A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Missouri Arts Council

New Line Theatre was recently awarded a bigger-than-usual grant from the Missouri Arts Council (MAC) for its coming 2023-2024 season -- a generous $25,000.

Soon to open our 32nd season of alternative musical theatre, the increased MAC grant was very welcome, particularly in this time when every nonprofit theatre in America is still struggling so badly, and so many are closing down permanently. Just this past week, the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago announced they are laying off one-eighth of their staff.

But then... A plot twist!

Even as theatres across America fail, MAC Executive Director Michael Donovan decided this is the time to change the rules, to make it harder to access grant money, to make it tougher on struggling nonprofits like New Line Theatre -- even though Donovan's new rules violate the contract he and I as New Line Artistic Director both signed just weeks ago. The result is that New Line can't currently access the majority of its grant, which the company desperately needs, particularly in these very challenging times.

The timing could not be worse for us.

According to London's Guardian newspaper, "America’s love affair with the stage is on the rocks. From coast to coast, the regional theatre movement is facing the biggest crisis in its 75-year history. An estimated 25% to 30% of audiences have not returned since the shutdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic." And instead of stepping up to help, MAC is now making it harder on the New Liners.

Here's the bizarre and ridiculous story behind the problem...

In accepting the MAC grant, New Line agreed as it does every year to match the grant amount with spending, dollar for dollar. Donovan's dispute with New Line centers on the definition of "incurred expenses" in the contract and what funds can be used to match the MAC grant.

The contract says "The Council agrees to pay the Grantee funds up to the amount stated in Section 3 of this Grant Agreement upon receipt of a duly executed invoice(s) evidencing Project costs incurred in accordance with the Project Proposal" (section 12). [Emphasis added.]

An "incurred expense" is an expense committed to, but not necessarily paid yet. And Donovan knows that. But now he insists instead that the money must already be spent to be used for the match, despite the contract he signed. Donovan claims a sentence immediately following section 12 in the contract says exactly the opposite of it.

That sentence says, "Spent the money for the approved Council-funded project between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024." Donovan's issue this time is whether the dates in the sentence describe the project or the spending. To be clear, the contract does not say, "Spent the money between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024, for the approved Council-funded project." In context, the meaning should be clear.

And seriously, even if there are two ways to read that sentence, which choice makes more sense -- to read it as consistent with the section before it; or to read it as completely contradictory to the section before it? The answer should be obvious, especially in a contract.

Or is MAC claiming they knowingly ask hundreds of Missouri nonprofits to sign a self-contradictory contract every year?

For the last thirty seasons, MAC accepted New Line's match of incurred expenses, exactly as the contract describes and as past MAC staff had explained it to the New Liners; but not this year.

Despite the contract's clear language, Donovan now maintains that incurred expenses can no longer be used to make the match, pretending that section 12 of the contract doesn't exist -- which means New Line can't get most of their grant money now. Though New Line continues to struggle, though theatres are closing across the country every day, Donovan has chosen to keep New Line from accessing most of their awarded grant until much later in the season -- and to force our small company to continue its current struggles.

In addition to all that, as a "punishment" for New Line challenging Donovan's new rules, Donovan has demanded that our company now submit receipts to him personally for every single expense -- something other grantees are not required to do. 

Yes, that's right, he both takes back our grant money and then also gives us more work to do. I honestly don't understand why he's doing any of this, particularly right now! MAC has never treated us like this before.

We need help, not hassle.

The MAC website says, "The Missouri Arts Council is the state agency dedicated—as public leader, partner, and catalyst—to broadening the growth, availability, and appreciation of the arts in Missouri and fostering the diversity, vitality, and excellence of Missouri’s communities, economy, and cultural heritage. The grants we award make possible quality arts programming to communities both large and small throughout the state."

Nothing about punishment, nothing about bookkeeping intricacies. It shouldn't have to be said, but the Missouri Arts Council was not created to bully and punish defenseless artists and small, struggling arts organizations.

Clearly, the struggle is still not over. And the people who should be helping us the most, aren't.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here

UPDATE, JAN. 31, 2024

In early December we sent another invoice, but we never got the money. I called Michael two weeks ago, in mid-January, and he said we'd have it by the end of this month.

Today, January 31, I called again and Michael told me he doesn't think our accompanying "proof" is good enough, so he hasn't even processed our invoice yet, which means we have no idea when we'll get that piece of our grant -- which means some of our people are going UNPAID! (And I'm unable to pay my own rent!) We have no idea what to do about this -- it's hurting local artists who aren't being paid for their work! For the last thirty years MAC has been very good to us, and we've never suffered this kind of abuse before.

I tried to understand what he was saying and why he was holding up our funds, but at one point in the conversation he said, "You're not helping yourself," and hung up on me. When I called back, he wouldn't answer his phone -- for more than 90 minutes.

The Missouri Arts Council is supposed to SUPPORT arts organizations, not HARRASS them!

UPDATE FEB. 6, 2024

We still haven't received the grant money we invoiced MAC for on Dec. 13. He let our invoice sit on his desk for more than eight weeks, and only processed it because I asked our state representative to call MAC about the problem. We'll see if we get any funds. I'm skeptical at this point.

UPDATE FEB.16, 2024

The transfer of our grant funds into our bank account finally happened at 2:00 a.m. today. All in all, it took eleven weeks from our invoice being sent to getting payment, Dec. 13 to Feb. 16. Our crisis may be over, but the problem clearly is not.


Anonymous | September 4, 2023 at 12:14 AM

You have a strong network. Use it. Ask questions. Find the best legal advice you can access. You will survive!

Anonymous | January 31, 2024 at 6:45 PM

Have you contacted Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts? Knowledgeable legal advice from professionals who know the arts world and legalities. At much lower fees than directly contacting a lawyer (or possibly pro bono).

Anonymous | February 1, 2024 at 5:50 PM
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CaptHayfever | February 1, 2024 at 10:30 PM

"You have to spend the money before you have the money" is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.