Richer cities fare better in getting grants for culture

By Joshua Benton and Sam Roe
Blade Staff Writers

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It is one of the most historic theaters in America, a key stop on the old vaudeville circuit where stars like Milton Berle brought their acts to the Middle West.

But no matter. A few years ago, the Majestic Theatre in Chillicothe was near the wrecking ball.

It needed a new roof, the seats were shot, and the electrical work wasn’t up to code.

Then the Mead Corp. stepped forward with a pledge of $200,000. Soon, private donations rolled in, and the grand theater was saved.

Had Mead, the paper giant with two mills in Chillicothe, not come through, “I think the next step would have been to raze the theater,” says David Milliken, head of the Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce.

The Majestic Theatre underscores the importance of private donations to the arts. Like Toledo’s historic Valentine Theatre, the Majestic and other arts centers often live or die by donations, particularly from corporations.

And in many Ohio cities, particularly small towns or those hit hard by plant closings, these dollars are increasingly hard to come by.

“There are fewer corporations around, fewer locally owned companies,” says Reid Dulberger of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Youngstown, for example, is struggling to raise $500,000 for a home for a ballet company and a theatrical group.

Both organizations are well respected, Mr. Dulberger says, but less than $100,000 has been collected for their new home.

And state help is uncertain, he says. In fact, he says, the state system of providing matching grants for money raised locally is unfair, skewed toward rich communities.

Ohio law requires that any two dollars of state funding for an arts project be matched by one dollar raised locally, and poorer towns might have a tougher time reaching that mark.

“On the surface, the matching grant system appears to be fair and equitable,” Mr. Dulberger says. “But there is an element that the rich get richer.”

The system “does not take into account the relative affluence of a community,” he says. “An affluent community could raise 100 per cent of a project while another community may work very, very hard and not be able to make half of that.”

Ohio, he says, needs to “incorporate a sense of need, a way to quantify a relative effort” when giving money to the arts.

State Rep. Michael Verich (D., Warren) agrees.

He said it is more difficult for areas like Toledo and Youngstown to attract local matching funds for state-funded arts projects.

Mr. Verich said a petition drive in lieu of raising some private money for the local match is a good idea.

“Anything that you can do is important. A petition drive would be an innovative way to approach the local match. It’s another way to show community support,” he said.

Mr. Verich said he is not sure if a state law would be needed to use a signature drive as part of the local match for arts projects.

Still others agree that small towns or poor areas have more trouble raising money than big cities or rich suburbs.

“We have to work harder, as opposed to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati,” says Ellen Nelson, executive director of ArtSpace/Lima, a nonprofit arts group in Lima. “It seems it is easy for them; they have resources.”

Others say small cities do not have the political clout that big cities do to bring home money for new theaters and galleries.

“If they pour any more concrete into Cleveland it will sink into the lake,” says Bob Althoff, an investment firm executive who headed the campaign to save the Majestic Theatre in Chillicothe.

Matching grants like the Valentine’s must be included in the state budget and are therefore subject to backroom deals and political favors in the legislature.

“If your town has someone on a powerful committee or the speaker of the House, you’re going to do much, much better in the game,” says Marianne Cooper, executive director of Mansfield’s Richland Academy of the Arts and Sciences.

The academy will start a $4 million campaign in January to fund a new children’s science museum. It received no state funding when it asked for $3.5 million two years ago.

“There’s plenty of [state] money to go around,” Ms. Cooper says. “It all comes down to political clout. Can your politicians do a good job of convincing other politicians your project is important?”

If not, arts groups must scramble for private and corporate donations – often a daunting task.

In recent years, many Ohio cities, including Toledo, have been devastated by businesses closing, moving, or downsizing. Some cities never have bounced back from the recession of the early 1980s.

This means fewer corporate dol lars trickling down to local arts groups.

The effect on citizens is far-reaching: The trend could concentrate cultural events and institutions in larger cities, leaving smaller ones with fewer museums, theaters, and musical ensembles.

