NEA Funds Are Stimulating (If Not Exactly Liberating)

Where are the jobs? For the unemployed, as well as for skeptics of President Obama's economic program, this is the critical question of the moment. In the nonprofit arts world, at least, some answers appear to be on the horizon.

Last February, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts. Separate from the agency's annual budget, the sum was designated for the creation and preservation of jobs at nonprofit arts groups suffering from the economic downturn. Roughly 40 percent of the money, or $20 million, was delivered last spring to 56 state and regional arts agencies to be distributed to groups in need. And on July 7, the NEA unveiled a sweeping list of 631 nonprofit arts organizations, in all 50 states, to which it would grant the rest of the money directly, in blocks of $25,000 and $50,000.

In California, nearly 100 groups will receive a total of $4.45 million, including the Actors' Gang, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Deaf West Theatre, the Magic Theatre, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and South Coast Repertory. In New York, almost 140 organizations will get $5.75 million in all, including Classic Stage Company, New York Classical Theatre, the Pearl Theatre Company, the Present Company, Second Stage Theatre, and Women Make Movies.

For Elena K. Holy, producing artistic director of the Present Company, the scrappy nonprofit that has mounted the New York International Fringe Festival every year since 1997, its $25,000 came not a day too soon. "My assistant resigned last fall when the economic crisis became completely apparent," she said. "He was our second full-time employee, and due to shifting ground we decided not to fill that job."

When its fiscal year began Jan. 1, the company hired Britt Lafield, a co-creator of the Fringe Encore series, which brings back the most popular of the festival's 200-odd productions each year for additional performances—more time for producers, as well as agents and casting directors, to see the work. Though when he was hired, the company didn't have enough money to pay him a full-time salary, "this NEA grant allows us to bring Britt up to full time," Holy said. "Half his job is festival administrator, half is producer of Fringe Encore."

Direct NEA grants are also going to nonprofits in more-rural states, including the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and West Virginia's Greenbrier Valley Theatre, which will each receive $50,000. According to Meredith Donnelly, a development associate at Greenbrier, which touts itself as "West Virginia's official year-round professional theater," the money will maintain salaries for actors, stage managers, lighting designers, a full-time volunteer director, and a full-time publicist. "This money means we don't have to cut salaries or whole positions," she said, "and that we can keep our artists employed."

In the Spin Cycle

Not everyone is happy about the funding process, the eligibility requirements, or the restrictions on how the money can be used. Few arts leaders were willing to speak out directly against the NEA, but frustrations could be felt.

Karen Zeller Lane is executive director of Theatre Puget Sound, a trade group that serves the nonprofit companies in Seattle and vicinity. To be eligible to apply directly to the NEA, she explained, an organization had to have already received NEA funds—"to be in the cycle," to use insider lingo. "There are many organizations, like TPS itself, that have never received funding from the NEA and were then ineligible to apply directly," she said.

Despite that restriction, Theatre Puget Sound could receive funding through a state or regional agency, but it wouldn't be able to use that money for what it currently needs most: a development officer (industry parlance for a fundraiser). "Artistic and administrative jobs are eligible" for NEA stimulus funds, Lane said, but "development positions are not eligible. TPS happened to completely lose a 32-hour-a-week development position. That was our most critical loss of personnel, and we are not eligible to apply to replace it. I've been told that this is not a restriction placed upon the funds by our local agencies, but a federal guidelines restriction. It makes no sense to me whatsoever."

Not all nonprofit arts groups that have received NEA funds in the past will necessarily get stimulus money, as the agency can't possibly assist all qualifying groups. There is a limit, in other words, to how many jobs $50 million can create. One such group is Playpenn, which produces an annual two-week conference in Philadelphia devoted to new-play development and "the cross-fertilization of writers, directors, dramaturges, and actors." According to artistic director Paul Meshejian, Playpenn was eligible to apply for direct NEA stimulus funds but was not among the 32 recipients in Pennsylvania.

"The process is slightly mysterious to me," Meshejian said. "It's a bureaucracy and a bureaucratic process. Now, we're a rather young organization, relatively speaking, and we applied for regular NEA funding for the first time for this year's conference…and we were fortunate enough to receive some funding…. When it came to applying for stimulus funding, we felt we were also deserving of that. I'm the only full-time salaried person, and I think they maybe didn't understand the breadth of the population we serve. By the same token, they seem to recognize that we are successful. I understand that not everyone can receive a stimulus grant. But it would have helped us."

All isn't lost, however. "Many states that received NEA stimulus monies to be distributed at the local level decided not to open applications for those funds until after the NEA made its awards," Meshejian said. So Playpenn will look, for example, to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which will award grants totaling $225,000 to qualifying nonprofits in support of jobs.

Planting Seeds

Despite some frustrations, participants in the process are relatively satisfied. "Once you accept as a reality that only organizations currently funded by the NEA were eligible for this," said Holy, "I really thought it was extraordinary how quickly an institution of that size—which does go through a bureaucratic process to disburse the money—was able to get this done. One key decision was they just adapted pre-existing forms. If you've applied to the NEA before, you logged back into the same place you'd logged into in the past. I don't remember the exact date the Present Company applied for its direct NEA funding—I think it was April—but my point is, to have an April deadline for a federal funding program and now to have the money coming on its way in July is just amazing."

Looking forward, however, Holy advised nonprofits not to assume that a "second stimulus," despite the political chatter, would come to pass or that it would include additional arts funding. "We've set things up so that Fringe Encores will be self-perpetuating—by which I mean we're not assuming we're going to get a special $25,000 grant from the NEA every year so Britt can have his job," she said. "Our goal, rather, is to refill that kitty with a small portion of our box office income. It's a big challenge in this environment. But I think we have an advantage in that the Fringe Encore series has been successful and that we have ad deals and vendor partnerships. We're treating the $25,000 as one-time seed money that'll have to be regenerating."