COVER STORY ‌ Their Kind of Town 

The Chicago-based Donnelley Foundation is quietly transforming Charleston's cultural landscape

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Last spring, on a rainy March evening at Mistral restaurant, Charleston Stage Company founder and producing director Julian Wiles was having dinner with two associates named Judith Stockdale and John Sands. Their discussion ranged across a number of interesting topics, but mostly it centered on Wiles' company, since everyone at the table had an interest in live theatre. Also, Stockdale and Sands represented a private, Chicago-based philanthropic group called the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, whose net assets exceed $140 million, and when there's $140 million on the table, just about anything in the world is interesting. Charleston Stage Company had been on the receiving end of several annual operating grants from the foundation, and nobody has yet accused Wiles of being a poor businessman.

The conversation eventually turned to Chicago, whose thriving theatre community has nearly eclipsed New York City's in terms of diversity and all-around butt-kicking electricity in recent years. Sands and Stockdale suggested to Wiles that he make a trip to Chicago, where he could meet some of Donnelley's theatrical grant recipients there. In short order, the notion evolved into a much larger project: why not gather up the directors of the biggest theatre companies in Charleston and haul all of them to Chicago together for a family picnic-style, information-gathering field trip?

$140 million? No problem.

So a week after the 2005 Spoleto Festival came to a close, Wiles and representatives from Footlight Theatre, PURE Theatre, the Village Playhouse, and Art Forms and Theatre Concepts all flew to Chi-Town on the Donnelley's dime, where they spent a long weekend hobnobbing with like-minded professionals.

"We all went up together -- Donnelley flew us up, we stayed in a hotel they put us up in, they paid for everything," says PURE Theatre's Rodney Rogers, who traveled with his wife, PURE co-founder Sharon Graci. "We were there for two days, and every day was chock full of interesting stuff."

The group met with the outgoing head of the 40-member League of Chicago Theatres. They visited Victory Gardens Theatre, Timeline Theatre, and the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre (begun in 1974 by then-unknowns John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, among others). They went to the Raven Theatre and talked to an architect about designing performance spaces. They learned how the City of Chicago works with the community of theatres in that town, often assisting in the purchase and renovation of private not-for-profit theatres. And they witnessed the concrete benefits of cross-company collaboration.

"It was incredibly useful in changing our mindsets," says Rogers. "We were all sitting around the bar one evening, and we realized it was the first time we'd all sat together, ever. We had to travel to Chicago to do that. And we saw how the Chicago League works toward a mutual goal; it's really quite substantial. When we started to look at how many people are going to all our theatres together here in Charleston, we realized it's a large number. And we realized there's a lot we can do with that."

The result of their visit was the new League of Charleston Theatres, an effort to promote live theatre locally and to foster cooperation among the five producing organizations with the intent of building bigger audiences for all of them. The Charleston League's first project was a promotional insert that appears in the playbills of the member organizations listing every performance offered by the groups. Future projects include opening the league to new members in the spring, creating additional cross-marketing initiatives, box-office promotions, a league website, and a comprehensive performance calendar.

None of this would likely have happened without that rainy-evening dinner conversation, and certainly not without the Donnelley Foundation's assistance. In the past three years, the Chicago philanthropic organization has become a major presence in the Charleston arts community -- not just among the producers of live theatre but among performing and visual arts organizations in every corner of the city. With a bankroll of nine fat figures and a mission that specifically calls for investment in the artistic community of the South Carolina Lowcountry, the Donnelley Foundation stands to make the kind of impact on Charleston artists -- and audiences -- that this city hasn't seen since the arrival of the Spoleto Festival in 1977. And the group is making its mark with more than just dollars. Donnelley has taken an unusually proactive approach to the concept of "support" that's as much about buttressing administrative and organizational strength as it is about doling out the cash. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the Donnelley Foundation is in the process of completely transforming Charleston's cultural landscape.

