San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 12, 2001
Fund-raising gap is widening between large, small arts groups
By Todd Wallack
Chronicle Staff Writer

It's no secret that large arts groups receive more donations than small ones, but the fund-raising disparity is widening in the Bay Area.

Of nearly 950 arts and cultural groups in the Bay Area, just eight accounted for half the private contributions and government grants reported on tax returns filed in 1999, according to a Chronicle analysis of tax data compiled by the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Furthermore, the Bay Area's 25 biggest groups accounted for 68 percent of the contributions and grants received in the region in 1999, up from 64 percent five years earlier.

Some worry that the region's cultural diversity could fade if too much of the funding goes to only a few organizations.

"The larger organizations get the first bite and we get what is left," said Trisha Lagaso, director of Southern Exposure, a nonprofit art gallery in San Francisco's Mission District.

The disparity is not unique to the Bay Area. In the Los Angeles area, for example, the top 25 groups accounted for 59 percent of the funding. But the breakdown is surprising here, because the region has long prided itself on the breadth of the local arts community.

"It is difficult for a lot of small arts groups," said Richard Livingston, managing director of the EXIT Theater in San Francisco.

But some arts patrons say it's better for the community to throw most of its support behind a few pillar institutions.

Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, city chief of protocol and a prominent arts patron, points out that organizations like the San Francisco Symphony, Opera and Ballet are sources of civic pride.

"I think it would be nice if there were more money to go around for everyone," said Shultz, a Symphony board member. "But if there isn't, I think it is appropriate that it goes where it does."

It's no accident that the biggest institutions are also the top fund-raisers.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for example, spends $3.5 million per year on fund raising and has a staff of 23 churning out grant applications and approaching donors. The Symphony has 22 workers in its development department and, according to the organization's most recent tax form, retained a fund-raising consulting firm for a half-million dollars per year.

Nothing is overlooked. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for example, make a point of sending handwritten birthday notes to key donors.

"Fund raising is highly competitive," said SFMOMA Executive Director David Ross. "For every dollar out there, there are five that want it."

But most small groups say they can't afford full-time fund-raisers.

And they often are precluded from applying for many grants as well, because they don't have the staff time or money to complete lengthy applications.

To win a $600,000 award from the James Irvine Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art had to produce cartons of documents and go through rounds of interviews.

"It's unbelievable," Ross said. "It took months."

But recently, government agencies and private arts supporters alike have taken steps to close the funding gap:

The San Francisco Foundation, which traditionally sets aside a quarter of its $1 million in arts funding for major groups, slashed that to 10 percent in June.

The Museum of Modern Art held a free half-day seminar last month to share its secrets with smaller groups.

San Francisco last year set aside $3 million to help all nonprofits pay rent or buy their own buildings.

And Theatre Bay Area helped the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, which usually focuses on larger grants, funnel $160,000 to 82 dance and theater troupes and artists in a pilot program.

But more than 500 applied for those grants, so most had to be turned away.

"We touched a nerve," said Cate Foltin, the organization's executive director.