The Mixed Canvas Of Jewish Arts Funding


This month, six Jewish cultural venues from around the country are hosting a new multimedia concert by composer/singer/scholar Galeet Dardashti called “Monajat.”

Commissioning “Monajat” cost $10,000 and the show is part of an ambitious new $100,000 project initiated by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, a nonprofit fixture in the Jewish culture scene.

A surface glance at “Monajat” — the first in a series of proposed new Jewish-themed commissions that the foundation plans to support — might suggest that Jewish culture is doing just fine in today’s sluggish economy. But behind the scenes, the picture looks bleaker, with little growth.

“On the aggregate, we haven’t raised more money because we’ve had to keep on replacing money” that’s been lost since the recession, said Elise Bernhardt, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. “Sometimes I feel like a hamster in a wheel.”

Bernhardt’s sentiments are not unique to her — across the Jewish cultural landscape, everyone seems to be doing more to achieve less. Organizations large and small are co-sponsoring events to keep costs down, seeking new donors to replaces ones who’ve stopped giving and are creating new initiatives to attract needed attention.

For the most part, overall revenues at many prominent organizations have recovered after taking severe hits in the 2008-‘09 recession. But most have only achieved stability, and some are sensing that today’s jittery economy will not help matters.

“We’re nowhere near where we were in 2007,” said David Marwell, the director and chief executive officer of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. “But we made a lot of cuts the year after [the recession], and we’re doing pretty much the same as we did last year. But last year was not so great.”

In 2007, the Museum of Jewish Heritage spent about $16 million. But in 2009, it cut its budget by 14 percent, to $13.7 million, where it has remained for the last two years. Those cuts were necessary because a year after the recession philanthropic giving — a major source of its revenue — was down by about one-third.

Though fundraising at the museum has grown steadily since then, other sources of revenue, like renting out space in its handsome Financial District home, have dwindled. Marwell said that the museum has compensated for the decreased revenue in part by partnering with other organizations on exhibits and lectures. That reflects a larger trend across Jewish cultural institutions, one that predated, but has been accelerated by, the recession.

Bernhardt’s multi-venue commission project, officially called the New Jewish Culture Network, is a case in point. Bernhard originally had the idea to create a fund to commission new Jewish work — whether in music, dance or theater — that would be viewed in as many parts of the country as possible.

In 2008, she gathered leaders of Jewish venues from around the country, from the JCC in Manhattan to JCCs in Houston and San Francisco, as well as cultural groups in Miami and Boston. But what was a nice thought in 2008, turned, a year later, into something of a necessity. By collaborating, venues hit hard by the recession could spend about half what it would cost to present a new commission on their own, since the Foundation for Jewish Culture promised to subsidize a substantial part of the cost.

“They’re still having to pay for something new,” said Bernhardt, “but [the new initiative] does provide some significant savings.”

But the initiative has its own difficulties. Bernhardt said that the $100,000 it costs to produce “Monajat” has not yet been raised in full, and without money for another new commission, it is not certain that the New Jewish Culture Network project will continue. The initiative has helped Bernhardt solicit donors, giving them something new, specific and exciting to fund. But overall giving to the FJC has remained flat for the past two years, at $1.7 million.

Bernhardt blames the uncertain economy. “People have reneged on earlier promises this year,” she said, attributing that to the unstable markets. “I’m hoping that the market will settle down and get people giving again.”

That said, cultural organizations with better name recognition and deeper roots (and pockets), like The Jewish Museum and the 92nd Street Y, have rebounded nicely from the recession. The Jewish Museum’s overall revenue increased by 7.8 percent, to $15.1 million, in the fiscal year that ended this June. And that is a significant gain from post-recession low at the end of its 2010 fiscal year, which closed at $13.9 million.

The 92nd Street Y has even done well enough that its overall budget was higher than it was the year before the recession. At the end of its fiscal year of June 2008, its budget totaled $51 million. For the fiscal year that just ended in June, it was up to $52.7 million.

Sol Adler, the 92nd Street Y’s executive director, said that the institution raised slightly more over the past two years in part because of confidence-inducing measures it took during the recession. When the economy took a nosedive in late-2008, the Y cut its operating budget “significantly,” Adler said, as part of a 30-month stabilization plan.

But because its fiscal year just ended, Adler said it is hard to tell how the current anxiety over today’s economy will affect fundraising in the months ahead. “We really haven’t had a chance to see whether or how the most recent economic instability will affect giving,” he said.
Meanwhile, while smaller groups most certainly have been struggling, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the economy, or other factors, is to blame.
When JDub Records, a hip Jewish record label and registered nonprofit, closed its doors this summer, many in the Jewish philanthropic world were shocked. Its co-founder, Aaron Bisman, said in an interview that its closure was in large part due to factors beyond the current economic woes.

Since JDub Records garnered half of its revenue from album sales, it suffered from the same challenge that has vexed the entire music industry for the past decade: a rapid decline in album sales.

In addition, Bisman said the Jewish philanthropic world tends to get excited about new startups, only to lose interest as they mature. Organization like his, which was nearly 10 years old, had trouble sustaining interest from donors as the years wore on. When several of his grants ran out this year, many funders refused to renew them, even as new donors were hard to find.

But these larger problems were certainly exacerbated by the current state of the economy, he said. “I don’t recall people telling me, ‘I can’t fund you because the economy is shaky,’” Bisman said. “But I did hear often, ‘We’re not funding anything new.’” He likened the current reservations he’s heard to the Republican mantra, “No new taxes.” “Instead, it was like, ‘No new grants,’” he said.

Carol Spinner, a major donor to Jewish cultural organizations, including JDub Records and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, echoed many of Bisman’s points. Asked how she plans to allocate her funds in the coming months, she said, “I’m continuing to support programs that we’re already involved with.”

But she knew that amount would be less than last year, and would almost certainly not include new organizations. She decides how much she will give each year based on how much investment returns she gets on a philanthropic fund she set up years ago. “This is going to be a down year because the market is down,” she said.

The America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which funds Israeli artists and scholars seeking to study in the United States, actually turned itself from a poster-child victim of the recession into an inspiring comeback story. Almost all of its $14 million endowment was lost in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the returns on that endowment had been the main source for its annual artist and scholar grants. But when that news got out in 2008, legions of new Jewish donors stepped up, helping it raise $5.3 million in two years.

However, fundraising is now slowing. That is in part because the $5.3 million included a major one-time gift of $3 million, the kind of single donation Executive Director David Homan does not expect to come across anytime soon.

In addition, several donors are now holding off on giving because of economic uncertainty.

“I know concretely that some donors have told us we will know closer to your gala how much we can give,” said Homan, referring to its major fundraising gala at the end of the year. “Many have expressed hesitation based on the shakiness of the economy.”

By this time last year, the AIFC had raised about 25 percent of its total annual revenue. (The vast majority usually comes from its end-of-year gala.) But if it raises the same total as it did last year — $2.1 million — it has only raised about 18 percent of that so far. And matching that $2.1 million of last year is a big “if.”

Homan is nonetheless confident, if not Pollyannaish. “We’re not scrambling anymore and we’re not concerned about stability,” he said. “But we’re concerned about growth.”