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Breaking Out of the Box
Gaylord Donnelley was a grandson of R.R. Donnelley, founder and chairman of the worldwide printing company R.R. Donnelley & Sons. In 1952 he created the foundation that bears his name to promote his and his wife Dorothy's wide-ranging philanthropic interests. Although the couple lived in Chicago, they also had a home in the Lowcountry: Ashepoo Plantation, near Green Pond in the ACE Basin, which the family still owns.

After Gaylord's death in 1992, then Dorothy's in 2002, the foundation's endowment skyrocketed, being a beneficiary of their estates. It brought on its first professional Chicago staff in 1992 and hired investment managers to put into action a long-term philanthropic strategy hammered out by the board of directors, which includes members of the family as well as representatives of the foundation's two main geographical interests: Chicago and the S.C. Lowcountry. In 2002 the foundation enlarged the job of the part-time agent who'd coordinated local giving and hired John Sands, who had a 30-year background in museums and most recently served as executive vice president and COO of Brookgreen Gardens on Pawley's Island.

In its early years, the foundation supported a wide range of causes including conservation and wildlife, social welfare, education, art and cultural institutions, health care, and animal welfare. Today, the group has consolidated its mission into two main areas: land conservation and the arts.

The foundation takes its environmental mission seriously. It's been involved in recent efforts to increase the protected acreage of the Francis Beidler Forest and has supported the Southern Environmental Law Center's struggles (which included stiff opposition to the SCPA's dead-but-bound-to-rise-again "Global Gateway" on Daniel Island). Other grant recipients include local conservation projects from the Community Foundation, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Audubon Society, the Edisto Open Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy.

Artistic support in the Lowcountry was slower in coming, however, particularly as Donnelley had only a part-time local director on the case for the first three years. In 2001, the foundation was involved with only two area organizations, Charleston Stage Company and Spoleto Festival USA.

Four years later, though -- 18 months after John Sands was hired -- things have changed dramatically. In fiscal year 2005, the foundation has no fewer than 15 local organizations in its accounting books, to the tune of $457,500. They include the Chamber Music Society of Charleston, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Charleston Artists Guild, the Charleston Concert Association, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the CofC's Halsey Institute and Avery Research Center, Drayton Hall, Footlight Theatre, the Flowertown Players in Summerville, Mepkin Abbey, Redux Contemporary Art Center, the S.C. Historical Society, and Charleston Ballet Theatre.

"It's taken time over the years to build contacts and programs," says Sands, who has an office in Murrells Inlet. "2001 was the first year we had a staff person here in Charleston, and she was primarily working on environmental education issues. As time has gone on, it's become evident to the board members that there's a better ability to communicate by having someone here on-site rather than just having an e-mail relationship with the Lowcountry."

Also, Sands explains, last year saw a spike because of an active effort to get the word out to local organizations, particularly to visual arts groups.

"We had a jump in funding in 2005, which was reflective of an effort to get more access to our [visual arts] collections program. We put out an RFP (request for proposals) to get people to explore new ways of using their collections, which is of real interest to us. That resulted in the Gibbes' show Unspoken|Spaces, which was an attempt to take the Gibbes' collection and interpret it in new ways. That was right up our alley."

That year also saw first-time support go to the CofC's Halsey Institute and the Avery Research Center, Drayton Hall, the S.C. Historical Society, and Mepkin Abbey, whose Abbott Francis Kline was recently tapped for Donnelley's board of directors. Another grant allowed Redux to hire its first full-time executive director. For Redux, a progressive studio/exhibition space whose founding members have mostly moved on to grad school or other projects and which has been clinging to existence by its fingernails since its creation four years ago, the grant was essentially a new lease on life.

Like Redux, the forward-looking Halsey Institute (formerly known as the Halsey Gallery) has no permanent collection of its own. Despite that, Donnelley came in last year with a three-year challenge grant for the Institute aimed partly at shoring up that facility's finances after it lost what had previously been reliable funding from the S.C. Arts Commission due to the Halsey's partial affiliation with the state-funded College of Charleston. But more than that, Sands notes, Redux and the Halsey are both contributing to the promotion of contemporary art in the community.

