Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

In Dubai, Kevin Spacey gets into the business of show

Since his triumph in the film American Beauty, the US actor Kevin Spacey has focussed on nurturing young talent, and through his foundation is opening the Middle East Theatre Academy.
Kevin Spacey came to Dubai to discuss his vision for a place to nurture regional acting talent. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Kevin Spacey came to Dubai to discuss his vision for a place to nurture regional acting talent. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Through his foundation, Kevin Spacey found an outlet for his passion - inspiring young artists with programmes such as the new Middle East Theatre Academy. But launching a successful fund also requires budgeting, fund-raising, transparency and governance. Jeffrey Todd reports

Kevin Spacey was at the top of his game when he decided it was time to help those closer to the bottom.

After the success of American Beauty, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor, Spacey knew his place among Hollywood elite was assured. But rather than stay in Tinseltown, he moved to London and became the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre.

The experience of raising money for the stage and running educational programmes for young people has led him to his greatest passion - The Kevin Spacey Foundation.

He says starting a foundation has been the most challenging and meaningful investment in his life.

"I didn't want to pursue the same dream," Spacey says.

"I know lots of people who find their niche. I wasn't interested in that. I wanted to take all of the incredible good fortune that happened for me and put it towards something else outside of my ambition."

Established just one year ago, The Kevin Spacey Foundation supports a variety of causes, such as Keep Memory Alive, which helps raise money for Alzheimer's research, and Sense, the UK's largest organisation for children and adults who are both deaf and blind.

But at the heart of the foundation, Spacey adds, is support for young actors, writers and directors hoping to break into the industry. This week, in partnership with the UAE-based Crescent Investments, the American actor announced the formation of the Middle East Theatre Academy at the Capital Club in Dubai.

The programme, which will stretch across the GCC, encourages Arab youth and instils confidence through a series of workshops and lessons run by industry professionals.

However, establishing a foundation is far from easy.

Although the charities look great on paper, turning these initiatives into a reality involves careful budgeting, planning and governance.

Walid Chiniara, an international corporate lawyer who works with individuals and companies to establish foundations, says the region is changing its approach to charity.

"In general terms, very few people have proper structures to channel their charitable work," he says. "In the past, individuals or entities would simply donate time or money to a cause. Now, they want their contributions to develop into something that grows and adds to their reputation and legacy."

In his experience, starting a foundation is similar to launching a business. Legalities and structures need to be in place for it to run smoothly.

Clear objectives and budgets must be established from the onset. And to get it off the ground, you must hire the right people to accomplish these goals, gain visibility and make the foundation sustainable.

As the business landscape changes in the GCC, with an emphasis on corporate governance and transparency, the nature of foundations and charity is also coming of age.

The Emirates Foundation, created in 2005 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, is an independent philanthropic organisation dedicated to initiatives that assist and empower young Emiratis. It highlights five core programmes, including social development, education, arts and culture, science and technology and the environment.

The work of the Emirates Foundation is supported by a strong bureaucracy and governance. There is a chairman, board of governors, board of trustees and a full-time management team.

Peter Cleaves, the foundation's chief executive, has worked in international development and philanthropy for more than 30 years, formally serving as the executive director of the largest private foreign foundation in Latin America.

Another significant foundation in the UAE is Dubai Cares, which seeks to provide education and humanitarian relief to children in impoverished areas of the world.

Launched in 2007 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, this organisation hopes to educate one million children in poor countries, with its work extending to places such as Sudan and Myanmar. Dubai Cares has a similar governance system in place and a board of directors.

Badr Jafar, the executive director of Crescent Petroleum and the chief executive of Crescent Investments, agrees that transparency and governance are paramount in their partnership with The Kevin Spacey Foundation.

With a background in a variety of industries, including shipping, private equity, education, and oil and gas, he says the first task has been crafting a realistic budget for the next five years and firming up private stakeholders.

"Non-profit doesn't mean money isn't coming in and out," Mr Jafar adds. "It just means you're not taking dividends. More than likely we'll need sponsorship to break even or not have an operating loss. The challenge today is maintaining that good culture of corporate governance. Transparency is absolutely key, especially if someone is giving you money for social benefit."

In the coming weeks, as the academy begins to roll out its workshops for Arab youth, it hopes to cut down on costs by using existing facilities. Mr Jafar says many venues across the GCC are underutilised, and some stakeholders have already stepped up with their support.

One of the academy's biggest challenges, he says, is finding a range of part-time industry professionals to run the workshops and classes. He doesn't see the immediate need for a permanent staff.

"At the moment we don't want to complicate the structure. Between individuals working in the foundation and a handful of people here, we'll be able to implement it. Depending on how it goes, we'll be looking to bring in an advisory committee in the future."

Mr Chiniara says the ultimate goal of most foundations is the establishment of an autonomous advisory board to give the organisation more weight and attention.

From there, the hope is the foundation can generate its own revenue and be sustainable, rather than drawing on funds from an individual or company. The most common source of funds, he says, is often private donations or sponsorship.

"A brand name pushes the operation," Mr Chiniara says. "This could in turn attract more business for the original company. In the end, the idea is building a reputation." Indeed, for the past several years with the Old Vic Theatre, and now with his foundation, Spacey says he has learnt a great deal about reputation and fund-raising. The theatre, he adds, receives no public subsidies, requiring him to constantly seek donations and grants.

"It's very challenging and time consuming," Spacey says.

"I spend about 70 per cent of my time fund-raising. At the Old Vic, we're in our seventh year of work and we have done more than 30 productions. Meanwhile, we run one of the largest educational programmes of any theatre in London. I'm going to leave in 2015 and it will be 11 years since I've been there."

Equipped with the right skills, The Kevin Spacey Foundation is his next challenge and he's slowly laying the groundwork for success. The organisation currently has a small staff spread out among its various initiatives.

But the focus, Spacey says, is currently with the Middle East Theatre Academy and the upcoming production of Richard III. With Spacey playing the starring role, he will be reunited with Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty. This stage production is set to tour the world this year - and one of the shows will hit the stage in the GCC.

Spacey says the dates of the stage performances and the specific cities will be announced soon. Running alongside the production will be an educational campaign to encourage young actors and directors, with events taking place in each city they perform.

"At the moment, we are doing a lot of reconnaissance work," Spacey says. "We're looking into companies we'll want to work with in each city, venues and creating this educational arm of Richard III. It isn't cheap, but it's not a horrible amount of money to raise either."

If he could pass on one piece of advice to anyone starting a foundation, Spacey says the vision is essential. Similar to a business initiative, you must know what your core values are and what you intend to accomplish. This mentality, he adds, along with enthusiasm and belief in the cause, will inevitably rub off on employees, volunteers and stakeholders.

Spacey believes that once you get people in the door, the idea behind the cause should be infectious.

"Some people want a naming opportunity, some want parties and others want to come to opening nights," he says.

"I don't care what motivates people. Because I believe that if what motivates people is the sparkling, stardust stuff, you will eventually get them in and show them what the living theatre can really do. They'll see it actually has value."