Paul de Barros
Seattle's nonprofit arts organization Earshot Jazz, which has been producing concerts since 1987 and a festival since 1989, very likely would not have made the transition from volunteer startup to professional non-profit arts organization, had it not been for the National Endowment for the Arts. In fact, it probably would have gone the way of so many idealistic nonprofits with lots of heart but no sustainable budget and dissolved altogether.
Here's the story: In December, 1984, concert producer and radio host Gary Bannister and I (plus, briefly, pianist Allen Youngblood) were frustrated that the Seattle Times, for which I was writing freelance music reviews at the time (and where I am now a staff writer and editor), was inhospitable to articles about local jazz. We were also disturbed that what had been a robust jazz scene suddenly seemed to be a profound slump, with few venues and a dwindling audience. To give jazz a "mirror and focus," as we said in our mission, we started publishing a newsletter about the Seattle jazz scene called Earshot Jazz. The local community took to it immediately and we soon had 500 subscriber/members. In 1987, we decided to organize formally as a nonprofit arts organization and apply for grants to produce concerts of original music by local jazz musicians. After presenting 24 concerts a year in 1987 and 1988, in June, 1989 we presented a week-long festival, which included national touring acts such as Carla Bley and Jay McShann. The festival drew excellent crowds and membership in the organization burgeoned again.
By this time, we had a core of about a dozen volunteers, some of whom served on a board of directors and others who wrote and produced the newsletter, booked and produced the concerts, and managed a program of workshops and educational grants for jazz students. We had support from the Seattle Arts Commission, King County Arts Commission, and Washington State Arts Commission, but the money paid for programming, not staffing. By 1990 it became apparent that we would need to begin paying an executive director to manage the organization or it would collapse in a heap of volunteer "burnout."
Enter Sara Donnelly. At that time, Sara was the jazz officer for NEA. Recognizing that the need for salaried staff was a common problem for young nonprofits, Sara initiated NEA's Jazz Management grant program. Earshot applied, and in June, 1990, for the first time, I began to draw a salary as executive director of Earshot, a job I had been doing as a volunteer since 1987.
Had that NEA grant not come through, I most certainly would have left the organization, and it's doubtful anyone else would have stepped forward to take my place as Earshot had begun to demand far too much time to subsist on volunteer help alone.
Ironically, the management grant was for $12,000, but when we received it, we misunderstood the terms of the grant and thought the grant period was for one year. But it was actually for two! So there was only $500/month available for the executive director—a meager sum, indeed. Yet even that small amount was enough to keep a fledging organization going long enough to eventually become the stable and dependable part of the Seattle arts scene it is today, noted internationally as a forward-looking organization with one of the most adventurous, month-long jazz festivals in the country.
Thank you NEA! And thank you, Sara!