There are those in the professional arts world for whom fundraising – constantly asking people for money – is about as much fun as chewing shards of glass. It’s a necessary component of the operating systems of nonprofits, of course, but it’s the rare artistic type who admits to enjoying it.
“There’s constant consternation around funding for any nonprofit in the arts,” says Stephanie Gularte, Producing Artistic Director of American Stage, the venerable St. Petersburg professional theater.
“Ours is a complex financial model, because around 60 percent of our income is earned – ticket sales, concessions, classes. And in that respect, it’s as though we’re just a regular business.
“And then that 40 percent is where we’re asking people to contribute, and go above and beyond what the face value is. Because if we charged the actual cost of everything, no one would be able to afford live theater.”
The 47-year-old Gularte, who joined American Stage at the tail end of 2014, inherited an organization that was financially solvent, more or less, but was having difficulty getting to the next level, creatively. After 40 years, perhaps understandably, a certain amount of programming complacency had set in.
“It wasn’t on life support, by any stretch, but it wasn’t looking at being progressive and taking risks,” she says. “Which I think is essential for arts organizations to be able to do.”
She arrived, the “fresh fuel” the American Stage board sought, after having co-founded the Capital Stage Theater Company in Sacramento, Calif. Gularte and American Stage were both seeking change, and challenge, at the same moment.
She led the charge as American Stage began bringing in edgier, more challenging shows. “It really is the role of arts organizations to lead,” Gularte says. “Not to follow or to chase. I take that responsibility seriously.
“I’m also a business person, and I am responsible for the business of the organization, so I do have a lot of conversations with myself, and the very capable people on staff here, about what that looks like.”
Programming choices aside, the issue of funding is always there, the gorilla in the room. In the year before Gularte took the job, the State of Florida contributed $150,000 to American Stage’s $2.6 million operating budget.
The amount decreased, bit by enormous bit, as Tallahassee passed each budget. In 2018, American Stage received $9,000.
“Asking for money from a place of desperation is never good,” Gularte explains. “I started a company from nothing, and that’s where we were for a long time – asking people just to make it possible to do what we did. That’s no fun, ever.”
Happily, American Stage is a long way from desperate. “There’s always the stress of not getting the numbers you need. But the positives are these: It allows us to tell our story a lot. Which is just a good thing for us as a community, to talk about the ‘why.’ Why we do it. And it’s good for us, because it keeps us in touch with that all the time. We’re always talking about why what we do is important.
“I guess one of the things I enjoy as well is the strategy of it. You’re building something. And when people give, they’re also investing. And so you end up with people who care about the fact that this organization exists.”
The numbers, she says, don’t lie. Since the state money dried up, donations have increased.
Donor and sponsor interest, Gularte believes, comes when the programming is consistently fresh and vital. Pandering to an audience with proven hits and well-known titles – on a consistent basis – is a recipe for philanthropic drought.
“The long game,” she calls it her cutting-edge dramatic programming choices. “Knowing there’ll be some fallout along the way – and there has been, and there will continue to be – but that the level of engagement and the deepening of commitment that people have is worth it. Because they see and value those risks.”
So yes, she actually enjoys the fundraising process. “One, people understand the value of the arts in this community,” Gularte explains. “Two, when they hear that Florida went from 10th ranked in the country for arts funding in the country to 48th, that inspired some philanthropy.”
One of Gularte’s biggest initiatives was launched last spring. Called 40 Forward, the “Passport” program offers free tickets to Mainstage productions to those under 20 years of age, and a month’s worth of unlimited free theater-going for anyone under 30, for $15.
These initiatives, as well as American Stage’s apprenticeship and arts leadership programs, have a single purpose: Growing a new generation of theater lovers. Young people to fill the seats, love the art, enrich their lives and continue ad infinitum.
With four Mainstage shows now completed under 40 Forward, Gularte reports, approximately 175 tickets were given out, with 300 or so significantly discounted.
It’s a development idea. Part of the long game.
“We kept asking ourselves ‘What does success look like?’” Gularte says. “And it was such an unknown for us. We considered it a success, not so much by the numbers, because we think there’s a lot of room to grow that.
“But because when you look around the theater, it is much more common now to see young people – coming in together in small groups, or parents and grandparents bringing young people with them.”
In fact, that social element – via talkbacks, panel discussions and other gatherings – will increase as the Passport program continues as part of the 2018-2019 season.
“There’s a lot of research out there right now that says millennials, and the next generation, are really kind of hungry for live interaction. They want to talk about it. And we’re also finding that those who do want to experience it keep coming back.”