Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Ford Foundation initiated the first major subsidy program for nonprofit theaters, creating the groundwork for the establishment of professional nonprofit resident theaters across the United States.

Summary of Event

In October, 1953, W. McNeil Lowry joined the prestigious Ford Foundation as a vice president, initially to work in its education program. Two years later, he turned his attention to the foundation’s new program for grants in the humanities, and he subsequently convinced the foundation’s officers to expand this program to include the arts. Thus, in 1957 Lowry was appointed director of the Ford Foundation’s new Division of Humanities and the Arts. In March of that year, he began a cross-country junket in search of a composite picture of the state of the arts in the United States. Lowry sought information to establish Ford-supported programs in creative writing, graphic and plastic arts, music, dance, opera, and theater. [kw]Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters (Fall, 1957) [kw]Nonprofit Theaters, Ford Foundation Begins to Fund (Fall, 1957) [kw]Theaters, Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit (Fall, 1957) Ford Foundation Theater;nonprofit Nonprofit organizations Ford Foundation Theater;nonprofit Nonprofit organizations [g]North America;Fall, 1957: Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters[05580] [g]United States;Fall, 1957: Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters[05580] [c]Theater;Fall, 1957: Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters[05580] [c]Banking and finance;Fall, 1957: Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters[05580] Lowry, W. McNeil

The development of this multi-arts program, which Lowry called “organized philanthropy,” was the first such private funding effort on a national scale in American history; the foundation’s program preceded the creation of its federal counterpart, the National Endowment for the Arts, by eight years. Over the course of the next decade, dozens of theaters across the country emerged with fledgling professional companies. During the 1970’s, their operations reached institutional status, and by the 1980’s, a network of nonprofit professional resident theaters had spread to virtually every major American city. The evolution of this phenomenon drastically altered an America that, in the late 1950’s, had believed New York City was the only home of its professional theater—and that “professional” theater meant strictly commercial theater.

Lowry’s theater fieldwork during that 1957 nationwide tour included visits to community and academic theaters and winter stock companies in New York, as well as consultations with theater professionals. Lowry’s early research concluded that America’s noncommercial theaters were struggling financially and needed the foundation’s support to propel their efforts toward professionalism. Based on Lowry’s recommendations, the Division of Humanities and the Arts sought to improve the quality of theaters with recognized potential, and thus many of the same theaters benefited from its various programs. It was also Lowry’s ultimate intention to build a national theater audience.

Lowry realized that theater activity in the hinterlands differed fundamentally from that of Broadway; the hit-or-miss commercialism of Broadway created each production as a separate entity with a unique composition of creators, while the noncommercial theaters were interested in building artistic and managerial continuity. The establishment of a permanent acting company offered one possible step toward stability for such theaters. In the fall of 1957, The New York Times announced the first Ford Foundation grant to any theater: $130,000 to support a touring repertory company of fifteen actors during the Cleveland Play House’s Cleveland Play House 1959-1960 season.

The Ford Foundation then launched several programs devised to increase communication among the country’s theater professionals and to assist theaters in their quests for quality and stability. On several occasions, Lowry invited many theater professionals to New York to attend conferences; they offered Lowry their advice and expertise concerning what kinds of projects might best benefit their theaters. Following the success of its pilot program with the Cleveland Play House, in July, 1958, the foundation announced its first nationwide plan to create new plays and production opportunities by commissioning ten playwrights with growing reputations to write new scripts. To create venues for these plays, the foundation selected ten theaters outside New York, awarding them each ten thousand dollars to help with production costs.

In 1959, the foundation awarded individual discretionary grants to ten directors, with the intent of encouraging the development of their talents. The honorees included Nina Vance of the Alley Theatre in Houston, Zelda Fichandler of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Angus L. Bowmer of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ford’s most substantial aid program to date was announced in late 1959: Four theaters (the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, the Arena Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix Theatre in New York) received monies to support a company of actors for three consecutive seasons.

Also in 1959, the foundation appropriated $244,000 for the creation of the Theatre Communications Group Theatre Communications Group (TCG), a networking organization with the goal of improving cooperation among professional, community, and university theaters in the United States. Another program launched in 1960 encouraged new works by subsidizing year-long residencies of twenty-six of America’s best novelists and poets at theaters around the nation, with the idea that their associations might inspire them to write plays. Not all the writers produced new play scripts, but under the agreement with Ford, they were under no obligation to do so.

After the establishment of these programs, the Ford Foundation’s commitment to theater took a dramatic turn. On October 10, 1962, newspaper headlines around the country announced the largest sum ever awarded to theaters by any American philanthropic institution: Nine nonprofit theaters received a total of $6.1 million for operations development. The two largest grants were specified for the construction of new buildings; the Alley Theatre in Houston was awarded $2,100,000 and the Mummers Theatre in Oklahoma City was awarded $1,250,000 for such construction. Ford’s other beneficiaries were the Actors Studio in New York, the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, the American Shakespeare Festival and Academy in Stratford, Connecticut, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Fred Miller Theatre in Milwaukee, the Theatre Group of the University of California at Los Angeles, and the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

In the Ford Foundation’s official press release, Lowry called the nonprofit professional resident theater a “significant American cultural resource.” In the decades to follow, the foundation continued its support with new and innovative programs, playing a vital role in the institutionalization of this national cultural resource.


By the middle of the twentieth century, professional theater in America had reached an all-time low. In cities and towns across America, the local movie house had replaced the professional theater, and the few theaters remaining were run almost exclusively by amateurs. Professional American theater meant New York theater, and New York theater meant the commercial enterprises on Broadway. The nonprofit resident theater movement, a phenomenon that began at the close of World War II, effected a decentralization of the professional American theater. New York’s monopoly on professional theater was thus not only broken, but also replaced by a truly national theater system composed of individual institutions all adhering to similar standards. Although professional theater had permeated the United States in the past, both in the form of touring companies and in local establishments, the other characteristics of this post-World War II resident theater movement were decisively different.

