How corporate largesse has helped resident, professional theatre

Like the American arts community as a whole, the not-for-profit theater has been looking more and more to the corporate sector to help bridge the gap between rising costs and needed revenues.

The corporate Medicis have responded to varying degrees and in varying ways - though not to the extent foreseen by President Reagan when his administration tightened the federal purse strings.

Corporate contributions to the nation's resident professional theaters range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. The money comes from the coffers of the Fortune 500 as well as from many smaller enterprises, all concerned with supporting ''culture'' and polishing the corporate image.

Viewed from a passing satellite, the panorama of corporate funding would resemble a patchwork of philanthropy. There are one-shot gifts and continuing subsidies. Some donations are unconditional; others come with strings attached, such as requiring the recipient to raise matching amounts elsewhere. There are grants for such special purposes as the presenting of new plays or the support of a playwriting program.

Perhaps the most illuminating way to indicate the present state of corporate theatrical subsidy in the United States is to consider some specific examples.

A conspicuous group effort to encourage corporation generosity has been made by the National Corporate Theatre Fund. Headquartered here in New York, the fund was incorporated in 1977. It is said to be the only national channel for major corporations ''to visibly invest in a vital national cultural resource.''

From an original membership of five playmaking groups, the fund's constituency has grown to include the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the American Conservatory Theatre of San Francisco, the Arena Stage of Washington (D.C.), the Cleveland Play House, the Goodman Theatre of Chicago, the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, the Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Each theater in turn receives an equal share of all corporate contributions, distributed twice annually.

To date, 87 large and small corporations have contributed an aggregate of more than $1 million to the fund. Major donors have included Warner Communications Inc., General Electric, CBS, AT&T, Exxon Corporation, General Foods, and Time Inc.

One of the longer-range funding commitments has been Exxon's $500,000 five-year program to assist resident professional theaters outside New York City. Grants are allocated in amounts of $25,000 each. By raising $25,000 on its own in the year after receiving the grant, a company can qualify for a second $ 25,000 from Exxon. Since its beginnings in 1981, the program has assisted the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, the American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge (Mass.), the Alley Theatre of Houston, and the Guthrie.

Other Exxon theater grants have gone to the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut ($35,000 a year for the past several years), the Young Playwrights Festival sponsored by the Foundation of the Dramatists Guild ($10,000 a year), and the National Corporate Theatre Fund (

Corporate support of another kind is provided by the Business Volunteers for the Arts, a project of the Arts and Business Council. Founded in 1975 by Sybil C. Simon and expanded in 1979 with a $166,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the program now operates in seven cities. It has assigned corporate volunteer specialists to provide advice and develop procedures for nonprofit organizations in all areas of the arts. To date, the program has assisted some 500 groups, about a third of which have been theaters.

Here are some of the ways in which the country's resident professional theaters have been benefiting from corporate largesse:

* The Cleveland Play House, which inaugurates its new $12.5 million theater complex this November, received a total of more than $1.2 million from 52 corporations. Another 11 corporate donors were among the benefactors contributing $250,000 each. Eaton Corporation, Standard Oil of Ohio, TRW Inc., and Republic Steel all gave generously to the ambitious renovation and construction project by the nation's oldest resident theater company.

* The New York Telephone Company put up $200,000 of the $1.8 million needed to mount last summer's season of free performances in Central Park by the New York Shakespeare Festival. Citibank has been the festival's major corporate angel for the previous three seasons, in amounts ranging from $150,000 to $250, 000.

* The American Express Foundation bankrolled the 1982 seven-nation overseas tour by the American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge with a $250,000 subsidy.

* Like many other institutional groups, the Denver Center Theatre Company was chosen for inclusion in the American Express Company's ''cause-related marketing program.'' The theater received five cents for every American Express Credit Card charge in the Denver area over a two-month period. The nickel diversions added up to $45,000. In 1982-83, the Denver Center playmakers received a total of $150,000 in cash from some 200 corporations, plus a gift of a Hewlett-Packard computer worth $150,000. According to a theater spokesman, the group is looking for $400,000 in corporate support in the current season.

* Along with many smaller donations, Warner Communications Inc. has made such grants as these: $25,000 over two years to the Manhattan Theatre Club; $75,000 over three years to the American Conservatory Theatre; $25,000 through the National Corporate Theatre Fund to finance a playwriting contest; and $15,000 to the Acting Company for the commissioning of a new play. The commissioned play now awaits production.

* The Manhattan Theatre Club receives about $200,000 from 65 corporations toward its operating budget of $1.2 million. About half of the corporate proceeds are raised at an annual gala held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Morgan Guarantee Trust, Exxon, Warner Communications, and Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal are among this lively East Side group's most generous benefactors.

* According to Paul Libin, managing director of the Circle in the Square, the Circle's corporate support has been healthy and growing. From $81,885 in fiscal year 1980-81, it rose to $90,983 in 1981-82 and to $108,873 in 1982-83. Bankers Trust Company, Chemical Bank, CBS, and Con Edison head the list of the Circle's approximately 50 corporate benefactors.

* With an annual budget of about $2 million, New York's well-subscribed Roundabout Theatre Company manages to be 75 percent self-sufficient. The remaining $500,000 must come from donations, of which corporations account for about 12 percent, or approximately $60,000. This year, the Roundabout is mounting a strong corporate campaign with a goal of $150,000.

''I would like many small (corporate) grants rather than a few large ones,'' said Gene Feist, Roundabout's producing director, citing the danger of a theater's becoming too dependent on a few hefty givers. In his view, the Reagan administration's expectation that corporate funding would compensate for reduced federal subsidy has not materialized. Although Mr. Feist feels that the Roundabout is doing well, he added that ''corporate funding is never equal to the potential of government funding.''

Such was the consensus among several executives of nonprofit playmaking groups interviewed in connection with this report. The experience of the 87 groups represented by the Alliance of Resident Theaters/New York has been typical. Average corporate funding per theater dropped from $23,091 in 1980-81 to $22,777 in 1981-82. (With adjustment for inflation, the decrease was higher.) Nevertheless, the trend of corporate support had been upward prior to the 1981- 82 recession.

Jane Gullong, director of development for the New York Shakespeare Festival, reflected the prevailing view that ''corporations could do more.'' The festival receives unrestricted grants from some 80 corporations in amounts ranging from $ 500 to $10,000, for a total of $350,000 to $400,000. Miss Gullong broke down the festival's contributed income of $2.5 million to $3 million: 70 percent from individuals, 20 percent from government grants and 10 percent from corporations.

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