Deal of the arts

On February 21, volunteers, local artists, and arts board members will gather at the Fairmont Hotel for the 1998 Gala for the Arts fundraiser for 500 Inc., the nonprofit organization that last year coughed up $350,000 for more than 40 Dallas performing arts groups.

Depending on whom you ask, the Gala For the Arts is either: A) a well-deserved opportunity for 500 Inc.'s volunteers to dress up and celebrate the cause of arts funding or B) a gaudy carnival for a clique of cocktail-swilling Philistines who wield too much sway over who gets arts funding locally, and who expect to be honored by the arts groups they support.

The question over the purpose of the gala is only one being lobbed at 500 Inc. by some small arts groups that receive funding from the organization. Some complain that they are pressured to do more for 500 Inc. than they get in return.

Valerie Brogan, executive director and in-house playwright of Teatro Dallas, the only full-season Latino theater company in town, received in December a letter from Cliff Redd, 500 Inc.'s new executive director, requesting the presence of her and the Teatro staff at Gala for the Arts.

Teatro Dallas received $5,000 from the group last year. Unlike private foundations such as the Meadows or public funding institutions such as the Texas Commission for the Arts, the 500 Inc. requests money from its beneficiaries (in the form of tickets purchased to the Gala for the Arts, at $100 a head), volunteer time working at various 500 Inc. events, and free performances for 500 Inc. members.

Of course, no one's forcing arts groups to compete for this grant money. "They can give to whomever they want," Brogan acknowledges. But they're an influential presence among the city's big private donors. Grants from 500 Inc. often lead to money from other sources, and there's always the possibility a group could get more from 500 Inc. itself next year.

"They make a connection between ticket sales to the gala, volunteer hours, free performances, and your continued support from the 500 Inc.," Brogan says. "It's made very clear that you have to work hard to stay in their good graces."

When you're in the upper echelon of the three tiers of 500 Inc. beneficiaries--say, the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas or Theatre Three, which have received more than $20,000 each for the past two years--there's a clear incentive to fork over the hours and ticket sales. Even a group as tiny as the Undermain Theatre, which reportedly receives most of its private funding from 500 Inc., will understandably strive to meets its contributor's requirements.

But as the fund scale slides down to $5,000 ("special" grants) or $250 ("honorary" grants), the demands begin to seem more, well, demanding.

Brogan and Teatro Dallas, which got bumped from the circle of big guys two years ago (at its height in the early '90s, Teatro bagged $22,000), have found themselves in a peculiar position: They must reassess the cost-effectiveness of receiving "free" money from the 500 Inc.

"At this point, the money we receive is effectively payment for services rendered," Brogan says. "There has been an across-the-board decline of money received by everyone who applies, but the small groups who receive the least money are being pressed hard to 'do their part.'

"The grant request information is much more complicated than what the National Endowment for the Arts requires. I put in at least 20 hours filling it out. And with being required to supply evening performances every year for 500 Inc. members at 'Sample the Arts' meetings, supply so many volunteers at Montage and ArtFest (the other two big fundraisers 500 Inc. oversees), and having your staff attend the annual Gala For the Arts at $100 per person, we give back most of the money they give us."

All this, coupled with the fact that a 500 Inc. liaison is assigned to every recipient and attends their board meetings, has raised charges that the 500 Inc. exerts inordinate control for a philanthropic group.

The grip becomes especially apparent at a time when the group is forced to scale back grant money: Its funding till, which has fluctuated dramatically since 500 Inc.'s inception in 1962, has plummeted more than half since its 1990 high of $800,000.

Teatro Dallas is not the only local performance group that complains about 500 Inc. demands; they're just the only one that will speak on the record. Even if you ignore the marginal sums of their "special" grants, this long-established funding institution still wields considerable cachet among big corporate contributors in town such as American Airlines, Exxon, and The Dallas Morning News, all of whom contribute large sums to their fund.

Cliff Redd has been executive director of the 500 Inc. for only 90 days. Indeed, the post was created shortly before his arrival; he came on board with two others as the first full-time, professional staff the group has ever maintained.

"The decision to go from all volunteers to a staff was made because of the group's future," says Redd, who served as executive producer of the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas for 10 years. "We're in the process of retooling, rethinking, reinventing ourselves. The primary goal behind this is to raise more money for more groups.

"We've definitely had problems maintaining a stable fund source. But that's because we're event-driven: We get a large percentage of our funds from three events. And that means anything can affect revenue, from bad weather to competing events. Last year, ArtFest was rained out. We lost a lot of money that we expected would come in. But I've been hired to pursue a different route: trying to convince companies who've never donated before to give to the arts. We're trying to stabilize."

