Will Dance For Cash 

As corporate money leaves town, the arts hunt for new donors

The list of people who want your money is very, very long.

And due to the changing face of the Boise business scene, some of the city's arts organizations are relying more and more on your generosity to fill their coffers.

Unlike the European model of arts funding, which is composed almost entirely of financial support from the government, the arts in America have to jockey for their place on the federal list of budgetary priorities against the big guns—defense spending, for example. Rather than look exclusively toward Uncle Sam, arts organizations throughout the country rely on what Mark Hofflund, managing director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, calls a delicate web of financial support.

In the last decade in Boise, the composition of that web has changed. Large corporate donorship has dwindled, arts advocates say, and, in some cases, has disappeared altogether. Julie Kilgrow, executive and artistic director of Opera Idaho, says what's happened to corporate giving in recent years is a shame.

"It's very alarming to me because I do remember when we invested heavily in the arts because it was such an important fabric in the tapestry of our culture and our community," says Kilgrow. "What I'm seeing is that is drying up."

Where it was once typical for area arts organizations to receive donations in the tens of thousands of dollars from corporations, as well as individual donors, she says, now $5,000 has become the norm. And with fewer corporate headquarters located in Boise, not only has the size of the contributions shrunk, but so has the number of businesses handing out money.

Tony Boatman, executive director of Boise Philharmonic, says he's heard fundraisers joke that Boise is the home of the $5,000 major gift.

"When I talk to my colleagues around the country in similar-sized orchestras, it's not unusual for them to have $20,000 to $30,000 corporate contributions to their orchestras. That simply does not happen here," says Boatman.

But it used to. Both Kilgrow and Boatman remember days when it was the norm for local banks to cut checks every year for $15,000 or $20,000 to various arts organizations. As the local banks merged with regional banks, they noticed, much of that support disappeared.

"Very seldom does a nonprofit community benefit when a corporate merger takes place," says Boatman. "When two businesses merge, they start looking at where they can cut, and very often, if two $10,000 donors merge, 99 times out of 100, a nonprofit organization is not going to end up with a $20,000 gift. That's just the way of things." And if the corporation's headquarters leave the area, the gift disappears completely or becomes a fraction of what it once was.

Typically, arts organizations rely on government-provided funding and private contributions from corporations, foundations or individuals. But over the last decade, in addition to losing the support of locally based banks, the Boise arts scene has lost some of its most high-profile and generous corporate supporters. When Ore-Ida left Boise in 1999, some organizations had to look elsewhere when that support left town. Boatman says that when Ore-Ida, a subsidiary of H.J. Heinz was still headquartered in Boise, the philharmonic was receiving as much as $15,000 a year.

"We get absolutely nothing now from H.J. Heinz in Pennsylvania except for a few matching gifts from retired Ore-Ida people who still live here," Boatman says.

But Boise Art Museum still lists the H.J. Heinz Foundation as a donor. Wesley Jessup, the executive director of the museum, says that the museum is still going strong with donations major and minor.

"We're getting good $10,000 to $30,000 donations from corporations," says Jessup, who started at BAM last summer. But, he says, the museum has experienced a shift toward more individual gifts.

"We've had great success with foundations and we've noticed the money is shifting a lot more toward individual gifts," Jessup says. "We've had some major significant single individual donor gifts that have come our way from people here in town."

The recent loss of the Albertsons Boise-based corporate headquarters is just beginning to make ripples throughout the arts community and beyond. The company's new owner, SUPERVALU Corporation, has promised to continue some of the grocery chain's charity work, including allocating funds to the local United Way, and has pledged support for the Boise Open through 2010. But SUPERVALU is clearly not as heavily invested in the arts as Albertsons was. Now the majority of the charitable giving in the Albertson name in the Treasure Valley has fallen to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

Both Micron and Hewlett-Packard still have a large presence in Boise. But, Boatman says, high-tech firms don't generally support the arts. He says the Boise Philharmonic has never received a donation from Micron, and Hewlett-Packard has withdrawn its support.

So what's the arts world to do with less corporate money coming in? They rely more heavily on individual contributions. Jessup says BAM relies mostly on individual and foundation gifts. Boatman says the same is true for Boise Philharmonic. In fact, the philharmonic raises a higher percentage of its annual budget through individual contributions than any other orchestra of its size. Kilgrow says those individual givers, however, are becoming more and more difficult to find.

The Shakespeare Festival's Hofflund says the answer is to cultivate financial support, starting with the smallest donors.

"Equally important is to celebrate the smallest donors among us because everybody starts at their own comfort level," Hofflund says. "If they give $50 and it means something to the organization, maybe next year they'll give $100. Pretty soon they'll start giving $250. Even if a gift amount remains modest, the longevity of annual support is cumulative"

Ultimately says Hofflund, it's about the next generation of philanthropists.

"Where would we be without Mrs. Simplot? Where would we be without Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Albertson and Mrs. Langroise?" he asks. "Somehow, we need to find new generations of catalysts each year." He says that the catalysts were once great corporate leaders, citing the biennial FUNDSY event that brought together the community's wealthiest citizens to fundraise for bricks-and-mortar projects. However, it may be time to start looking not toward Boise's well-heeled, but to those with more vision than money. Hofflund points to organizations like the Idaho Women's Charitable Foundation as an example of what could be the model for filling in the gaps left by receding corporate support.

Kilgrow has two suggestions. First, she thinks Boise's political leaders should get together on the matter in an arts summit.

"I think we need to know what the arts contribute to the economy in Boise. It's quite significant." Second, because Boise's arts organizations are fighting for the same dollars to fund similar expenses, Kilgrow thinks arts execs should endeavor to work together.

"I think we could actually share administration if we would be willing to risk and trust and work together," she says. For example, Kilgrow thinks that rather than letting each company hunt for dollars to help fund an out-of-town scenic designer or tech crew, they should work to support a single person to do the job here in town.

"There are things that we could share together and do together," she says. "And it may be that we'll be forced to do that if it gets tighter and tighter."

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