Jane Lang had a vision to rehab a decrepit site in Washington, D.C. that is now home to a diverse group of 13 nonprofit performing arts organizations that share offices as well as practice, performance, production, and lobby spaces. "Not only are there great cost-savings for the organizations, and better equipment," according to Lang, founder and chair of the board, Atlas Performing Arts Center, "but it surprises me how little one discipline knew about the other and how they now look to each other and integrate their work – dance, theatre, choral, and symphonic orchestras. They have created cross-over audiences and built higher levels of attendance. The performing arts organizations are expanding their artistic vision, and audiences are appreciating different art forms."
"In 2001, when I was looking for space for one small theater company where I was involved, I was shown the old Atlas movie house. The building looked quite awful and way too big. And it was on H Street in Washington, D.C., an area that had become a haven for crime and drugs after the 1968 riots," recalls Lang. She also remembers her change of heart the next morning. "I woke up with the image of what could be done and simply charged forward. Today, not only is the Atlas a dynamic performing arts center, but also the hub of a vibrant new community with a dozen upscale restaurants, delis and bars."
Here are five lessons from the Atlas experience for funders and nonprofits:
Vision and leadership: Jane Lang embarked on the Atlas project with a vision of what could be, and then she inspired and gathered other leaders around her to form a board of directors. Together, they engaged hundreds of donors and local foundations to share the vision and generate the support to achieve success.
Revenue model: Jane and the board created a multi-year plan to shift the revenue model to become more reliant on earned fees through rental income; today only half the budget comes from philanthropy and that portion will shrink a bit further.
Shared back offices: There are multiple benefits for the nonprofits that live at the Atlas, including saving costs by sharing space and equipment (better equipment, like color copiers); creating more exciting work in a shared environment; and building larger cross-over audiences.
Community revitalization: Atlas became a catalyst for community revitalization, stimulating new life on H Street with restaurants, bars, and cafes; recently, even new public transportation was added to create access. One recent highlight is that the Capitol Hill Ball was held at the Atlas for inauguration.
Neighborhood participation: The Atlas has become integral to the neighborhood, and residents are engaging and benefiting. For example, a senior resident is the Atlas’s house manager and she brings fellow senior citizens to volunteer as ushers and to attend events. And a local charter school participates in the Atlas’s dance programs to fulfill their physical education requirements.
You don’t have to look far to see where Jane found her inspiration. An attorney with her own law firm, Jane is the daughter of Eugene Lang, founder of the I Have a Dream Foundation. Big ideas, philanthropy, and tenacity run in the family. The I Have a Dream Foundation has spawned many imitators; it’s time for the Atlas to be imitated now as well.