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173 173 10 the founding of theater arts philanthropy in america: w. mcneil lowry and the ford foundation, 1957–65 Sheila McNerney Anderson During the eight years between 1957 and 1965, the Ford Foundation’s Division of Humanities and the Arts generated one of the nation’s first and most enduring policies for funding the performing arts, a policy that would ultimately give rise to the current generation of not-for-profit theaters. During this period, the foundation instilled its institutional values around sustainability, endurance, fiscal responsibility, and a new sense of cultural relevance in the pioneers of what is today known as the American regional theater movement. Before the foundation arrived on the scene, theater artists wishing to start a theater did not necessarily set up tax-exempt organizations with the purpose of creating institutions that would outlast the founding artist or whose identity would transcend its artistic leadership or its original mission. The funding policy that guided the foundation’s grant actions in the performing arts would be 174 sheila mcnerney anderson replicated by other funding organizations that followed suit and persists even today. Chief architect of this policy was the division’s director, W. McNeil Lowry, who oversaw the distribution of more than $320 million to performing arts organizations, artistic institutions, and individual artists during his tenure at the foundation. Lowry, as the foundation’s principal arts policy maker, exerted significant influence over both the evolution of the resident professional theater sector and how it has been subsidized over the last five decades. The Ford Foundation’s funding of the arts, beginning in 1957, was unprecedented in the history of private philanthropy in the United States. Since the late nineteenth century, family foundations—those formed with the wealth of such families as the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Pughs, for example—have been very active as subsidizing agents in a broad range of fields, from alleviating the effects of poverty, to exploring and applying advances in science and technology.Typically, however, those first foundations did not have an orientation toward arts and letters beyond their support of higher education and the occasional debt-relief grant. The Carnegie Foundation’s commitment in 1925 to fund arts programming that emphasized education was representative of such giving. Its funding went to art history and appreciation courses, as well as teacher and museum personnel training. No funds, however, were earmarked for direct support of creative artists.1 In 1932, the Rockefeller Foundation granted the Cleveland Play House $35,0002 in matching funds so that it could pay off its $70,000 debt. The following decade, Rockefeller broadened its subsidy of artists, albeit indirectly, through grants to higher-education artist-in-residence programs. In light of these ad hoc subsidies, Abraham Flexner observed in his 1952 study, Funds and Foundations, “The thoughtful reader of these pages must have been struck by the crying inadequacy of the funds devoted to humanistic studies—to languages, literature, art, archaeology, philosophy, music, history.”3 Within five years of Flexner’s observation, the Ford Foundation would drastically change the relationship between private philanthropy and the arts. When, in the post–World War II era, the Ford Foundation became the wealthiest and most influential of these foundations, the arts were finally elevated to a viable field of philanthropic activity. The Ford Foundation was established in 1936 under very different circumstances from those of its peer institutions. In creating his trust, Henry Ford was less motivated by social consciousness or any paternalistic 175 the founding of theater arts philanthropy feelings toward the working person than by federal income tax laws, laws that were not on the books when Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mrs. Russell Sage first began giving away their money. Henry and Edsel Ford were primarily concerned with the possibility that their heirs would have to sell the family’s majority share in the Ford Motor Company in order to pay estate taxes after their passing. To prevent this loss of family control of the corporation, the couple jointly bequeathed 90 percent of (nonvoting) shares to a charitable trust that would provide their family foundation with a self-sustaining income for the years and decades to come. Between 1936 and 1950, the Ford Foundation limited its philanthropy to the Detroit area, home to the bulk of the Ford Motor Company employees.4 In 1947, after Henry Ford Sr. died, the foundation trustees began preparations to distribute the foundation’s wealth nationally and even internationally. At the time, they anticipated disbursing grants...


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