What will be the impact of Alley Theatre’s historic $25 million grant?

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars, and Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” / Photo by Lynn Lane

With its recent $25 million matching grant from an anonymous donor, Alley Theatre announced the largest gift in the company’s 75-year history.

The grant, received once its matching challenge is met, will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign, which aims to support the Alley’s endowment, artistic initiatives, building repairs after Hurricane Harvey, and reserve funds for the Theatre.

We at the Alley are so honored to receive this generous gift. Especially after these years of recovery from the pandemic, it is the perfect way to ensure that the Alley is in a strong financial position for years to come. It also means that the art will be supported at a very high level and the work on the Alley stages will continue to have the high production values that we know and love. It comes at a particularly exciting time. We are in the middle of our five-year strategic plan and this gift really put wind in all of our sails to imagine new vistas for the Alley. Anything is possible. I’m extremely excited about the Alley’s future.

Rob Melrose, Artistic Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal

In recognition of the grant, the theatre’s downtown building has been renamed the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center to honor the Alley’s late, longtime Chairman Emeritus, who passed away in 2020. Long served on the Alley’s board for 31 years and was an influential art dealer, fundraiser, and community leader.

“I was lucky to get to know Meredith during my first years at the Alley,” said Melrose. “I was so moved by Meredith’s love of art and decades long commitment to the Alley. He was a truly great man with a generous spirit, and it will be wonderful to think of him every day as we make great theater for the city of Houston.”  

Alley Theatre Building at 615 Texas Avenue is now known as the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center / Courtesy of the Alley

The Alley says the new building name is effective immediately, with an official unveiling being planned for September.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Dean Gladden, the Alley’s Managing Director, for the following interview on the impact of the record-setting grant on the future of the company – and potentially the Theater District:

This $25 million matching grant will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign. Can you tell me a little more about that Campaign and its significance? When do you expect to meet the $25 million challenge, which will kick in this matching grant – and surpass the $80 million goal?

The Vision for the Future Campaign began after Hurricane Harvey. The campaign has four objectives: $31M for the Alley Endowment; $19M for Artistic Investment Fund ($1.5M a year for 10 years to support artistic initiatives, $3M for new Christmas Carol, and $1M for extra marketing expenses over the next 3 years to help us recover from COVID); $20M for renovation and mitigation of the theatre after Harvey; $10M for operating reserves and building maintenance fund. The campaign has raised $55M, and we have up to three years to meet the $25M match and finish the campaign.

Can you go into more detail about what this grant can do for the future of the Alley, such as in terms of programs, initiatives, improvements, etc.?

The campaign will enable us to double the size of our endowment to continue to support the Alley into the future. The Artistic Investment Fund will enable the all the resources to produce shows that we would otherwise not be able to produce. Harvey is self-explanatory. The operating reserve will enable us to always have three months of cash available for cash flow and not have to use a line of credit. Maintenance reserves are self-explanatory. 

What “dreams” of the Alley might this grant help fulfill?

Dreams: The Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, and Houston Ballet all will still have larger endowments than the Alley. Our dream is to match them in size to support our operations. Another dream is to fully recover from COVID and have the same subscription base as we did pre-COVID. Another dream is to continue to expand our offerings to serve both the Houston community and the national theatre movement.

Morgan Marcell as The Wife, David Guzman as The Husband, and Adam Kantor as The Neighbor
in Alley Theatre’s production of “Noir” / Photo by Lynn Lane

What have been some of the Alley’s greatest challenges, which this grant might help the company overcome or address?

Greatest challenges: Tropical Storm Allison, stock market crash of 2009, renovating the theatre on time and on budget in 14 months, Hurricane Harvey and COVID. These monies will address Harvey, COVID and financial stability to grow in the future.

How will this grant help the Alley recover from the pandemic?  Would you be willing to share a figure for the Alley’s financial losses during the pandemic to help us understand what you’ve been through?

This campaign will definitely help the Alley succeed in the future, as I mentioned above. During the first year of COVID FY 2020 – 21, the Alley was forced to reduce its budget from $19M to $11M. We had no earned income that year, everything was contributed. This past year our budget increased to $18.6M, as we performed during COVID. Thanks to generous gifts throughout COVID and grants from PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant], the Alley has operated in the black throughout COVID. In fact, the Alley has generally operated in the black for the last 16 years.

By helping the Alley, what wider impact do you think this grant might have indirectly? How could this grant potentially impact the greater Houston arts community – for example, could it give the Alley the capacity to hire more local artists or make other opportunities available?

By strengthening the Alley’s balance sheet, it will be able to better reach out to the community with its programming and do productions of national scale. It will enable us to hire more actors, theatre artisans and technicians, and expand our education and community engagement programs.

There have been some big announcements in the Theater District recently – such as the $50 million Jones Hall renovations over the next couple of years, the historic $10 million donation to Houston Ballet this past spring, the rebranding of Performing Arts Houston, and now the Alley’s historic $25 million grant. What are your thoughts – and what kinds of conversations are happening – about the future of the Theater District? How does this particular grant fit in with the larger landscape of the Theater District post-pandemic and beyond?

It is very exciting to see all the changes in the theatre district. After our $46.5M restoration of the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center, we were able to give Houston one of the most advanced theatres in America. Now Jones Hall is being renovated, the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance has been named, and the Lynn Wyatt Square is being finished, we are seeing a refreshed Theater District in Houston. The support in Houston of the arts has always been strong, but this new resurgence shows you how vital the arts are to the city of Houston. The future is definitely bright for Houston’s Theater District.

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