A group of Theater Offensive artists smile after a production.

Uncharted Territory: Where an Arts Organization Dares to Go (But Dollars Can be Difficult to Find)

First in a new series featuring stories from Greater Boston arts organizations that received special funding to pursue an artistic risk.

The Arts are always about taking risks. But funding for risk-taking is often hard to come by. With new resources dedicated to artistic risk, seven organizations pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones. This first story of what happened comes from The Theater Offensive’s Acting Artistic Director, Evelyn Francis.

The Theater Offensive was founded in the midst of the early AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The founders, made up of street activists and performers, were experiencing first-hand the daily anguish the epidemic caused in their lives and their community. While the government sat silent, each week TTO artists were risking their lives to amplify the voices of those who could no longer speak; working to use theater to mourn, to build empathy, to educate, and to make radical systemic change. It’s fair to say that “risk” has deep roots in our organization.

Over our thirty-year history, we’ve made it our mission to fight against the tide of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and violence that continues to permeate Boston – to strive for a city where LGBTQ people are able to not just survive, but fully thrive. Neighborhoods are being gentrified rapidly, and artists, particularly LGBTQ Artists of Color, can’t make a living here. Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roxbury, and the South End are full of talented artists that can make a better living in New York, and many of them have done just that. At The Theater Offensive, we know that we cannot make this dream of a thriving city a reality without the creative vision of Boston artists.

By 2009, we were presenting mostly national touring productions, but had heard a need for us to move away for the conventional theater company model. We created a model of community listening, called “SpeakOUT” events, to provide local folks opportunities to tell us what they wanted from us. And, we listened. At one of these events in 2015, artists spoke about the lack of resources available to them in Boston. Creation space is limited. Fair pay for work is difficult to get. Mentorship opportunities are near nonexistent. From here, the idea began to take shape of a residency program supporting local artists with intersecting identities. We created the outline of a program, called the OUT’hood Residency Program, which would:

  1. support Boston LGBTQ artists in their professional development,
  2. connect these artists with our neighborhoods and intersecting movements, and
  3. provide performing opportunities to present their work.

Once we had the plan drafted, we waited for a funder to take a chance on the exceptional artists of Boston. When we had the opportunity to apply for this special risk funding from Barr and the Klarman Family Foundation, we knew immediately what we wanted to do with it – make this dream of a residency program for LGBTQ artists a reality. And it yielded amazing results.

You have to have room to question, to mess things up, to break the rules a little (or a lot), and this initiative allowed us to do this in important ways. We got to see how far we could push ourselves and test this program as a viable business model for us.

Our community is our passion, and our art is a vehicle for radical change. It fosters empathy, builds understanding, and centers the voices of those most marginalized in the LGBTQ community. It’s also our work. That means needing the time and the money and the infrastructure to produce it. You also need the guts. You have to have room to question, to mess things up, to break the rules a little (or a lot), and this initiative allowed us to do this in important ways. We got to witness the impact that a residency program can have on local, up-and-coming LGBTQ Artists of Color and the community. We got to see how far we could push ourselves and test this program as a viable business model for us.

While we are still exploring the future of the residency program, one thing is clear: our work has always been about striving to respond to what the world and our communities need. Being able to do so boldly, unapologetically, unabashedly: that is artistic risk, and it is where this initiative dared to go with us.

Learn more about TTO’s journey and see how the OUT’hood Artist Residency came to life in this new video:

We invite you to watch it, and share it, and join the conversation using #ArtisticRisk.

About the Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building Initiative and this video series:

The Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building Initiative was a five-year initiative to strengthen the long term financial health of a group of Boston area arts organizations. Throughout the Initiative, the partners grappled with the question: capitalization to what end? What’s the desired change for the organization and for our communities? First, the cohort explored what organizational risks could look like, and the kinds of capital needed. And in the last two years, the partners asked what taking risks in the art and curation looked like, and what kinds of support are needed for risk-taking. A fund was set up as part of the Initiative, with the goal of supporting projects that took organizations out of the comfort zone of their usual practice, potentially against standard field practice, and with the potential to change their organizational way of working.

These commissioned videos document the journey of the seven projects that were funded. Each centers on one organization and, through the eyes of its leaders, gives a glimpse into one journey of artistic risk-taking. We hope that these leaders and projects will engage you a conversation that deepens understanding and builds support for this exciting kind of work.

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