Vol 27 no.3

West of Broadway: the Rockefeller Foundation and American Theatre in the 1930s

Given its historic role as one of the leading institutions in American philanthropy, perhaps it is not surprising that the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was among the first American foundations to experiment with arts funding.[1] Better known are the efforts of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which provided support for arts appreciation in American schools, and above all, the Juilliard Musical Foundation, created after the death of benefactor Augustus Juilliard in 1919.[2] By contrast, the Rockefeller Foundation’s earliest ventures remain largely unknown and have yet to receive any extensive scholarly study. Its first hesitant steps in the arts offer a revealing look at the prevailing attitudes among foundation trustees and staff. Many of these assumptions or biases—especially the fear of providing direct support to individual artists—would create barriers to arts funding for the next half century. The Foundation’s efforts in the 1930s to underwrite a regional theatre movement and its related experiment in offering support directly to individual playwrights also provide an interesting case study in the evaluation of arts philanthropy. Success proved elusive and difficult to measure, if not to define, in this first Rockefeller arts program. Rockefeller insiders regarded these efforts as failures, and scholars have been content either to repeat this judgment or to ignore the entire effort.

Historians have failed to see the full significance for the arts of this Rockefeller program of the late 1930s, perhaps because it began as a simple effort to strengthen university programs in drama. To begin setting this record right, it may first be useful to stake out some broad tentative claims: First, if we exclude the Juilliard Foundation’s very specialized support for the music school of the same name and the Carnegie Corporation’s eclectic educational programs, the Rockefeller Foundation conducted the first sustained program in the performing arts by a major private foundation in the years before the second world war. Moreover, this effort predated the more celebrated work of the Ford Foundation from the mid 1950s until the 1980s and the Rockefeller’s own quite significant work in these same years.[3] A second and more specific historical claim may be ventured: while the RF’s first efforts in the arts produced mixed results at best, the passage of time makes it increasingly clear that the program in drama helped build the foundation for the flourishing non-profit, repertory theatre movement of the postwar period. At the same time, these first efforts also demonstrated the limits of that support, especially when reservations about supporting individual creative artists came into play.

In the early 1930s Rockefeller Foundation trustees were debating the organization’s basic goals. In the previous decade the Foundation had chosen the advancement of knowledge as its underlying purpose, and support for the humanities became one of its core programs. Soon, however, calls from RF board members for more practical results increased with the country’s worsening depression. While the RF trustees were willing to concede that basic research in economics might not immediately lead to solutions to unemployment and stalled growth, they could see a direct link between the work of social scientists and the country’s most pressing problems. In the humanities, by contrast, evaluation proved difficult and the connection to daily life seemed remote at best. A trustee evaluation of all the Foundation’s programs warned that the humanities were in danger of falling into a trap if they slavishly imitated the natural and social sciences:

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