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Now you’ve gone and done it (12/27/2009)
By Paul Barnes
During this, our annual seeming-to-hibernate period of off-season dormancy, we’ve received encouraging signs from the world outside Southeastern Minnesota. Clearly, people are taking notice of Winona’s “little engine that could” Shakespeare festival.

Last year we received a $10,000 grant from the nation’s leading arts support agency: the National Endowment for the Arts. It was our first application to the NEA, and no one was more surprised than the staff, board, and GRSF company at large when we received the full amount for which we applied on this, our first attempt – an unheard-of accomplishment for such a young company.

The Minnesota State Arts Board recently included GRSF in its dispensation of increased stimulus funding, more than doubling our grant for 2010 and 2011. The McKnight Foundation has renewed its support, and after an unsolicited e-mail arrived in the downtown office after the ’09 season closed inviting us to apply to the Kelly Foundation for funding, the Minneapolis-based organization sent word this week of a $10,000 contribution in support of the Festival’s operations.

Emboldened by our success, we now have grant applications pending with the Shubert Foundation and Theatre Communication Group, two national granting agencies that support not-for-profit arts organizations across the country, while also hoping for continued support from the NEA. We’re also looking forward to collaborating with local groups and organizations on programs that will help qualify GRSF for Minnesota Legacy funding as it becomes available and that will strengthen and enhance the Festival’s already extensive education and community outreach programming.

Impressive for a theatre company that has no actual in-house grant writer but scrambles to put together grants via committee (Brian Frederick, a five-season veteran of GRSF’s acting company is our “quarterback”/grants coordinator, and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, whose position as Advancement and Community Development manager is itself supported by a three-year grant from the Bush Foundation in Minneapolis, team up to keep us organized, energized, and on task).

However, there are a couple of implicit traps in acknowledging these positive signals. One, of course, is to think that the picture of GRSF’s finances is healthy and rosy and that we can all relax. It isn’t and we can’t, though rumors of the Festival’s impending demise are exactly that: unfounded speculation. We’re here, were not going away any time soon, and of course we need your support. At a time when many companies are battening the hatches and ducking for cover, we’re putting our ambitions on the line: adding a third production and extending our season by a week in 2010, while also working to restore much of what was cut from the 2009 season. “Absurd; hubristic,” some would say. But then, many people said Shakespeare would never work in Winona, and now, after six successful seasons, I think we can put those quibbles to rest.

What we hoped would occur when the city first invited us to establish our home in Winona seems to be happening: as we’ve gotten launched, more and more notice is being taken of the Festival, the quality of our work, and the vast root system we’re laying down in a community that took a huge risk when it sought to establish a professional theatre company in its midst and believed that such an enterprise would be a good thing for the town and for the region. Their faith seems to paying off.

One thing that excites funding organizations that have taken note of our work is the way in which the Festival, our patrons, and the city have become partners. It is so often our numerous collaborations with the community, be it our Saturday Festival mornings at the Acoustic Café, the Great River Elder Collegium, the Maplewood Housing Project workshops, our complimentary ticket program with Winona Public Library, the 300-member strong Friends of Will volunteer organization that logged over 5,000 hours of service to the Festival last season, our free weekend Prelude Concerts (cosponsored with Theatre du Mississippi), our “Chill With Will” student nights at the theatre, our “Skeptic Nights” and “Grill With Will” barbeques, or the myriad other programs and activities that we offer during our brief summer season that speaks volumes to organizations like the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Kelly Foundation and other regional organizations that have provided support.

We are truly a grass roots success story which could not be told at all had the city not stepped forward in the first place and had our Great River League alliance of small businesses, our ever-expanding base of individual donors, and all of the major companies, corporations, and foundations in Winona itself not also joined in to say, “Yes, we believe in this idea and we want to help.”

So in many ways, we’re a victim of our success. There’s now a Shakespeare festival in Winona, where none had been before. There’s also a Beethoven festival, a film festival, a Maritime Art Museum, an expanding County Historical Society Museum, along with myriad local organizations vying for support from a finite funding base during very tough times. No one knew the economy would be so precipitously on the ropes in such short order when we debuted in 2004, but in spite of current constraints and difficulties, people continue to find ways to say, “This matters; it makes a difference in our lives.”

That vote of confidence has extended regionally and nationally as GRSF’s reputation for professional excellence and community collaboration not just spreads but becomes a model for arts organizations everywhere.

We’re going to continue to need your help in the months and years to come. Fundraising never goes away in the not-for-profit sector; grants are only one tine of a multi-pronged fundraising strategy. Ask anyone at the Guthrie Theatre, the Minnesota Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, or any nonprofit arts enterprise that endeavors mightily to do its work. But the signs are that the burden of support is expanding to a wider range of backs and shoulders, just as we hoped it would. The Great River Shakespeare Festival continues to chug along, grateful for what has already come to pass and optimistic about our future, thanks to all those people who have gone and done it: believed in a dream, lent their support, and taken pride in this unique and exceptional community.



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