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Takeover Artist

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What could possibly be more civilized?

A morning meeting at the University of Richmond's lakeside campus suspended in its summer hush.

Continental breakfast.

Cultural organizations.

PowerPoint.

Hardly the setting for a corporate takeover. On this July morning, however, the merger proposal floated by Linda Dalch Jones and Bob Mooney, the executive director and vice chair of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, was in effect just that.

The foundation, angling to secure some $50 million from the city for its ill-fated performing arts center project, had all the muscle of the corporate community behind it, with its board chock-full of powerful Richmond business leaders.

In their attempts to raise public and private dollars, however, the foundation needed to overcome a familiar refrain from those writing the checks: Too many arts groups were drawing from the same kitty of money. So why not join forces?

The shareholders -- theater people, museum directors, dance company managers and the like — listened intently as Jones and Mooney made their pitch with a PowerPoint presentation. The proposal? A new way to distribute arts funding in the city, something Jones and Mooney were calling the Richmond Cultural Trust.

The key to the proposal was consolidating the fundraising arms of the foundation and the Arts Council — the organization that acts as a clearinghouse for distributing public and private arts money in the region.

"There were probably as many concerns as there were organizations" in the room, recalled Larry Moffett in an October interview. Moffett has served as interim president of the Arts Council for the past two years.

Four months since that meeting, the idea for a potential merger seems to be just that — an idea. But the discussion has kicked off a round of questions about how the foundation will affect future arts funding in Richmond.

At least one thing has moved forward since July: the foundation's CenterStage project. City Council has approved funding for the project and construction has begun on the old Carpenter Center.

Meanwhile, CenterStage's corporate flex and emergence as the region's performing arts centerpiece have fundamentally weakened the Arts Council. The geyser of public funding it's opened for the foundation's capital campaign makes the Arts Council's antique funding formulas and cash flow look rickety by comparison.

While there seems to be little enthusiasm for funding practices to remain the same — almost everyone is struggling to raise public and private funds — arts groups aren't sold on the idea of merging with the foundation.

Other people say that organizations would do better pooling their fundraising activities rather than hitting up corporate donors freelance-style.

"I think there's feeling among the corporate leaders that it'd be nice to be able to write one check," says Jim Ukrop, former president of the Performing Arts Foundation and current board member. "The corporate leaders, the funders, the donors and the donees, need to come together and figure out what works best."

Some smaller organizations seem worried about whether their needs would be addressed in a merged organization.

"When you're talking about a huge funding behemoth coming in and shaking things up, everyone's going to wonder how things are going to change," says Nicole Hood, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. "It's hard to know how possibly a smaller organization [is] going to be assured that they … continue to have access to funding."

Or, put less charitably by an attendant of the July meeting who asked to remain anonymous, "There's hidden humor in the idea of calling something the 'cultural trust' if it involves the Performing Arts Foundation."

Indeed, the foundation has frittered away considerable goodwill in its clashes with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and repeated failures to meet its own lofty fundraising goals, not to mention charges that the group has mismanaged its finances.

While the foundation ultimately convinced City Council to raise taxes and commit $500,000 a year and $25 million (estimated to cost taxpayers a total of $50 million) to build a performing arts center downtown, its private fundraising efforts have been less than stellar. Some fear that a merger would lead to the foundation cannibalizing the arts community to help pay for reconstruction of the Carpenter Center.

There's the inevitable question of priorities, says Michael Gooding, managing director of the Richmond Triangle Players.

"Who gets to decide who's going to use CenterStage and Landmark?" Gooding asks. "If you contract with some big national touring company and they want to bring in someone for Christmas, are you going to kick 'The Nutcracker,' and ballet out of it? ... Are the locals going to get first crack at good dates?"

If all the money flowed through the foundation, it's unclear how the funding and management of the facility would work.

"They're just dealing with the building. … And it's not going to be available to everybody," Gooding says, referring to CenterStage. "The Arts Council does a lot of other things not related to that building."

The Arts Council has its own money problems. It only distributes $400,000 annually in public money, most of which gets sucked up by a core group of founding members, making it difficult for the little guys to get a slice. Its corporate pool of funding hasn't grown as much as some would have hoped over the last decade, either.

So where to go from here?

A draft of a memo dated Aug. 20 from some of the arts leaders discussing a potential merger suggests that a planning group begin to explore "what a new collaborative organization might look like in the future."

The memo also acknowledges "that the absence of a merger between these two organizations may pose continued challenges for everyone involved in the arts/cultural communities." Jerry Samford, a foundation board member, says that instead of deciding what serves the foundation and Arts Council best, "the process should work in the opposite direction — that they should look at the community and figure out what kind of an organization would best serve the community." S



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