Jeannie Lukow, a founding board member and current executive director of Porchlight Music Theatre, has led the organization through many critical phases, but none as significant as rebounding from the global pandemic and navigating the return to year-round productions, education, and neighborhood programs.
She developed her love of theatre doing community and school productions as a child, and she learned the business by lending her talents in various capacities over the company’s 28-year trajectory – including marketing, public relations, grant writing and strategic planning while serving on the board for 19 years. A seasoned marketing/communications professional and former small-business owner who joined Porchlight’s staff in 2014, Jeannie “geeks out on Porchlight’s business growth” and the unique challenges and opportunities facing arts nonprofits.
One key way she and the staff at Porchlight have fed their passion for creating a sustainable arts organization is through their participation in the Arts and Culture Loan (ACLF) program. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation and administered by IFF in partnership with BDO FMA LLC, ACLF offers arts and culture organizations across Chicago four supports they can pick and choose from based on their needs: a line of credit, financial training workshops, expert technical assistance, and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Collective.
We sat down with Lukow to discuss Porchlight’s experience with these program components and why they are especially critical now. We also covered the organization’s unique role in the Chicagoland arts community and Lukow’s perspective on the current climate for theatre and arts organizations as a whole, which is rapidly evolving.
IFF: Before we talk through Porchlight’s involvement in the ACLF program, could you tell us about the organization’s role in Chicago’s artistic community? What sets Porchlight apart?
Lukow: We founded Porchlight 28 years ago, and it is — if you can believe it — the only not-for-profit professional theatre exclusively dedicated to music theatre inside the city of Chicago. We’re of the mind that Chicago needs and deserves its own home for music theatre. We offer a Broadway-quality musical experience, but at a more affordable price and in an intimate environment where nobody’s more than 15 or so rows from the stage.
We present a mix of classic and new musicals in what we like to call the Chicago Style, which to us means productions that are smart, gritty, gripping, and real. And unlike other larger houses in the Chicago area, we don’t import talent. While many of our performers have done national tours, or been on and off Broadway, they either call Chicago home or their roots are here.
Another big differentiator is our dedication to cultivating the next generation of creators and appreciators of the art through our artistic and educational programming. Our New Faces Sing Broadway series showcases 30 up-and-coming talents each season, and many of the New Faces have gone on to perform on our mainstage, on TV, and on Broadway. Our growing youth education program brings all of the elements of music theatre creation into schools, community centers and through our own classes and summer camps. That level and scope of commitment to the genre is something you just don’t find at bigger, commercial theatres, which tend to focus exclusively on presenting a mainstage season.
IFF: Could you describe how establishing a line of credit through ACLF has helped you fulfill your ambitious mission?
“I can’t tell you what a gift the line of credit has been. Porchlight doesn’t have an endowment. We do have a cash reserve fund, but it’s limited. A few down months or an existential crisis can jeopardize the organization. So, a line of credit can be a lifesaver.”
Lukow: I can’t tell you what a gift the line of credit has been. Porchlight doesn’t have an endowment. We do have a cash reserve fund, but it’s limited. A few down months or an existential crisis can jeopardize the organization. So, a line of credit can be a lifesaver. Even during stable times when we haven’t needed to tap ours, the peace of mind and flexibility to sometimes try new things — knowing there’s a safety net there — have been huge benefits.
When we first started participating in the program several years ago, our line of credit was $30,000. That was a breakthrough for us. Getting a credit card that isn’t linked to an individual employee’s or board member’s credit is a huge challenge for small organizations. We relied on it heavily for several years until we created that reserve fund and grew into a more financially stable organization. More recently, we decided to work with our ACLF specialist to increase the line to $100,000. Our budget had grown to over $2 million before the pandemic and it was time to plan for the future.
Now we’re very happy we made that adjustment. Like most arts organizations across the country, we’re expecting a budget deficit this year, and we may need to rely on the line of credit within the next 12 months.
IFF: It sounds as if it’s still a challenging time, even though you’ve been able to bring audiences back. What are some of the main obstacles music theatre is facing?
Lukow: I don’t think you can underestimate the challenges. All of the arts are going through an incredible time of transition right now — more so than when we were in the heart of Covid. In 2020 and 2021, the theatre industry mostly just stood still. There was government funding available as well. Now, however, there’s the expectation that theatres return to business as usual, producing robust season programming, but we’re doing it in a very different business environment and relying much more heavily on contributed income.
