NEA Theatre Grants to Make Your Town "Our Town"

By Robert Simonson
July 28, 2012

Given that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Rocco Landesman has a theatre background, it should come as no surprise that he named one of his signature initiatives after a Thornton Wilder play.



On July 12, the agency announced the second annual round of "Our Town" grants. The 80 money gifts total nearly $5 million and will reach 44 states and the District of Columbia. Combined with grants from 2011, the NEA has invested $11.58 million in Our Town projects in all 50 states and DC. Within the 80 projects there are 566 different partners of which 240 are arts organizations (including 44 local arts agencies and four state arts agencies). The other partners include aging services agencies, botanic gardens, religious institutions, and scientific organizations; local businesses, including banks and farms; business improvement districts, educational institutions; local, state, and federal government agencies; and land trusts.

The aim of the grants is what the NEA calls "creative placemaking."

"Cities and towns are transformed when you bring the arts — both literally and figuratively — into the center of them," said NEA Chairman Landesman. "From Teller, AK, to Miami, FL, communities are pursuing creative placemaking, making their neighborhoods more vibrant and robust by investing in the performing, visual, and literary arts."

"The intention of all of the grants is the NEA goal of availability," NEA Director of Design Jason Schupbach told Playbill.com. "The country is strengthened through the arts. When we think about what makes a place livable, that's a very complex picture. There are many elements. We're interested in the arts' role within all that. What is the arts thread?"

Of the 80 grants — a sharp increase from the 51 grants handed out last year — there were nine grants in which theatres were one of two leading players.

The largest theatre grant was for $150,000 and went to the William Inge Center for the Arts, a long-established and well-respected center in Independence, KS, which annually presents a theatre festival celebrated hometown boy, William Inge, as well as other writers of his era. The center wanted "to bring the Inge theatre festival into the entire community," said Schupbach. "They have a great festival, but they said 'We need to do more out in the town.'" The grant will enable the center to present site-specific theatre productions all around town. Writers have been hired to pen plays that take place in specific spaces — including theatres, schools, public streets, retail spaces, museums, and libraries — around Independence, a rural community of about 9,200. The festival's centerpiece will be a rotating four-show repertory of plays that are evocative of small-town America, both past and present. It is estimated that the festival will be attended by as many of 20,000 people.

Another grant, of $100,000, went to the well-regarded, playwright-focused Writers' Theatre of Glencoe, IL. "They're designing a new theatre," said Schupbach. The money will support the final design and construction documents for a new cultural facility, theatre, and community venue in downtown Glencoe. The new United States Green Building Council LEED Silver-certified facility will include indoor and outdoor performance spaces, as well as room for classes, workshops, lectures, and family programming. Studio Gang Architects was commissioned to complete the concept design. Schupbach pointed out that the "Our Town" program can only fund designs for the building. "We don't fund construction," he said.

Other grants recipients include the Playhouse Arts in Arcata, CA, which received $50,000, which it will use to work with the mid-sized city and Kash Boodjeh Architects, Greenway Partners, and local businesses "to create a creative industry corridor in the historic Creamery District in downtown Arcata"; and Oddfellows Playhouse in Middleton, CT, which also got $50,000, to team "with the City of Middleton to create architectural drawings, planning activities, and design charrettes for the reuse of a vacant building in downtown Middletown as a cultural facility for the theater company."

The two-year grants can be spent at any rate determined by the recipient. Once the money is received, the grantees send the NEA regular status reports on their progress. "They send us regular updates," said Schupbach. "There are reporting requirements."

Word of the "Our Town" grant program has spread throughout the arts community. According to Schupbach, "There was big uptick in the number of applications for grants from last year to this year."

Even those who are not lucky enough to pull down a grant are sometimes positively effected by the program. "It has started a lot of conversations in communities," said Schupbach. "People tell us that even though they didn't get a grant, it started a conversation in the town and sometimes the people decide to go ahead and do the thing they wanted to do anyway."