"Given the rather staid nature of many of the more traditional galleries," he says, "it seemed like a great opportunity to encourage some 'out-of-the-box' thinking."

Halsey Institute director Mark Sloan says Donnelley seems particularly interested "in any organization that swims upstream in presenting programming that's challenging, progressive, and thought-provoking, anything that bucks the status quo."

That description aptly fits the Halsey. The support they've received, says Sloan, has been a crucial part of the contemporary gallery's transition to becoming more self-sustaining and creating a more visible presence for itself in the community. The grant took the form of $20,000 last year, $15,000 this year, and $5,000 in 2007, contingent upon Sloan and the Halsey demonstrating that they can raise an additional $5,000 in membership support themselves.

"It's made all the difference in the world," Sloan says. "They've provided a structure and issued a challenge. We've been able to create some nice, high-quality membership materials for a change. It's been validation from an external source, it's said to us that what we do is important. It was an incredible vote of confidence in the vitality of the program. Their grant more than anything has been catalytic: it's enabled me to show my other funders and our patrons and my bosses that somebody out there is paying attention to what we're doing."

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Rescue Me
One of things that sets the Donnelley Foundation apart from many other granting organizations is that they tend to give money to support operating costs rather than capital campaigns. They're far more likely to fund an application that allows a group to hire a needed new staff member, as they did for Redux, for example, than to allocate funds to the construction of a new performance facility.

Sands attributes this to what he suggests is the limited depth of the foundation's coffers. Large multi-use performance facilities, after all, can easily cost the equivalent of the foundation's total net worth, and often much more. (Atlanta's new Symphony Center will run $300 million.) Also, he says, "We try to stay away from bricks and mortar because we don't feel that's where we can make the best contribution."

Their best contribution, instead, seems to be in identifying arts organizations with potential and developing ongoing partnerships with them that go beyond a quick infusion of needed cash.

"One of the best things they do is look at an organization in the long term and its long-term needs," observes Charleston Stage's Wiles. "They're looking for ways to encourage people to work together and in long-term programs. They tend to develop relationships with organizations. They want to truly understand a group's mission."

In 2003, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra was in serious trouble. Its finances were in the toilet and there was a real question about whether the embattled orchestra could survive. The Savannah Symphony had fallen apart like a bad bundt cake under similar circumstances in February of that year, and many worried the CSO was about to follow them into oblivion. But brand-new executive director Sandy Ferencz had connections with the Donnelley Foundation, and she made a few phone calls. In November of that year, Donnelley approved the CSO for a bail-out grant of $180,000 over three years: a big chunk that year, then decreasing amounts through fiscal year 2005, which comes to a close on June 30, 2006.

Marketing director John Girault, who at the time was the CSO's development director, notes that unlike most grant givers, Sands and other foundation officials take a distinctly hands-on approach with the symphony.

"Those guys are very active. John is regularly calling or setting up appointments with us to get feedback, getting a feel from us on how things are internally. They're active in their interests. It's not a pressure thing, he's just interested."

Girault remarks that the money is contingent upon the symphony raising new or increased gifts of at least $50,000 each year. "It's an incentive to wean us off the grant," he explains. "It'll get smaller every year so we can get more self-sufficient. But it's all general operating funds, which was awesome."

In this sense, too, Donnelley seems to be different from other entities; they're unafraid of jumping onto a ship that seems to outside observers to be sinking.

And instead of merely throwing money at the problem, the foundation prefers to get its hands dirty by climbing into the bilge and helping pump. Take Charleston Ballet Theatre, for instance. This time two years ago, CBT was eyebrow-deep in debt -- nearly $200,000 worth, partly the result of the post-9/11 slump in private and corporate giving that affected everybody, but also a function of more systemic internal problems that were costing the company money it didn't have and preventing it from bringing in the funds it should have. The dance company, one of Charleston's premier performing arts organizations, was on the brink of insolvency. Until Donnelley stepped in at the behest of Mayor Riley.

