The Economy and the Arts

A Hard Times Survival Guide

Just how is the New Depression affecting the Northwest arts scene? ArtsFund’s recent State of the Arts survey of eighty-one local groups puts some hard numbers on hard times. Most major regional groups are cutting expenses and spiking expansion plans.

Of the surveyed groups, 40 percent are scaling back programs. A fourth of respondents have lost over 10 percent of their regular audience (measured by subscriptions or memberships), and a fourth plan layoffs. Seventeen out of forty-nine are dreaming up cost-sharing plans with other groups. Three groups have merger plans. About three-fourths expect declines in corporate giving. The other one-fourth don’t expect corporate giving will decline (and they are crazy, or ignoring a fact they can’t bear to see).

Illustration by Andrew Saeger for City Arts

“Corporate and foundation giving will be less,” says ACT managing director Carlo Scandiuzzi. “Boeing is no longer going to support seasons, underwriting shows or seasons.” Instead, says Scandiuzzi, they’ll back projects aimed at building new, diverse audiences. “They’re trying to be more proactive, rather than give you money for The Nutcracker.”

Not everybody’s sales are in the tank. Success stories can be found at either end of the spectrum: titanic Seattle Opera and Annex Theatre are going great guns.
“What reality am I living in?” marvels Ed Hawkins, the Opera’s promotions manager and board president at the fringe-theatre capital the Annex. “I go to one meeting, we made sales goal for Pearl Fishers with four shows to go. Then I go to the Annex, and we’re in the black.”

Annex is like a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust: too small, tough and resourceful to die. “Managing director Stephen McCandless is incredibly cynical and cautious,” says Hawkins. Annex barely heats the theatre and profits by renting space to other fringe groups on short notice.

Seattle opera general director Speight Jenkins says the opera benefits from having already survived hard times. “We were in real trouble in the early ’90s — a big deficit. I swore if we ever got outta this we’d never owe anybody a dime.” Despite ravenous ticket demand, Jenkins plays a conservative game. “Everything can crash down around us. I just had a meeting that’s kinda grim. The day the market went down, I made some changes. The Marriage of Figaro in May — now it’s a rented production. I made some changes in 2010. Are we having trouble with corporate giving? Of course. Are we having trouble with donations? Of course. But Seattle has more grassroots giving, more by small donors, than any other opera in the country.”

Ultimately, it all depends on canny marketing and the obsessions of the arts consumers. Jenkins takes the long-term view you might wish your stockbroker had.

“The opera does subscription campaigns ten times a year, not in waves of effort [like other groups],” says Hawkins. “This is a Ring year; that typically sells out up to a year in advance. Opera fans are like Trekkies. If they have to eat ramen every year, they’re gonna go. There’s a level of übergeekdom with the Ringheads — you feel like you’re at a Society for Creative Anachronism convention.”

“Opera is a passion brand,” agrees Intiman Theatre’s new managing director, Brian Colburn, a breath of fresh air who’s fresh from doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the Pasadena Playhouse. He came here because of Intiman’s stunningly successful $5 million Dramatically Different fundraising effort, a deficit shrunk from $2.1 million to $1.6 million, a season that finished “incredibly higher than previous seasons,” and the connection with Bart Sher, the hottest director on earth. Says Colburn, “We had nowhere to go but up.” They’d better keep going: except for Dramatically Different, giving has dropped 10 to 20 percent. In this economy, success is no guarantee of survival.

In coming months, City Arts’ Hard Times Survival Guide will offer more tales of impending doom and imaginative tips for winning the Darwinian arts war ahead. So far, the winner to beat is Goldendale’s Maryhill Museum, now building fifteen wind turbines on its property. “The profits are equivalent to having a $2 million endowment, tripling our $1 million endowment,” says director Colleen Schafroth. Arts groups, your choice is clear: think outside the box — or soon you’ll be in a pine box. •