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State of the Arts

Bread and Puppet Theater has spent decades rallying around political and environmental issues, but last summer Mother Nature handed them a new cause: themselves. That is, the 1863 barn that houses the Glover troupe's museum of papier-mache personifications and other agitprop artifacts. Photographers documenting the collection noticed that some posts were hanging from the beams they were supposed to be supporting. Further investigation revealed serious structural sinking and sagging caused by years of water run-off. The repair estimate: at least $40,000.

Work began immediately, but could only go as far as the $30 grand the group had on hand. To bridge the gap, co-founders Elka and Peter Schumann they did something they've never done before: They sent out a fundraising letter. "It's a dreadful time of year, we know, to ask for money," the typewritten pitch apologizes, "for you've probably given much more already to causes more worthy than the rescue of an ailing old New England barn."

"I'm not used to writing that kind of letter at all," Elka Schumann concedes in a phone call from Glover. "When it came to writing to personal friends, I felt really shy."

In the past, Bread and Puppet has spared itself the embarrassment of begging. Rejecting all government grants, it has survived through performance fees, selling merch, and passing the hat. Plus Yankee frugality: Last year's materials budget came to $3000. The Schumanns have only resorted to fundraising for special needs: an ill puppeteer's medical expenses, a trip to Russia. For the first time ever, the group is applying for historic preservation grants.

This monetary maneuvering may be unfamiliar, but the response so far has been heartening. That letter went out to 500 folks, 74 of whom sent in donations ranging from $10 to $1000, Schumann says. Now she's sending out thank-you notes. You can get yours by writing a check to Bread & Puppet Theater and sending it to Museum/Barn Fund c/o Linda Elbow, 700 Andersonville Road, West Glover, VT 05875.

*****

The elements have also troubled the Champlain Valley Festival. Although last summer's weather was spectacular, the previous year was a rained-out bust that left the fest $16,000 in debt. That's a lot of do-re-mi for an organization run by volunteers "whose eyes do not light up with glee when fundraising comes up," says Artistic Director John Patterson. "They're not the heavy hitters of the community. They love folk music."

Luckily, two anonymous deep pockets also love the CVF. In a special drive this winter, donors matched challenge grants totaling $5000. Its bad-weather debt met, the fest is now looking towards August -- and hoping for sun.

*****

The wet summer of '04 could have meant a finale for the Vermont Mozart Festival. But the board orchestrated an encore by sharpening its fiscal focus. The VMF suspended its winter series, probably until 2007-'08, to concentrate on its three-week summer season. And it hired the thirtysomething-year-old organization's first director of development.

About a year into the job, Timothy Riddle says the VMF is spending around 12 percent of its revenue on fundraising. Rather than writing grant applications -- the pay-off is too low, he says -- he's going after major gifts. In the past, a $500 gift was considered "mightily substantial," and the largest donation the organization had ever received was 5K. Since October, they've nailed $107,000 from individuals, with some donors giving as much as $25,000, $20,000 and $15,000.

In another first, last summer's audiences heard direct pitches from the stage, explaining that ticket purchases only covers half the cost of a concert. "Some people say it's gauche to ask," Riddle says, "but you have to ask."

*****

Even the relatively flush Flynn Center has to work to keep cash liquid. The Burlington performing-arts organization, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is coming off a successful $6 million endowment drive. It's every arts organization's dream: a permanent pot of money that generates interest for ongoing operations. But keeping cash flowing through annual giving remains an issue, suggests Executive Director Andrea Rogers.

The Flynn has 2000 "members" -- not a lot, when you consider that the MainStage auditorium seats 1500.

Are local patrons stingy? Rogers thinks not. But the state doesn't have a lot of major donors or foundations, and its government spending on the arts is also relatively low. "Vermont has a remarkably rich cultural life, but a disproportionate amount is on the backs of business and individual donors," Rogers observes. "When you look at it that way, we have a very generous community."

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