"We were in such a bad way in 2002," recalls CBT resident choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr. "What saved us was the money from the Donnelley Foundation, which the City opened up for us. They said the artistic product was so wonderful, but the administrative product needed a lot of work to get to that same level. For them, it was all about administration."

"We don't like to simply cover debts," Sands says of the CBT assistance. "So we tried to figure out how to make a grant to their operating budget that would support their ongoing activities, but to do so in a way that would help solve their deficit problems and help them get out of that. It was clear they could use some help. And they understood that. They just didn't quite know how to get there."

Sands and the foundation then contacted the S.C. Association of Nonprofit Organizations and selected a consultant to handle the ballet's restructuring needs.

"They came down and did an in-depth job with the ballet, which we funded, and then we helped them get a new accounting system in place, a new development and membership system," Sands recalls. "It also involved the discovery that their board structure was rather flimsy, and they had to rework their bylaws and revisit who their board members were. That was a more hands-on relationship than is typical for us, but they had reached a threshold that they needed some help to cross."

The final result was an initial $98,500 grant to the ballet in 2004. This year that figure dropped to $80,000, and next year it dips to $50,000 -- an ongoing effort by the foundation to get the ballet out of ICU and simultaneously wean it off the morphine drip.

"They made us put some new systems into place so we could monitor the cash flow and accounting better, they allowed us to hire an office administrator and a development director. And we've had to restructure the board completely. But it's been a godsend. Their mission is not to just give us the money but to show us how to keep that going. They're teaching us how to be a strong arts organization. It's been a real learning experience."

Sands acknowledges that his foundation has found itself more than others in the role of crisis counselor.

"Maybe it's simply because we're willing to," he muses. "What we've found in working with arts organizations is that a lot of them are close to the edge, and the edge can be crumbly at times. Especially here in the Lowcountry, they're smaller than in Chicago and there's considerably less depth for funding potential. And so we often find ourselves with tenuous situations. If you're going to have a rich arts environment, you have to try to help people not fail."

The Donnelley Foundation's cultural focus in Chicago is at least as notable for the youth-oriented educational programs it supports as for the producing groups under its wings. Here in Charleston, though, Sands has seen few programs with enough breadth of reach to justify funding.

"Not that we wouldn't like to fund something," he observes. "But if they're here, they haven't found us."

Part of the difficulty, he says, is that Donnelley is looking for ways to make contributions that are "out of proportion to the size of the grant" -- programs that have a longer-term effect or make a larger difference.

"It's not hard to find ways to support arts education. It's hard to find ways to support it in ways that are somehow going to move the needle."

But even without the kind of local arts education programs they'd like to see in place, the Donnelley Foundation can already be seen as one of the most significant influences on Charleston's arts and cultural profile in a generation. With a vested financial and institutional investment in virtually every major visual and performing arts organization in town -- and their eye on many smaller groups -- Donnelley's like the beneficent rich uncle nobody knew about who showed up on the doorstep one day. Once he's stepped inside, life will never be the same again.

There are those, however, who quietly suggest the foundation's grasp on Charleston's cultural pulse is perhaps a little too broad and a little too tight -- that the folks from Chicago want to remake Charleston's cultural landscape in the Windy City's image. For his part, Sands insists Donnelley has no agenda of any kind for Charleston other than helping existing arts organizations reach their fullest potential, encouraging the development of new and existing audiences, and strengthening the community's interest and investment in the arts.

"We feel that a rich and dynamic arts community makes for a rich and dynamic community in general," he says.

"I think their intention is to try to improve the whole ecology of the arts scene in the Charleston area," remarks the Halsey's Sloan. "These are good, healthy interventions. It's a really smart way to do it. I feel very fortunate that they're here, because there's really nothing like them in Charleston."

Like Sinatra sang, in his famous ode to the Second City:

On State Street, that great street, I just want to say,

They do things that they don't do on Broadway.

Maybe we're just their kind of town.


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