations by grantees, commissioners, current and former panelists, and others in the community.
Panelists review grant applications and recommend monetary awards, which are reviewed and adjusted by RAC staff, then sent to a commission committee before a vote by the full commission.
RAC requires potential grantees to show "demonstrable effort to involve diverse individuals defined as those of diverse race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion and those with disabilities on artistic, technical, administrative, policy, board, and audience levels," according to its website.
At the Whitaker Foundation, funding decisions are made by a board of five trustees, volunteers who later determine their successors. Decisions are final only after a unanimous vote.
Both Whitaker and RAC employ an open process, meaning that anyone can submit a grant application. But not everyone does. For example, the Black Rep hasn't asked the Whitaker for money since it received the final portion of a 36-month, $200,000 grant in 2008.
If more organizations that focus on underserved populations submitted applications, it's possible that greater giving to those kinds of institutions could result.
"We look at every grant application," said Whitaker executive director Christy Gray. "You're not guaranteed funding, but you're guaranteed that we'll look at it."
RAC not only encourages applications from diverse organizations, it will walk new applicants through the process.
"We will help them write it, but they have to ask," Jill McGuire, RAC's head, said.
It's a Catch-22 situation for small, often overwhelmed arts groups, who need the money but don't have the time or resources to ask for it, according to Laurna Godwin, a trustee at the Whitaker Foundation for five years and current board president of the Community Foundation for charitable giving.
"The smaller organizations are just trying to survive day to day," Godwin said.
Dancer, choreographer and instructor Diadie Bathily founded St. Louis’ Afriky Lolo (“African Star”) Western African dance company in 2003 and incorporated it into a nonprofit four years later.
Afriky Lolo currently receives $2,000 each from RAC and the Missouri Arts Council, but most of its operating budget comes from performance charges and student tuition.
“We are struggling” Bathily said.
The artistic director said he has asked funders for as much as $20,000 but was told that his organization needs to be more established to receive funding on that level. Bathily pointed to the fact that DanceAfrica is paying Afriky Lolo’s way to its annual gathering in Denver this year as proof of the company’s growing legitimacy on a national level.
“It’s hard to make them understand how important this is,” Bathily said.
While Bathily would like to see an increase in grant money, he is grateful for the amount Afriky Lolo does get from RAC and the Arts Council and for their assistance in helping his company secure it.
”They email us and ask if we have any questions,” Bathily said. “They are amazing.”
'Relationship-building' is key
One of the most important factors Godwin considers when deciding who gets grant money is an organization's board. If 100 percent of the board is not putting its own money into the group, that's a huge red flag.
"We're not looking at how much everyone gives, just that they give," Godwin said. "The board members are the top ambassadors for an organization. And if they don't support the organization, why should we?"
The boards of prominent arts institutions such as St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Symphony and Opera Theatre contain well-known, well-connected names.
But even lacking big names on their boards, smaller groups can begin to level the playing field through strategic networking, Godwin said. When considering whether to fund an organization and at what level, Godwin looks not just for famous faces but also familiar ones.
"It's like the old saying, 'It's not what you know, it's whom you know,'" Godwin said. "When we're making decisions, and a trustee says, 'I know this board member' or 'I know their CEO,' that's very helpful. Then you know if that person will be passionate about the organization and making sure it succeeds."
That's why it critical for supporters of smaller arts groups to become trustees in grant-making organizations, putting themselves in positions to make funding decisions.
"Securing funding and making friends is about relationship building," Godwin said. Many people may not be able to fundraise, but they can friend-raise and that is the first step in building meaningful long-term relationships that can help sustain an organization."