Robust Fundraising, Limited Matching Grants for Arts Organizations

Demand for the $9 million in CARES funding allocated to theaters, orchestras, ballets and other arts groups across Connecticut far outstripped supply, as many organizations found themselves receiving substantially less in matching grants than expected under the grant’s original framework. 

According to the initial terms of the grant, all eligible applicants would receive a $5,000 base amount. The Office of the Arts at the Department of Economic and Community Development would then use the CARES funding to match 50 cents for every dollar that the organizations could raise from private donors, up to a cap of $750,000. 

However, the matching funding had to be reduced substantially after 154 organizations raised $34 million in private donations and pledges and requested nearly $17 million in matching funds from the governor’s office.  

According to Elizabeth Shapiro, director of arts, preservation and museums at the Department of Economic and Community Development, the matching funds were reduced proportionally, so that organizations ultimately received a match of about 25 percent of the total amount they raised. 

Dan McMahon, director of marketing and public relations at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, said that, based on their donations, Goodspeed qualified for the full $750,000. They received $532,100. The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, which also qualified for the full $750,000, received $376,200. 

Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center in New London, said they had raised more than twice the $182,800 grant that the governor’s office has allocated them. Sigel said that the grant will cover their overhead expenses, which include property maintenance and minimal staffing, for about 3 months. However, he doesn’t expect that the Garde will be able to host any performances until the state reopens theaters to full capacity, which he doesn’t think will happen before there is a vaccine. He estimates that the theater lost over $1 million because of COVID. 

Two separate groups of theaters had previously asked the governor for larger amounts of funding. A group of six “presentation houses”, including the Garde, had asked the governor in August to provide a total of $10 million to help them cover expenses while they were unable to host performances. A different group of six theaters, the Flagship Producing Theaters, which include Goodspeed and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, requested $12 million in September. 

Brett Elliott, executive director at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, who also said that his theater was eligible for more funding than the $111,300 they received, will be using the funds to cover payroll for the organization’s four full-time and four regular part-time staffers. Elliott said that besides a few comedy performances and some films, the center had been almost completely closed. 

From July through October of 2019, Elliott said, the theater brought in about half a million dollars in revenue. In the same months of 2020, they brought in $2,300. He said he was very glad to receive the CARES funding. 

Even if the amount isn’t what they expected, the theaters uniformly expressed gratitude for the grant money, saying it would help them get through another several months without revenue. 

“Altogether, we lost about $2 million this year,” said McMahon. “We are very grateful and thankful to the state for this grant, because [this] goes quite a way toward helping with that.”

McMahon said that Goodspeed hopes to be able to reopen in June of 2021. 

Sigel said he hopes there will be more funding available for arts organizations in the future. 

“We’re always appreciative when funding is directed toward our very rich cultural and creative community throughout the state,” said Sigel. 

Theaters are not the only organizations that will benefit from the grant money.

Frank Burns, director of the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, said that their summer and fall programming “took a hit” because many of their elderly patrons were reluctant to participate because of the COVID. The $23,200 grant wasn’t a lot of money — about a month’s worth of payroll and utility bills — but it meant they wouldn’t have to dip quite so far into their reserves. 

And some organizations are seeing the money not only as a way to stay afloat, but also an opportunity to innovate. Caleb Bailey, executive director at the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, said they will be using the grant money to purchase PPE, such as plexiglass barriers, masks for the musicians and cleaning supplies. He said they will also be investing in sophisticated videography so that they can film concerts and offer online subscriptions. 

“We’re trying to look at every possibility,” said Bailey. “This money certainly will help with that.”

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