First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
A Matter of Money
Fine Art of Grantsmanship
It was a matter of money—every minute, each hour, all day—from the moment I resolved to devote myself full time to Museum One, in the spring of the next year. The visions of Matisse, the glory of Michelangelo, and the passion of Van Gogh sometimes seemed to pale in comparison to the fine art of grantsmanship. That exacting and consuming funding game of proposals and letters of inquiry, in-kind and cash donations, budgets and financial statements leading ultimately to acceptance or rejection–in some cases, the very life or death of an organization.
I was taking a considerable risk when I left my part-time job at the museum–like an aerialist without a safety net or a high diver aiming for the shallow end of the pool. We finally did have our tax exemption, obtained some six months before by my friend (and non lawyer Joan). Since then,I had won two grants (from a small foundation and a government agency, both referred to me by Ruth), which would at least sustain me into December. But what about the upcoming year and beyond? What other sources should I tap?
During the following summer, I committed myself to that search, often doubting the wisdom of my decision. Somehow I persevered through the long, hot, and typical Washington season—swampy, humid, and oppressively sticky, resembling purgatory on certain days. I almost wished for the cold, frosty winds and snow of February as a welcome respite from the sweltering sun.
I enclosed myself in a tedious, at times, martyr like existence, rotating between my claustrophobic apartment and the Foundation Center, a research library for the nonprofit sector. The former enclave would serve both as my office and domicile during Museum One’s early history, actually one large room or efficiency crowded with the paraphernalia of Museum One–papers, books, mail, supplies, slides, posters, and prints–cluttered among my personal possessions.
The Foundation Center, my other destination, was equally constrictive in its dimensions. Occupying a tiny office in the heart of downtown, it was overflowing with stacks of files, periodicals, directories, and microfiche on every foundation imaginable, national and local.
Back and forth I journeyed through three endless months of relentless high temperatures and unrelieved tensions. Anxiety seemed to stalk me down the sweaty streets, into the air-conditioned subways, unnaturally frigid, contrasting to the extreme heat reigning in the world above. Why did I want to cry uncontrollably as I scanned the faces of my fellow passengers? Or why did I feel suddenly nauseated as I ascended the escalators? Was I panicking, afraid I might fail in my mission, a possibility that constantly haunted me?
At the Foundation Center, these sensations would intensify. “I have to succeed,” I would swear to myself as I bowed over the microfiche records, barely visible on the lighted blue screen where they hovered before me. Each one symbolized the key to a foundation’s wealth, encapsulated in Form 990, a treasure of figures and facts, abundant with annual statistics: the total allocation for grants, the specific projects selected, and the individual amounts disbursed. For example to provide $50,000 to the Kennedy Center for a concert series, or to contribute $10,000 in hearing aids for older adults or to commit $15,000 for a summer arts program for underprivileged children at an art gallery.
I was overwhelmed by a mass of causes and purposes, all justified and sorely needed. Yet, I was too aware of the scarcity of proper funding, particularly in the climate of the Reagan administration cutbacks. For each project support, hundreds, perhaps thousands, were refused, equally worthwhile and invaluable to society. And now I was directly in the competition, more a battle, really–the desperate struggle for the elusive and omnipotent dollar.
Local Washington was notorious for its lack of donors. A few hundred foundations (many of them small), a couple of D.C. government agencies, and some dedicated businesses. Perhaps most important was the absence of any major corporate contributor. Unlike many cities, Washington could boast of only a few sizable corporations and even then, their headquarters were generally located in the suburbs and not necessarily cognizant of the pressing concerns of D.C. proper.
Within sight of the nation’s capital, Washington’s citizenry was still living in a backward state. The citadel of national and international politics was, as a community of parents and children, neighborhoods and schools, social services and health education, just continuing to survive, always in the shadow of the greater bureaucracy.
And how would Museum One fare, I wondered? Some D.C. nonprofit organizations had been operating successfully for 10, even 20 years. Arena Stage, for instance, had evolved from a grass roots theater group to a respected regional theater. Arena Stage might not have the size and fame of the Kennedy Center, but it had the reputation for encouraging innovative plays and new approaches to dramatic expression. In other cases, though, organizations might exist for barely a year to two, propelled by “seed” money (a grant term for startup operations), then end just as quickly.
In my looseleaf notebook, I would madly copy a multitude of impersonal names, addresses, and phone numbers, laboring sometimes from the center’s 10:00 a.m. opening to its closing at 5:00 p.m. Then, when I had gleaned enough priceless information, I would retreat to my apartment and embark on a phone marathon.
Scrunched nervously over my receiver, my list of contacts always before me, I prayed that someone, somewhere would listen. Hour after hour, through the sultry mornings and steamy afternoons, I was frantically selling Museum One, myself, and the countless older adults I promised to reach.
For days, extending into weeks, months, I would pursue Ms. or Mr. foundation director. Even in August, one of the deadliest months in Washington, when the most influential members of the population traditionally escape to New England ports or mountain cabins, I refused to give up my quest. Somehow, I would discover at least one voice on the other end of the phone to whom I could relay my message–a faceless, unseen entity, but godlike in power to me.
I became the consummate diplomat, acutely sensitive to the slightest change or nuance in my potential client’s tone. Did I detect some boredom? Was I becoming tedious in my presentation (for I soon found that a five-to-ten minute ceiling on summaries was preferred)? Should I stop now? Or should I add a few decisive catchwords that could “make or break” my case?
Sometimes a sympathetic greeting could be misleading, followed immediately by a curt “no, we aren’t interested.” Yet in contrast, a neutral businesslike response could signify approval, a positive “yes, please send in a proposal.” Waiting periods for grants, however, seemed long–two, or three, or four months in a limbo of uncertainty, concluded finally by a formal and crisply type missive engraved with a fateful yes or no.
My possible benefactors definitely had the upper hand, besieged by a bombardment of inquiries each funding cycle. They could be kind and understanding as well as distant and arbitrary. I might be asked in for an interview, but usually transactions were conducted over the phone.
But whatever the mode of communication, long-term relationships and even friendships developed with the staff of the foundations that would eventually finance Museum One’s activities. For, by the cool, revitalizing autumn, I had prepared the basis for Museum One’s revenues for the next four years. A core of three foundations and state humanities councils would enable us to enrich our courses, establish our teaching personnel, and increase the number and diversity of our audiences.
At its peak, Museum One would expand beyond Ward III into other parts of the metropolitan area, serving more than 200 older adults per week. Yet I would never be satisfied—for I knew that other tunnels always remained to be uncovered and illuminated.
COMING NEXT: DOWNTOWN RELIGION
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