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Following difficult year, ACT establishes first endowment

January 4, 2010 |  2:21 pm


Like many performing arts institutions, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater has had a difficult past 12 months. The company cut its budget by approximately $1.5 million in early 2009 and eliminated three high-level positions, including its associate artistic director.

While things are not exactly rosy for the company, it's fair to say that 2010 has gotten off on the right foot. ACT said today that it has established its first-ever endowment -- the result of a five-year effort, titled The Next Generation Campaign, that has raised close to $31 million.

"The endowment gives us the ability to take artistic risks. We don't have to be a slave to the box office," said Tim Whalen, the company's director of external affairs who helped to spearhead the campaign.

Prior to forming an endowment, ACT said it relied solely on annual income from ticket sales, tuition and contributions to sustain its season programming and actor training. It said that it can now use interest from the endowment.

ACT said it raised $30,939,236 by midnight on Dec. 31. However, Whalen told The Times that not all of that money is going into the newly created endowment.

The company said that in order to avoid deeper budgetary cuts, leaders chose last fall to broaden the scope of the campaign to include donations for operational support. Of the nearly $31 million raised, approximately $3 million will go toward operating expenses.

ACT said that the money raised also includes $1.5 million in future gifts, parts of which the company won't see for months or years.

Currently, ACT has an annual operating budget of $18.4 million and a staff of 150 people, according to Whalen.

The figures take into account the organization's educational departments, which offer a master's degree in acting. The company produces eight plays per year on its main stage.

ACT said 3,600 donors contributed to the campaign, including 115 "leadership donors" who made commitments of $25,000.

The 44-year-old company boasts several prominent alumni, including Annette Bening, who served as chair of the Campaign Artistic Advisory Committee. The Oscar-nominated actress' photographs were featured prominently on literature and promotional material used during the campaign, according to the company.

The campaign, which began in 2005, started with a silent fundraising phase that lasted two years. ACT said its original goal was to raise $25 million. The company later increased its goal to $30 million.

In a statement, Carey Perloff, the company's artistic director, said the endowment will allow the organization to  "commit to long-term artistic programming, take important creative risks and sustain the artists, students and staff who make us such a unique and vital institution."

-- David Ng

Photo: Rene Augesen, left, Anthony Fusco, center, and Andrew Polk in a scene from the David Mamet play "November," which recently ran at ACT. Credit: Kevin Berne / Bloomberg