Bill of Sale or Bill of Rights?

June 28, 2010

By Matt Ocks, discount Manager of Institutional Giving

June 30th is the end of the fiscal year here at Arden Theatre Company, and the development department is in the midst of a mini-phone campaign to encourage former supporters to renew their contributions in time for us to make goal for the season.  As an added incentive, any increase they make over last year’s gift counts towards the Hamilton Family Foundation Challenge (audiences who have seen Sunday in the Park are already familiar with this challenge, as it’s mentioned nightly in a post-show speech by Jeff Coon).  If we raise $50,000 in new or increased gifts by June 30th, the Foundation will match that with an additional $50,000 for Children’s Theatre and our outreach program, Arden for All.

One of the questions I get asked the most by audience members when I talk about donations is why, after they already spent money on tickets, they need to contribute to the theatre as well?  And of course, the answer is – they don’t.  But if they can, by gum, they should!  Right?  As a theatre-maker reared mainly on Broadway shows, I struggle with this issue a lot.  After all, on Broadway, when a show doesn’t sell, it closes.  And if we think of the theatre as a business, than the idea that we should have to buy tickets and be asked to make donations does seem silly.

But perhaps the theatre is something else.  True.  It has many of the same qualities as a business – it employs a variety of highly trained craftsmen; those craftsmen create a product; that product is sold to the community.  And yet, by virtue of the transformative potential of what we produce – transformative for us and our audiences – we theatre-makers are by and large not in it for the profits.  But if theatre’s not just a business, what else is it?

When William Penn wrote his plan for the layout of Philadelphia, he insisted upon five public squares that would be open to everyone.   As far as he was concerned, we all had a right to spend time in these “havens of respite in a busy world.”  And if we’re all allowed to sit on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, throw pennies in the fountain at Logan Circle, or cut through the City Hall courtyard on our way to Market or Broad – shouldn’t we all be able to see Sunday in the Park at the Arden?  Is that show not also a haven of respite in our busy world – a world even busier, I might add, than the one Billy Penn was talking about?

Theatre is a commodity, but it is also every citizen’s right.  And until more people in our field start to position it that way, the argument that those who can afford to ought to both buy their tickets and contribute will not hold very much water.  At least, that’s what I think.

We did boffo business this season at the Arden.  We’re humbled by the thought that 100,000 ticket-holders passed through our doors.   If one third of those people contributed $10 on top of admission, we would already be above our individual giving goal for the season.

I put this argument forth not to be contrary or to make anyone who might have bought but not contributed feel guilty.  I’m merely a professional fundraiser who constantly calls in to question the need for my services.   Because, you see, a part of me still thinks theatre is just a business.  Even when I know it’s as essential to my life as relaxing in a park on…er…Sunday.

This is a complicated issue.  And I’m only talking about individuals.  I could write a whole treatise on whether or not the country’s government ought to be supporting the work of its artists.  But if summer is a time for reflection, I can’t think of a better topic theatre-wise to reflect upon.  So by all means, tell us what you think.  I’m sure there is more to be said here.

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