Redd addresses the charges of Teatro Dallas and other small arts groups one by one. He is voluminous, but sometimes vague, in 500 Inc.'s defense.

"There is no requirement to sell a certain amount of tickets [to Gala for the Arts] to receive funding," he says flatly. "My letter didn't say that future funding was contingent on ticket sales. But it did ask people to come together and do their part for troubled times for the Dallas arts community and the 500 Inc. We ask our beneficiaries to help just like we ask our volunteers. We do ask people to tell us how they helped with ticket sales for the gala, because we need that help, and we want the people who give it to us to let us know. That kind of effort sweetens the pot for everyone."

Concerning the requirements for free performances and volunteer hours, Redd insists: "The various 'Sample the Arts' meetings that we hold every year are opportunities for these groups to show their stuff, to increase their own audiences. The same with the booths that they man at Montage and ArtFest; they're promotional booths for these groups, not for 500 Inc. Back when I worked for the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, I volunteered all kinds of hours. And it was a joy, not drudgery, to feel part of a larger arts community."

Brogan readily admits that having her funds cut by three-quarters has fed her resentment of the organization. But, she points out, the process of determining who gets the larger grants and who gets "honorary" and "special" grants is kept from the whole 500 Inc. membership. The organization advertises itself as a "democratic" fundraising solution.

"Special closed committees determine whether you're fully funded, or receive a special grant or an honorary grant," Brogan says. "What everyone votes on is how much the 'fully funded' groups receive. But the small groups, who've already been allocated their money, must still participate with ticket sales and volunteer hours. After all, there's always a chance you could be fully funded again. They dangle it like a carrot in front of you."

In other words, the big recipients and the small recipients have already been determined by the 500 Inc. brass. The little guys don't get to vote on how much money they receive; the big guys (along with the little guys) do vote on their own funding. And so, the charge goes, grants are awarded not by merit or tenure or need, but by a political contest to see who can dazzle the 500 Inc. establishment most. And the better-funded groups (who, generally speaking, also receive big support from civic and private resources) have the means to launch campaigns to perpetuate their own funding. That includes citywide postcard campaigns as well as more elaborate enticements (edibles, small gifts, exclusive presentations).

Additionally, the better-funded companies have the bigger, more influential audiences to generally advertise the 500 Inc. in their efforts. Indeed, included on the thick grant request form is a page-length request to "identify the support you have provided to 500 Inc." Among small arts groups, it's popularly known as the "What have you done for us lately?" page--a demand to prove how much manpower, ticket sales, and promotion the beneficiary has provided toward the 500 Inc. name.

There are some incongruities to the group's choices about who gets full funds and who gets the lesser grants. For instance, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, which remained a fully funded organization as of 1997, produced only two programs for its '97-'98 season, participating in one other project funded by the Dallas Opera. Teatro Dallas, on the other hand, not only programs an independent full season that often includes U.S. premieres of playwrights, but they sponsor their own International Theater Festival that imports performers from Russia, Canada, and Latin America.

As far as Teatro Dallas being bumped from fully funded to special grants, Redd says: "Teatro Dallas is well known all over the city for its artistic excellence. I wasn't here when that decision was made, but my understanding is that Teatro was bumped because they didn't supply the financial information we requested. That's the way the ball rolls with all arts funding, national and local: If you want grant money, you're expected to take the responsibility of cleaning your own house and letting the donors inside for a peek. Some people require more information and some people require less, but it's important to get a sense of how business is being conducted.

"Actually, grant proposals are an opportunity for arts groups to take their temperature, to reflect on where they've been, where they're going, and what they need."

Brogan admits that Teatro was bumped from 'full funding' a year before she began keeping the books. "But since, we've given them all our audits, everything they've asked for and more," she claims.

The main issue in all this, Redd insists, is that "the 500 Inc. can't go this alone. We're an organization absolutely unique in the country: Our foundation is a volunteer cooperative. Others have tried to copy us and failed. An investment of effort [by the arts organizations] will be returned manifold, I believe, with the achievement of our new goals, which we believe we'll meet in three to five years. We will have more money for all the arts groups in Dallas."

As to whether the 500 Inc. is engaged in a game of intimidation, the bottom line is this: Since nobody in the Dallas arts community is required to request money from them, and since their volunteer-fundraising model is unique in the country, they can set up the rules however they like--until someone comes up with a better way.


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