As reactionaries in Congress contemplate savage cuts to arts and culture funding, and foundations continue to reel from the hit their endowments took in the Great Recession, small arts organizations are worrying more than ever about staying afloat.
So it's heartening, not to mention surprising, to find some that are actually expanding their horizons. And at a time when competition for grants is more brutal than ever, two major regional funders—their own federal support in jeopardy—have launched visionary programming initiatives.
Two local theater groups are currently preparing grant applications which, if successful, will enlarge their programming and bring it to new audiences. The Northampton-based experimental ensemble Serious Play! is applying to the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) for a national touring grant. Old Deerfield Productions is approaching Mass Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to support the production of an original folk opera about Sojourner Truth. Both shows aim to provoke discussion of historical and contemporary issues.
NEFA's National Theater Pilot program is focused on expanding touring opportunities for ensemble theaters and creating a network of U.S. venues for the work. Serious Play is offering Milosevic at the Hague, their original piece about "the butcher of Belgrade," Slobodan Milosevic, who was tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal following the Serbian attacks on Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Utilizing music, movement and documentary text, the piece questions the nature of guilt and power.
For Serious Play's Sheryl Stoodley, the NEFA grant represents an opportunity "to grow and survive"—not just financially, but artistically. "You learn new things about your work when you put it before an audience that doesn't know you," she says. "I think that's important for an artist." In the NEFA initiative, she sees not only the potential for extending her own company's reach, but a major boost to ensemble theaters and American audiences.
Linda McInerney's Old Deerfield Productions is reaching out to new audiences with the opera Truth, which is scheduled to premiere next fall at Northampton's Academy of Music. The company is applying to Mass Humanities' "Crisis, Community and Civic Culture" initiative, which explores crises and challenges that have frayed the social contract.
The troupe's immediate challenges, McInerney says, are widely shared with other arts groups: "Business sponsorships are down, and it takes four times longer to solicit the smaller gifts, and finding foundations to support our work is harder than ever, and of the last 11 grants we wrote we received one, and the demand for creative programming as school budgets are slashed is escalating every day."
Nevertheless, Truth represents the organization's most ambitious project yet. The Mass Humanities grant "would mean the difference between having a piano accompany a bare-stage production versus an orchestra and sets and costumes." It would also support mini-performances in area schools and public forums on the themes inspired by Sojourner Truth's life of activism for emancipation and women's rights.
McInerney is distressed at the current threats to federal support of the arts and humanities. "Would we really eat the meat of what nourishes us most from our very own bones?" she asks. "Especially at a time when there is so little meat on our bones that we would not be much of a meal in any case."