In Toledo, the issue is the historic Valentine Theatre downtown.

Theater backers – organized as the Toledo Cultural Arts Center, Inc. – must raise $5.3 million to qualify for $15 million in state money. Over the last 15 months, they have raised $4.8 million, including $2.7 million from corporations, and the state is questioning $100,000 worth of pledges that have not been signed.

Also, by next month, theater supporters must present the state with its plan to raise $1.5 million for operating expenses to cover the two-year construction period and the theater’s first year of operation.

Nationwide, corporate giving is declining as a percentage of pre-tax income. In 1986, 2 per cent of corporate income went to giving; in 1995, that was down to 1.2 per cent, according to Craig Smith, president of Corporate Citizen, a Seattle-based think tank.

But Mr. Smith says corporate wealth has risen so much during the 1990s that giving has still increased faster than inflation. According to the Journal of Philanthropy, corporate giving reached a new high in real dollars last year, when it was up 7.5 per cent.

So if the money is still out there, where is it?

Nonprofits were once able to look to a few large local corporations for funds for nearly any worthwhile project in their town. Now, some have to search for national foundations. Some rely on a few wealthy individuals. And some simply abandon large, expensive projects altogether.

“The strategies of nonprofits shouldn’t be based on trusting the largest companies in town to give money any more,” Mr. Smith says.

National corporations are still giving lots of money, but they are spreading it across the country and the world, not just in their hometowns. And that can make it harder to target donors successfully.

“When you ask for money, they say, ‘You’ll have to talk to corporate headquarters,'” says Tom Carto, president of the Richland Performing Arts Association in Mansfield. “And then headquarters won’t talk to you.”

Mr. Carto says smaller companies have had to take up the slack.

“We have a lot of midsized businesses – technical and electronic businesses – that don’t give as much individually as the big businesses,” he says. “But they’re where our growth is.”

Adds Mr. Milliken of the Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce: “The corporations are looking more closely at what they are doing, and they are reassessing the benefits and being more careful about their choices.”

Chillicothe’s Majestic Theatre was restored with help from the Mead Corp. and $200,000 from the state. It was built in the 1850s and bills itself as the oldest continuously operating theater west of the Alleghenies.

“We saved a very valuable asset,” Mr. Milliken says. “I’d call it cultural infrastructure.”

Not all towns have struggled to raise money, however.

In Springfield, the Clark County Historical Society recently decided to create a history museum. It asked county officials to enact a sales tax to fund the museum, but the officials said they would do so only if the society raised an endowment to give the museum long-term financial security.

Faced with this incentive, the society raised a $3.5-million endowment in six months – in a city of only 70,000 hit hard by industrial downturns. Their goal is $4.5 million.

Nearly all the money has come from a small group of wealthy people, not from area corporations. “It’s from a few wealthy individuals who have been philanthropists in town for 20, 30 years,” said Floyd Barmann, executive director of the Clark County Historical Society. No state money is involved.

After the money was raised, county officials kept their promise and enacted a five-mill, one-year sales tax, which will add another $5.5 million for renovation costs.

In Tiffin – a city of 19,000, about one twentieth as large as Toledo – the Ritz Theater raised $3.2 million in private money in a year and a half, in large part because of regional support.

“We get a lot of patrons from a seven-county area, and they’ve been very generous,” says Keith Miller, the theater’s community service manager.

The state has given $600,000, and the campaign has $500,000 to go. “But that last $500,000 is always the hardest,” he says.

The Ritz dates to 1928, when it was built for vaudeville circuit shows and silent movies. The 1,300-seat theater was the region’s centerpiece, with a 1,200-pound Czechoslovakian crystal chande lier and hand-painted frescoes depicting scenes from a Roman garden.

But like many small-town theaters, it fell into disrepair and closed.

Ironically enough for Toledo fund-raisers, the Ritz is scheduled to reopen Feb. 14, 1998 – Valentine’s Day.