Leading from behind
To secure funding, Pittsburgh’s musical organizations dance to local foundations’ tunes
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs in Hamburg, Germany, last year. (Post-Gazette)
June 19, 2023

As winter ebbed in February, musician Alyssa Wang stepped onto the intimate stage at the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Shadyside to perform an elegy for her father.

The violinist and composer’s music sang of loss and grief and acceptance over his battle with cancer and death, passionately soaring at times, with a timpani beating out a heartbeat that slowed and eventually stopped. The piece was gripping and left several listeners in tears.

“Maybe the point is that he’s living through me now,” Wang said at the time.

The Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, a tiny, 8-year-old Pittsburgh organization with an annual budget of nearly $100,000, accompanied Wang onstage. That organization also commissioned the new piece in the first place with grant money from a local foundation, something it could not have done with only revenue generated from ticket sales.

The Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh performs in 2019 in First Unitarian Church in Shadyside. (Jason Snyder)

If everyone who attended that February concert paid the full $30 ticket price — the orchestra typically draws about 100-120 listeners per concert — the show would have pulled in about $3,600. That’s nowhere near enough to cover the cost of paying the composer and the roughly 40 musicians in the Chamber Orchestra.

And that’s one of the economic realities of the classical music industry: Most performing arts organizations don’t make enough money in ticket sales to pay the bills.

To make ends meet, these nonprofits are heavily subsidized by a combination of individual donations, state funding and philanthropic foundations.

“The scale of what we’re able to do in the end is really determined by whether we get funding,” said Andrew Swensen, the Chamber Orchestra’s part-time executive director.

Foundations’ role
The Heinz Endowments refurbished the 31st floor of EQT Tower, Downtown, as a nonprofit meeting space in 2016. The renovation included this a nine-foot high, 3,200-pound wall made of reclaimed metals some of which came from the Liberty Bridge and some that came from a support beam for one of the former H.J. Heinz Co. condiment factories on the North Side. (Post-Gazette)

Typical throughout the nation, foundation funding is especially key in Pittsburgh. In a 2020 study by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Pittsburgh ranked highest of 10 comparable cities like Baltimore, Cleveland and San Diego in foundation support for the arts. Philanthropic organizations like the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Hillman Foundation and others drive arts organization budgets forward to the tune of millions of dollars a year. The Heinz Endowments alone contributes about $16.5 million a year to the city’s arts organizations.

The Steel City’s foundations provide essential funding for small organizations like the Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, as well as contributing to large ones like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which produces dozens and dozens of concerts a year with a $32.7 million budget.

Maestro John Williams leads the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2022. (Julie Goetz)

There is an important distinction. While foundation support accounts for only about 6.5% of the symphony’s budget, about 30% of the Chamber Orchestra’s budget comes from such support. For some organizations, that percentage is much higher.

This funding is crucial for small organizations’ ability to put on performances.

Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that as foundations have adjusted their funding priorities to increasingly emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in recent years, Pittsburgh’s classical music organizations have been increasing their efforts to program more composers and performers from underrepresented backgrounds. The results can be heard in the region’s concert halls.

The Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, for example, used funds from a $19,542 grant specifically to commission Wang for her February concert as part of a series supporting the “performance of works by culturally diverse women composers during the 2022-23 program year,” according to Heinz.org.

The Heinz Endowments announces its summer 2022 grant winners, including the Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh's proposal to "support performance of works by culturally diverse women composers during the 2022-23 program year." (heinz.org)

The Renaissance City Winds in 2022 received funding to support a performance of Music of Black Composers, including a commission of new music and a premiere performance in April. The ensemble Kamraton received $20,000 in 2020 to support the Featured Composer Project: Composition and curation by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) women artists. The list continues.

The Renaissance City Winds website announces its Music of Black Composers on its website. (http://rcwinds.org/themed-programs/)

Following the money isn’t a new trend in the arts. Hundreds of royal or rich patrons have supported chosen artists for centuries, from French King Francis I purchasing the Mona Lisa from da Vinci or his heir for 4,000 gold ducats to the Russian business tycoon Nadezdha von Meck paying the composer Tchaikovsky an allowance to support his work. Historically, patrons exercised varying degrees of influence over the artists they employed.

The modern version of that practice comes in the form of grant writers building relationships with small arts organizations with both sides hoping to achieve greatness while keeping the bills paid.

Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra talks with the media in 2021 about restarting in-person rehearsals after the pandemic. (Post-Gazette)

“There’s a long history here,” said Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “[Smaller] nonprofits chase funding, and then the foundations change their priorities. It can be exhausting.”

The question is: Are these organizations adjusting their programming because they believe in the mission, or are they adapting to ensure that the foundation funding keeping their organizations afloat continues?

Who’s the boss?
Chamber Orchestra’s Executive Director Andrew Swensen and founder and conductor Edward Leonard go over materials at a May 25 event at Wigle Whiskey Distillery in the Strip District. (John Colombo/For the Post-Gazette)

“We come up with a season, then we source funding,” said Edward Leonard, founder and conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh.

In the case of Wang’s piece, the idea for the concert came before funding was secured.

