What If…there was a “Giving Pledge” for theatre?

by Jaan Whitehead

in What If

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What if a group of committed philanthropists created a “Giving Pledge” initiative for theater?

To put the question in context, in 2009, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet created an initiative called “The Giving Pledge” which asks billionaires to pledge half of their wealth to charity.  In meetings with prospective donors, they said that “We live in an exciting time for philanthropy when innovative approaches and advances in technology have redefined what’s possible.”  In expressing their own philosophies of giving, many of the potential donors saw their giving as part of “venture philanthropy,” a participatory philanthropy that aims to be at the cutting edge of investing in new ways of addressing the problems of society such as poverty, health care, and education.  So far over sixty people have signed the pledge, and Fortune magazine estimates that this initiative alone will add up to $300 billion to philanthropy in the coming years.  When you add the potential of other wealthy people to give, the transfer of wealth from aging Baby Boomers, and the just developing potential of Internet giving, there are startling possibilities for a new age of individual philanthropy, perhaps the most important since the time of Mellon, Rockefeller, and Carnegie.

Given the actual potential of such a new age, I am imagining that $10 billion might flow into the arts if the arts can put forth the kind of bold, forward-looking initiatives that might attract these investors (that would be only 3% of what Fortune estimates could come from the “Giving Initiative”).  Some ideas of what such initiatives might be are an:

  1. International Institute for the Arts – one of the greatest needs the arts have is for an infrastructure for the coming global arts world.  Historically, funds for international art have mainly been considered part of government diplomacy to showcase U.S. art around the world.  These funds have always been small and now have been cut to almost nothing.  Private efforts are trying to foster more international exchange but these efforts are also small.  What if three billionaires put forth a billion each to fund an International Institute for the Arts which would become an exciting initiative for investing in new global art from exchanges to festivals to labs for gathering artists from different countries to create art together.  Income from the $3 billion endowment could generate between $150 and $300 million a year, depending on how successfully it was invested, and could change the face of global art, an attractive possibility for investors.  One of the investors might even be from another country like China since the “Giving Pledge” initiative is being extended abroad.  We would be better positioned globally if our federal government led such an initiative but that is unlikely in the near future plus it invites the kind of political meddling that always bedevils the NEA.
  2. Arts Education Web Project – with the technical abilities of the Web, it should now be possible to create interactive video or other programs that could bring the arts to students (and adults) all over the world at very little cost.  Imagine a wonderful production of Hamlet that could reach students in many countries in different languages where students could talk with the artists and with each other about the play online or even go on stage online.  The Metropolitan Opera’s videos of live productions that can now be seen in movie theaters are just a hint of what could be done.  Since so much of the new wealth in the country comes from the technology industries, there could be great interest in revolutionizing the world of arts education so that it was no longer restricted by cost or location.  This wouldn’t mean that students wouldn’t experience live art but live art and working with artists in real time would be one facet of a much greater world of arts education.
  3. Arts Trust of America – there has been talk for years of establishing the equivalent of a private NEA but it has never seemed feasible, in part because most of the suggestions have involved continual fundraising on an annual basis to support it (the equivalent of annual Congressional funding for the NEA).  But again, what if three billionaires gave a billion each to endow a private arts trust which would not be dependent on fundraising or politics?  There are many ways such a trust could be structured and many values it could promote.  My suggestion would be for an Arts Trust whose prime mission was to invest in the nation’s artistic capital – such as direct investment in artists, in their work, in new ways for artists to work together (and across disciplines), and in new forms of organizations to present their work.  Such a Trust might be structured so that it had an administrative core surrounded by two working advisory groups; an advisory group of artists to establish artistic goals and standards and an advisory group of entrepreneurs to generate new ideas about ways to invest in artistic capital and ways to broker new connections between artists and institutions and artists and audiences.  All three groups could then be represented on a governing board, maintaining the collaborative integrity of the Trust.  There could also be a larger council with representatives from existing arts institutions, training schools, major funders, service and advocacy organizations, international groups, and new technological fields.  This would broaden the expertise available to the Trust while enriching the dialogue and creating useful connections with these groups.  Again, with careful investment, such a Trust could generate between $150 and $300 million a year.

These are a couple of suggestions for new ways of investing in the arts.  As of now, the arts do not seem to be a high priority for many of the actual new donors, and, so far, the arts have not shown the kind of big thinking and innovative strategies needed to attract their interest.  It will be tragic if this new era of philanthropy passes us by.


Jaan Whitehead is a trustee and former board chair of SITI Company, an ensemble theater company led by Anne Bogart. She has served on the boards of Arena Stage, Living Stage, The Acting Company, the National Cultural Alliance, TCG, and the National Council for the American Theatre. She has also served as Executive Director of Theatre for a New Audience and Development Director of Center Stage. Prior to entering the theater world, she taught political philosophy at Georgetown University. Two of her essays on the challenges facing the arts in a commercial society have appeared in American Theatre magazine, and she is co-editor of The Art of Governance: Boards in the Performing Arts.