The Arts in the Recession: It Helps to Think Locally

The Arts in the Recession: It Helps to Think Locally

In Washington there are bailouts to be had for banks and car companies, but what about Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre? OBT’s 20th anniversary season is around the corner, but its budget has dropped 28%. It’s hard to celebrate in style when faced with a “very serious cash crunch,” says executive director Jon Ulsh. And it’s forcing arts groups to be ever more creative about where and how they look for support.

President Barack Obama has asked the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute $50 million in stimulus funds. By early July, 700 arts organizations had received one-time grants ranging from $25,000 to $593,900 to help save jobs. For some groups, these funds are too little too late. “Artists are at the epicenter of a vibrant economy that is reeling from the same effects affecting every other industry,” says Yosi Sargent of the NEA.

In the past few months, many established arts groups have folded, with many more on the skids. The Master Chorale of Washington performed its final concert on May 17 after 43 years. The Baltimore Opera went bankrupt after a six-decade run. The Las Vegas Art Museum shuttered in late February after 59 years. And the Milwaukee Shakespeare Theatre Company disbanded last October after nine years. “Shocking” is how former marketing director Kristin Godfrey described her reaction when she learned the troupe had to be shut down. As a result of plummeting investments at the Argosy Foundation — which sponsored two-thirds of the company’s operating budget — the annual contribution became an impossible check to write. Six weeks was all it took, Godfrey says, from the announcement that their main donor was pulling out to the company’s final curtain call.

Survival is now the goal. With low endowments, even lower budgets, a lack of contributions and middling ticket sales, arts organizations from puppet theaters to tap-dance troupes are pruning their operations. In the past year, the Ohio Arts Council announced a series of three budget cuts.

“As we saw the economic conditions deteriorating, it became clear to us that we were going to really have to pull in the rein on our expenses,” says Ulsh. OBT reluctantly scrapped its live orchestra and a few of its dancers — remaining ballerinas will now pirouette to recorded tunes. “We want to preserve the artistic integrity,” says Ulsh. “At the end of the day, what we’re putting on the stage defines who we are.”

Cutting back is never simple. It takes arts organizations years to build quality programming, garner prestige and assemble and cultivate talent. Firing a violinist or two can be a staggering loss to the team. “You’re looking at tough sacrifices,” says Jack Fishman of layoffs, a spokesperson for the San Antonio Symphony. Its operating budget suffered a five-year setback, from a $6.6 million budget to $5.1 million. The solution The symphony’s 72 musicians agreed to swallow a 16% pay cut.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra has endured a 19% endowment drop, from $229 million last June to $185 million for this May. It’s been about six years since Chicago’s endowment has sunk so low, according to the orchestra’s president, Deborah Rutter. But ticket revenues were actually higher this year compared to last. Though advance sales for the coming season are down 4%, Rutter is optimistic. The Chicago Symphony is among the lucky few that have yet to toy with thoughts of closing.

Help from Washington will go only so far, so local community support might be the arts’ best bet. As the biannual 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Morristown, N.J. — which typically draws some 20,000 poets from around the globe — nears extinction, its surrounding community has surfaced to offer support. Dodge Foundation CEO David Grant’s appeals seem to be working, and if this continues, the four-day gathering may return.

And that’s how OBT made it through. Ulsh pulled together a one-night gala event, Dance United, which raised the $850,000 that the company was starved for. Now armed with some extra dollars going into the 2009-10 season, Portland’s ballerinas may be able to dance away the recession. Artistic director Christopher Stowell called moving forward an “incredible gift.”

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