“All of the arts are going through an incredible time of transition right now — more so than when we were in the heart of Covid.”
One factor is that attendance isn’t quite what it was pre-pandemic. Audiences currently seem to want a recommended “hit” or a well-known title to get off their couches and out of their soft pants. They’re also more cost-conscious. So how does an organization rise above all of the options in Chicago to be the thing that a significant number of people want to see and support?
Probably the biggest factor, though, is that costs have skyrocketed, particularly in the labor market. The arts are mostly a labor business. Many theatre professionals left the industry during the pandemic, and job candidates’ expectations have changed significantly. In some cases, you now have to hire two people to do the work of what one person did in the past, plus pay each person more.
To be clear, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s great to see higher wages for theatre professionals, across the board. A lot of the old ways were wrong. This whole nonprofit theatre industry was essentially built on sweat equity. Our industry was in dire need of changes to address equity, as well as diversity and inclusion, and the global pandemic and intensified social justice movement helped bring those issues to the forefront even more.
To make those changes, though, we need a new business model. How will we bring audiences what they want at an affordable price, while also honoring artists’ and staff’s wellbeing, our mission, and the sustainability of the art form? It’s a huge challenge — one that is entirely possible to meet, but it will take time to figure out. We’re grateful to have the ACLF line of credit to help us get there.
IFF: Porchlight also participated in ACLF’s financial management training workshops and engaged BDO FMA experts to complete a technical assistance project. Could you describe the impact of those program components?
Lukow: The financial training, resources, advice, and connections have been invaluable. For the technical assistance project, trained experts came in and did a free assessment of our finances. We didn’t have any full-time finance staff at that point — just a hodge-podge of part-time help, so that helped us grow as an organization.
“The financial training, resources, advice, and connections have been invaluable. For the technical assistance project, trained experts came in and did a free assessment of our finances. We didn’t have any full-time finance staff at that point — just a hodge-podge of part-time help, so that helped us grow as an organization.”
The training series had a huge impact. It was multi-part and quite rigorous, which I appreciated since it’s so important to successfully steward a nonprofit’s funds. Our treasurer, other members of our staff, and I all participated. Gretchen Upholt at BDO FMA led the training. She basically changed my life. After every session, I went back to the financial toolkits she provided. I realized we needed big changes, and I used the training to implement them — ensuring financial controls, how to structure the finance department, best practices, recommended policies and procedures, setting up a cash reserve fund, and so much more.
I could go on and on about what I learned in that training and how it related to correcting deficiencies that we hadn’t even known we had. It gave us the confidence to move forward with a logical structure and implement it. It truly was a game-changer for us.
IFF: Are there other ways the program has benefited you?
Lukow: Well, I can’t guarantee that this will happen for every participant, but we ultimately ended up getting a great board member out of the training experience! The program provided an opportunity to meet that future board member, which was a big side benefit for us. I also appreciated the opportunity to network with other arts leaders in the training.
IFF: You mentioned some of the tremendous changes theatre and the arts in general are experiencing. What opportunities do you see for Porchlight as you look ahead?
Lukow: We’re excited about the opportunity to reimagine how we deliver our mission. It can feel scary to let go of tried-and-true ways of operating, but we’re approaching the current climate as having no sacred cows. We’ve gained a better understanding of our different audience segments and the new requirements of the marketplace, and we’re developing a new three-year strategic plan based on what we’ve learned.
One thought is that we don’t necessarily have to limit our work to a single theatre space. So much of what we do next will be about serving people beyond just them coming to enjoy a show. We want to bring even more of what we do to them and make music theatre more accessible to a broad swath of Chicagoans, in terms of both location and cost.
I also see opportunities around cultivating the next generation of theatre aficionados through our new Porchlight Young Professionals auxiliary board and engaging in more collaborations with other theatres. It could be a fruitful time for co-productions and mutual advancement — perhaps driven by the need to save but resulting in some wonderful outcomes.
It’s true that we’ve faced more challenges in the past few years than perhaps ever in our history. But there’s been no diminishment of enthusiasm, pride, and belief among our stakeholders in what we can achieve.
Learn more about IFF’s Arts and Culture Loan Fund