These new theaters stood at the vanguard of a revolutionary idea of theater in the United States. The idea involved the declaration of tax-exempt status, as nonprofit organizations established these theaters, both legally and ethically, as educational Education;theater in institutions with an obligation to their communities. Thus, the enterprise was based on artistic goals rather than on revenue. Linked to this was the belief of many of those who ran such theaters that they should perform a variety of plays of literary merit—from the classics to contemporary Broadway plays (both successes and failures) to untried, original scripts. These theaters also extended the concept of institutionalization to indicate that they were concerned with developing a permanent audience and establishing themselves as necessary cultural resources within their communities. Finally, institutionalization meant creating continuity, with a permanent staff and a resident company of actors that would work together, usually for a minimum of one full season.

All the Ford Foundation’s theater programs were designed to develop and support a kind of theater that featured these characteristics, and the venture had become known as nonprofit professional regional theater by the 1960’s. By the 1980’s, historians referring to the phenomenon came to replace “regional” with “resident”; as the decentralization of professional theater away from New York became reality, so had “regional” become a misnomer, as scores of theaters in New York as well as nationwide distinguished themselves from the commercial ventures of Broadway. Thus, they were not distinguishable by location; rather, “resident” emphasized their philosophy of permanence.

Without the support of the Ford Foundation’s ideological and financial assistance, it is doubtful that the resident theater movement would have progressed at such an accelerated pace, if at all. Ford’s conferences provided many theater artists who previously had felt as if they were conducting isolated experiments in their local communities with the opportunity to articulate their individual needs and ideals and to formulate a common philosophy. Initially, Ford’s multifaceted theater program focused on personnel by subsidizing directors and other creative staff members, enabling them to visit other theaters and learn from their colleagues—further steps to eliminate isolation. In the early years, the subsidies for actors allowed directors greater leverage to lure actors away from New York and thus create productions of higher quality. Consequently, actors began to prefer the stability of the work available at resident theaters to the high risks involved with working on Broadway.

The Ford Foundation also assisted these theaters with a new strategy for building a permanent audience: Staffs were trained to initiate subscription programs in which tickets were sold for an entire season. Strategies to build a future audience were implemented through children’s theater productions and youth training programs. The Ford Foundation ultimately expected the program’s beneficiaries to rely on their communities for financial support, and thus it demanded that each of its institutional grants be matched with funds raised locally. The foundation offered guidance as to how to establish a relationship with the business community, and Lowry personally met with business leaders all over the country as an advocate for local theater. Through such initiatives, the Ford Foundation inspired the growth of a mutually beneficial relationship between business and the arts that has since become ingrained in American society. Respect and appreciation for the arts—as well as financial support—became standard policy for many local and national companies.

The stability resulting from the support of the business community, as well as the steady income from a subscription audience, gave artistic directors the security and flexibility to add new plays to their repertoires. As more and more resident theaters began to seek original scripts for production and as costs began to escalate, the commercial theaters of Broadway mounted fewer and fewer original works. By the mid-1960’s, plays that originated in resident theaters were frequently remounted on Broadway for healthy commercial runs. Dozens of such prizewinning Tony Awards plays have since premiered at resident theaters, including Raisin (Arena Stage; Tony Award for best musical in 1974), Children of a Lesser God (Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; Tony Award for best play in 1980), and Crimes of the Heart (Actors Theatre of Louisville; Pulitzer Prize in 1984). The resident theaters continue to be valuable proving grounds for original plays.

The Ford Foundation’s example also inspired the beneficence of other American philanthropic organizations (such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) to allocate greater amounts of money to the arts. The expanded sources of private support, along with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, gave impetus to the building boom of the 1960’s, when almost two hundred new theater buildings and arts centers were constructed across the United States. This overwhelming visible increase of theatrical activity in America created a tangible sign of the resident theater’s entrenchment in America’s cultural life. Ford Foundation Theater;nonprofit Nonprofit organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumol, William J., and William G. Bowen. Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma: A Study of the Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1966. A seminal study that explains the nature of the performing arts as a handicraft industry with an efficiency that cannot be dramatically improved by technology. Outlines the necessity of private funding from private patrons, foundations, and the government for the survival of the performing arts. Filled with statistics that justify the authors’ position.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkowitz, Gerald M. New Broadways: Theatre Across America, 1950-1980. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1982. An excellent, readable history that places the expansion of the nonprofit resident theater in the larger contexts of both community and commercial theater developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowry, W. McNeil, ed. The Performing Arts and American Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1978. A collection of background papers for the fifty-third American Assembly held in November, 1977, at Arden House, Harriman, New York, to discuss the future of the performing arts. Includes two chapters that provide excellent summaries of the past and current status of the nonprofit resident theater: “The Past Twenty Years,” by Lowry, and “The Theater,” by Julius Novick.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding. New York: BasicBooks, 1995. Discussion of the funding of the performance arts in the United States and the effects of that funding on the development of the arts. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Novick, Julius. Beyond Broadway: The Quest for Permanent Theatres. New York: Hill & Wang, 1968. Chronicles Novick’s travels to forty-nine theaters across the United States during several months in 1966. Focuses on his personal assessment of the individual theaters visited as well as on his analysis of the general state of professional nonprofit resident theater in 1966.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973. The best source for an early history of the professional nonprofit resident theater movement, this engaging work defines the movement’s development through phases described by Zeigler as characterized by stability, quality, centrality, and community. Also illuminates patterns and trends shared by various theaters in the movement. Good bibliography. Photographs.

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Categories: History