Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series that looks at how smaller arts groups along the Wasatch Front and Utah create a name for themselves and find success.
SALT LAKE CITY — Jason Bowcutt, community arts manager for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, believes if you ask an administrator from any arts organization what their top concern is, more often than not they will answer funding.
“It’s always been a challenge,” he said.
In his work with the Division of Arts & Museums, Bowcutt sees arts groups both big and small struggle with the question, "Where will the money come from?"
Money, Money, Money
Lexie Corbett, Salt Contemporary Dance's executive director, can relate. Despite Salt's substantial growth in its five-year history, finding funding has been a constant challenge.
“We put ourselves into the ring and we write and write for different grants, and you just have to build your repertoire with the different foundations or organizations that are funding,” she said. “A lot of times, our first grant, we don’t get. Our second grant, we don’t get. Our third grant, we get maybe $1,000, so it’s just a really slow process but I feel like through the past five years, we’ve really made some progress of getting some funders.”
Small arts groups depend on a combination of government grants, ticket sales and private donations for the funds to operate.
The Utah Division of Arts & Museums funds approximately 250-260 organizations each year totaling $1.7 million in grants — more than $700,000 of which comes from regranting from the National Endowment for the Arts, according to Laurel Alder, the division’s grant manager. Grants range from $500 to $150,000 — that top number Alder called an outlier, not the norm — with most grants being in the $1,000-$5,000 range.
“We have a high fund rate,” Alder wrote in an email. “Our philosophy is to fund as many groups as we can throughout the state. This means that our grants are often quite small, especially in comparison to local (options) like ZAP.”
ZAP — Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts & Parks Program — provides grants “to enhance Salt Lake County resident and visitor experiences through art, cultural and recreational offerings,” according to the program’s website, and is made possible by the county allocating one-tenth of 1 percent of sales tax to ZAP. According to ZAP program director Kirsten Darrington, the program is projected to distribute roughly $16.4 million between all of its grant categories in 2018. The exact amount will depend on final sales tax revenues.
The program separates funding into two tiers: Tier I includes funding for 22 “large cultural organizations” with grants given based on a proportional percentage of the organization’s operating expenses, and Tier II provides funding for more than 170 “small arts, cultural and botanical organizations and those not funded in Tier I.”
Utah Symphony and Utah Opera tops the Tier I group with a projected grant amount for 2018 of more than $2.1 million. Tier II groups fall into many different categories — local arts agencies, dance, theater, arts education, choral music and more — and ZAP expects to finalize 2018 grant projections this month, according to Darrington. For 2017, however, their grant projections ranged from $1,000 for groups like the Utah Flute Association to upwards of $82,000 for a local arts agency like the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Salt’s 2017 grant projection was $6,000, while Wasatch Theatre Company’s was $3,000.
Getting creative on a budget
Watching for these grants and keeping a close eye on funds are practices Jim Martin, artistic director and one of the founders of Wasatch Theatre Company, knows well. The group relies on ticket sales, private donations and grants like those from ZAP to survive, but Martin said they also have to be creative with the funds they do have.
“We’ve just had to really keep our costs low so we’ve just had to prioritize a minimalist approach to doing theater,” he said, stating that recycling materials from existing sets and refraining from building extravagant sets are two ways they’ve kept operating costs low. “Cost forces us to be really creative with our resources because we don’t have a lot of them.”
The fact that Wasatch Theatre Company’s seven-person board doubles as an artistic staff — all volunteers — also helps the company keeps costs down, allowing the group to allocate funds toward stipends for the actors and technicians.
“We don’t want people to have to work for free so we offer them a small stipend as an appreciation for their contribution,” he said.
Salt likewise has to get creative with staffing. Corbett and Michelle Nielsen, Salt's founder and artistic director, are the company’s only full-time staff members, with five others working part time and the group’s full company of eight also taking on administrative responsibilities.
“We have the need for a full staff but we can’t pay them yet, so that’s a challenge: How can we get by and make things happen in the most professional way but on a minimal budget?” Corbett said. “That’s where I get to do a lot of problem-solving.”
Bowcutt said smaller groups moving away from the “traditional” model of how things have been done in the past is another way they make the most of their resources. Instead of sticking to a rigid schedule or paying to rent or build a permanent home, new smaller arts groups take a more flexible approach.
“Instead of having a regular season, they produce a show and then they take time, and then they produce another show, so they’re not beholden to old structures of ‘this is our space, this is our season,’” he said. “They are OK with functioning in these different ways, so I think that’s an exciting thing to see in the art community.”
Additionally, partnerships also allow smaller groups to spread the word about their work in a more financially feasible way. Bowcutt highlighted Plan-B Theatre company, stating that the group often partners with other community organizations whose missions fit with the subject matter portrayed in the group’s plays, and the two groups work together to promote the show and a cause.
“There’s interesting connections that can be made, and oftentimes those other organizations are also nonprofits so there’s great opportunity to increase your visibility,” he said. “There’s new marketing opportunities that come along with doing that.”
Marketing opportunities such as this are at the heart of downtown Salt Lake's The Blocks initiative, unveiled in July. It is a rebranding of the Cultural Core, an agreement established in 2010 between Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County to pool resources in order to increase participation in the arts.
“We really want to push up these legacy arts organizations, some of these smaller dance companies, local artists, buskers, whatever it may be,” Ryan Mack, the Downtown Alliance’s communication and marketing director, said of The Blocks in a previous Deseret News article.
According to the initiative's new website — theblocksslc.com — the 20-year agreement brings together arts organizations, creatives and community leaders to facilitate collaborations that will eventually lead to an even stronger creative community. Although The Blocks doesn't directly provide funding for the individual arts organizations it promotes, it does help by providing additional marketing opportunities through the website and collaborations and events.
Although funding will always remain a challenge for arts organizations — particularly smaller groups like Salt Contemporary Dance and Wasatch Theatre Company — making the most of current resources and embracing new marketing opportunities can give these groups hope for a future The Blocks envisions: Salt Lake City as "the premier urban cultural district of the Intermountain West."
Part three of our series, "Beyond Abravanel Hall," will examine how Utah's smaller arts groups work to find the right home and how those homes can shape their future. It will be available Sunday, Aug. 12.