“We haven’t adjusted our mission to get grants because bending for grants is not a sustainable modus operandi,” Leonard said. “It’s obvious when you do this.”

Most performing arts organizations announce their upcoming seasons — which often run from fall to summer — in the spring. (The Chamber Orchestra recently announced its upcoming season and is in the process of applying for grants.)

Because the granting process and schedule varies from foundation to foundation, organizations will sometimes have to adjust programming based on whether they were able to secure enough funding to pull off the concert. Without the grant, the Wang commission might not have happened at all, which would have meant a scaled-down program.

Kristen Linfante, CEO of Chamber Music Pittsburgh, plays the viola in 2015. (Post-Gazette)

While other arts leaders also said they do not adjust their programming for the sake of winning grants, Kristen Linfante, CEO of Chamber Music Pittsburgh, said, “Incorporating DEI priorities into your mission or programming definitely helps your chances of success.”

Chamber Music Pittsburgh has a budget of around $470,000. It earns about $60,000 in revenue primarily from ticket sales and receives $100,000 in individual support. The remaining $310,000 comes from foundations.

“The Pittsburgh Foundation has made DEI a top funding priority, and so has Heinz Endowments,” she noted. “We all know this.”

Falling in line
The all-female Kassia Ensemble performs in 2017. The group formed to promote women in the arts through collaboration. (Post-Gazette)

On the foundation side, the grant process is fairly straightforward. At the beginning of a new funding cycle, numerous organizations will write grant applications arguing why their organization or project aligns with the foundation’s priorities.

Looking ahead this year, the all-female Kassia Ensemble has won $5,000 from the Opportunity Fund’s first 2023 cycle to “support women composers through recording and releasing musical commissions to complete an album.”

Carnegie Mellon University this year will receive $7,750 from the Opportunity Fund to support a “queer evening of dazzling performance, dance, poetry, comedy, resplendent fantasies, music and more.”

A post on Facebook announces Carnegie Mellon University's grant from the Opportunity Fund to support "a queer evening" of performances and art. (Facebook)

There are always more proposals than dollars — the Pittsburgh Foundation, for example, declines about half of the proposals it receives. (From 2013-2023, that foundation’s total arts grantmaking was about $50 million.)

Mac Howison (Post-Gazette Archive)

That leaves the challenge of deciding which creative projects to fund in the hands of some key people –- employees at the foundations who are known as program officers. They are responsible for reviewing all of the applications and then recommending organizations and projects to their boards.

This handful of individuals has a significant impact on what Pittsburghers see and hear. They feel the weight of the responsibility –- and of shifting foundation priorities.

“I’d affirm that most foundations in the arts and culture space are being more intentional and more responsive to social and racial justice,” said Mac Howison, a program officer at Heinz Endowments who specializes in the philanthropy’s “creative” and “learning” sectors.

Foundations used to prioritize factors like the number of people attending events, the number of artists employed, and independent assessments of an organization like industry awards or press reviews, Howison said.

Now, the diversity of an organization’s board and artists and whether a project will impact racially diverse communities is a much higher priority. The calculus is evolving.

“Ideally, of course you’d have a diverse board, but there are also issues that could tank the orchestra that take priority in funding applications,” Leonard said. “It can be tough to balance equity with quality in programming decisions.”

Grants and coffee
Wigle Whiskey Bartender Jeyni Ortiz serves drinks to guests at the Chamber Orchestra Pittsburgh Event, held May 25 at Wigle Whiskey Distillery in the Strip District. (John Colombo/For the Post-Gazette)

Program officers develop relationships with community organizations they fund and work with organizations to develop projects and applications that align with foundations’ priorities. That translates into regular meetings for coffee or lunches to discuss upcoming seasons, all in the service of building relationships and exchanging ideas.

Nicole Henninger, last year. (pittsburghfoundation.org)

Howison often meets with the city’s arts leaders to discuss their projects and applications to help shepherd them through the grant process.

Other program officers, like Nicole Henninger at the Pittsburgh Foundation, hold regular office hours for applicants to come and ask questions.

“You need to reach out to the foundation for an ‘in’ with a program officer,” Linfante said. “You have to develop a relationship.”

She added that program officers acutally will sometimes give notes on a grant proposal draft and invite an organization to resubmit an adjusted version to increase its chances of earning funding.

“Philanthropy is a probability game, and you have to approach it that way,” Swensen concurred.

Andrew Swensen, the Chamber Orchestra’s part-time executive director, speaks with Margee Bilyak, president of the Allegheny Historic Preservation Society, at the Chamber Orchestra Pittsburgh Event May 25 at Wigle Whiskey Distillery. (John Colombo/For the Post-Gazette)

And when funding can be make or break a concert, it’s easy to see the foundations as catalyzing change and helping lead arts organizations from behind the scenes.

“We don’t have the Medici family throwing coins at Michelangelo,” Swensen said. “We couldn’t do this with earned revenue. Foundations make the arts important, consequential and rich.”

Jeremy Reynolds: jreynolds@post-gazette.com. His work at the Post-Gazette is supported in part by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.

Design and development: Laura Malt Schneiderman: lschneiderman@post-gazette.com.