On the importance of riding the curve

It’s about more than just the economy …

David A. Brensilver

On St. Patrick’s Day, representatives from eight small cultural organizations gathered in the conference room at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven to discuss the greening of the arts in the Elm City — that is, how they are faring and adapting to the current economic climate.

In attendance were representatives from the Arts Council, Artspace, Collective Consciousness Theatre, Elm Shakespeare Company, Music Haven, New Haven Folk, New Haven Oratorio Choir and Orchestra, and Orchestra New England.

The spirit of the meeting was decidedly optimistic. Organizational and cross-sector collaborations, marketing strategies and resource sharing were discussed once fiscal woes were aired and shared. The Arts Council-hosted happy-hour conversation was much more a brainstorming session than it was a collective lament. This was not a woe-is-us, group-hug sort of get-together, but, rather, a forum on looking, and moving, forward. This was representatives from eight institutions looking into a mirror and asking: Is my organization relevant?

Several local arts administrators recently shared their thoughts on the arts and the economy, a topic that has been as unavoidable in these circles as bailouts and bonuses have been in others. It is a painful, reactionary time for many. After all, no one forecasted just how pronounced the economic downturn would be. And many are at the whim of others’ whose purse strings have been pulled tighter.

Leslie Shaffer, executive director of Artspace, said in an interview after the Arts Council gathering that her organization has been feeling the pinch of the economy for about a year. Artspace relies heavily on foundation and some corporate support, as well as state and federal support, all of which, Shaffer said, has diminished. Over the past six months, one staff position has been eliminated and remaining staff members have accepted reduced hours and pay cuts instead of seeing another position eliminated, and the budget has been reduced by 25 percent.

“What’s hurting the most are the creative things people see,” Shaffer said, pointing out that what comes off the top are non-fixed expenses.

With the glass inarguably half empty, is it possible to focus on new ways to fill it? In some voices one hears fear. Others sound determined to figure it out. After all, there is no other choice.

It should be said that a sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing. Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations cannot simply expect to exist because they currently exist.

Mary Lou Aleskie is executive director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, an organization whose $1 million line-item in the state budget is eliminated over two years in Gov. M. Jodi’s Rell’s proposal. Like the Arts Council, whose $125,000 line-item in the state budget would also be eliminated over two years — first halved, then zeroed out — the festival would be eligible to apply and compete for state grant funding. Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s budget “would seriously impact” festival programming, Aleskie said, as state funding is what makes the heart and soul of the festival possible, the heart and soul being “free programming that engages people broadly.”

Still, Aleskie sees the glass half full.

“There is a committed understanding of the value of arts and culture, in particular the festival,” she said with regard to legislators in Hartford.

Aleskie is not at all consumed with fear in the face of the current economy. Yes, there are serious issues that require attention in the short term. Looking to the future and thinking long-term though, she’s hopeful. And she’s frank.

“Anyone who thinks that hanging on to what they know today as a way to survive should be voted off the island,” she said.

She’s talking, of course, about being able to adapt and staying relevant. Aleskie said she’s tired of hearing about “sustainability, as if that should be a goal. I’m not interested in it. I’m really not.”

John Fisher, vice president and executive director of the Shubert Theater, knows his organization, too, has to adapt to the times, and is aggressively pursuing the development of younger audiences. The Shubert’s Red Carpet Club for Young Professionals, for example, offers a wealth of member benefits for $150 annually.

(Of course, audience diversification is something arts and cultural organizations have been talking about for years.)

For Fisher, whose organization is “down 15 to 20 percent in general” in terms of ticket sales and contributed revenue, audience development has been an area of focus for the last five years. And that focus has intensified in the face of the economic crisis. Fisher said his organization is working with area schools with an eye on developing audiences for the future, and is tapping into the concert market, booking acts such as Ryan Adams Ben Folds, k.d. lang and John Prine to attract the 20s demographic.

Fisher also talked about selling tickets at a discount, something his organization is doing more of than it used to.

This is an area that needs to be approached carefully. Fisher said one doesn’t want to send a message that his or her organization is discounting all the time. He believes discounting in the retail sector may lead to people expecting discounts. Sales do go up when the Shubert does promotions and discounts tickets, Fisher said. The challenge is to put more people in seats without forfeiting income.

There is another balance to strike, as well: the balance between accessibility and devaluation.

Jamie Gilpatrick, general manager at Long Wharf Theatre, said his organization’s income is 50 percent earned (through ticket sales) and 50 percent contributed. Ticket sales, he said, are on track. The organization did well selling subscription packages before the economy went south.

“It’s clear that this community wants and needs theater,” Gilpatrick said, pointing out that culture and entertainment have played important roles during down economies.

Even so, the Long Wharf Theatre is not immune to the fiscal crisis. Contributions have diminished and the organization’s endowment earnings are down about 25 percent. So the theater, more than ever, is looking to its donors for support.

Gilpatrick said Long Wharf Theatre is doing a lot of analysis and reassessment, and is aware of the importance of being appropriately realistic about future revenues. He echoed Aleskie’s sentiment about sustainability, saying there’s been a lot of talk in the industry about the nonprofit model being broken, that the goal has been to break even.

“I think that’s what’s broken,” Gilpatrick said.

Projecting that contributions to the Long Wharf Theatre will be down by 15 percent, Gilpatrick said the organization has to raise a lot of money by the end of its fiscal year, June 30, to meet that number.

“We have a big challenge in front of us,” he said, a challenge that’s bigger than the moment.

“(You) can’t rely on (the) history of what your organization can do in a good economy,” Gilpatrick said.

If the nonprofit model is broken, and history is an unreliable guide, perhaps service-oriented arts and cultural organizations especially should be asking what they can do for their constituents, instead of telling their constituents what’s being offered them.

Lawrence Zukof, executive director of Neighborhood Music School, echoed some of Gilpatrick’s remarks, saying, “People come to this place, they need it more than ever.”

Recently, Zukof offered free music, dance and drama classes to employees of local social-service agencies. He was hopeful they’d see the value of the classes and tell their friends. It was an altruistic gesture that could generate some free marketing.

Neighborhood Music School’s income is 80 percent tuition based, 20 percent contributed. For the first time, Zukof has seen a decline in enrollment (the school serves 2,500 to 3,000 students each year), and, along with declines in contributed revenue and grant funding, is facing a budget deficit. Zukof said there have been some salary reductions, that retirement contributions “will likely be suspended,” and that there could be some staff cuts.

Organizations, Zukof said, may want to consider aligning with other institutions and look for ways to partner and share resources — not a wholly original idea but nonetheless a vitally important one. He said, for example, that he’s been in touch with administrators at Creative Arts Workshop about the possibility of implementing some cost-sharing measures.

Arts and cultural organizations, large and small, must be able to adapt and ride the curve, not react when they find themselves behind it. That’s not to say organizations should or will be able to insulate themselves from economic crises. But knowing what they know now, arts and cultural institutions should look to other sectors for guidance in terms of what to do and what not to do.

The recording industry has changed dramatically to keep up with technological advances. The newspaper industry, on the other hand, has reacted, and, in Aleskie’s words, realized way too late in the game that their value was in the intellectual capital of their journalists, not in their printing presses.

Aleskie talked about Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, who has “started to think outside the confines of his industry.”

The Met’s live high-definition simulcasts are a pioneering initiative. The Met also offers subscriptions for those who want to watch world-class productions online, as well as live and recorded performances on Sirius Satellite Radio.

“If you are living in cataclysmically changing times,” Aleskie said, to do the same thing you’ve been doing is “a sure-fire ticket to extinction.”

It would be, by Einstein’s definition, insane.

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