For many, it's art of survival

Cultural organizations across region cut back on offerings

By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2009
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Tubby the Tuba will have to wait to toot his horn in better times.

The MetroWest Symphony Orchestra had hoped to perform the cheerful musical story at its annual family concert in March. But with donations down dramatically in recent months, the Hopkinton community ensemble decided it could not afford the $400 fee for the Tubby score, or the fees for other works on the program.

Like other area arts organizations facing declining ticket sales and donations amid the weakened economy, the MetroWest Symphony is making do - for now. For its March concert, the ensemble will instead play pieces it already owns the rights to, or borrow works from other orchestras. The programs will be downgraded from color printing to black and white. Rehearsals will be reduced. What happens beyond March, however, is unclear.

"If we don't find funding soon, the consequences for us could be dire. We can't survive just on ticket sales. Not even the Boston Symphony Orchestra survives solely on ticket sales," said MetroWest's fund-raising chairman, Joseph Strazzulla.

Across the area, many arts and cultural organizations report that large individual donors who have lost money in the financial markets are cutting back contributions. Corporations and businesses hurt by the downturn have reduced some sponsorships as well. Meanwhile, the outlook for state and local funding for the arts is uncertain, and many groups expect private foundations with foundering endowments to reduce their grants.

But few arts organizations generate enough income to completely underwrite their operations on their own. And so with sources of support shrinking, a wave of cost cutting has taken hold among area theaters, museums, concert venues, and or chestras - whether they have been hurt directly by the downturn or not.

"Thrift is the new normal," said Dennis Kois, director of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln.

One of the bright spots, DeCordova is faring well. Contributions by smaller donors have recently decreased, but larger donors stepped up to cover the difference. Nonetheless, DeCordova is looking to trim expenses.

"We are trying to make sure we make the best use of funds we have, but are not looking at anything severe like staff cuts," said Kois.

Harder-hit organizations are resorting to deeper cuts. Some are forgoing or delaying paychecks and altering programming to stay afloat. Those encountering a more modest drop-off in support are instituting such cost-saving measures as switching from print to Internet mailings or turning down the heat.

"Things will get better. If we can just make it through the next six months we'll be fine," said Paul Surapine, founder and conductor of the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra in Milford. "But it is getting pretty scary when it gets to the end of the month."

Already smarting from the cancellation of a $50,000 state grant during October budget cuts, Claflin suffered a significant drop in ticket sales and donations in recent months. The decline has forced the professional orchestra, which relies on donations for 85 percent of its budget, to revamp its current season. The orchestra's series of free summer concerts, its July Fourth Pops concert, and mentoring programs for such ensembles as the Metrowest Youth Symphony Orchestra are also at risk.

"People are not going out. They're afraid to spend money on anything recreational. Donors are cutting back. Businesses are giving less," said Surapine. "But we've had nothing but support from our musicians. When they heard about our situation, many offered to perform at a benefit for free."

In an emergency move, Surapine canceled the full orchestra concert planned for Jan. 31, which would have cost $25,000. A chamber music evening featuring only his principal musicians will replace it. All will donate their time, allowing the proceeds to go to shoring up Claflin's finances.

In Newton, Letitia Stevens, executive director and sole staffer of the Newton Symphony Orchestra, has declined a paycheck for two months to help the ensemble through choppy waters. As elsewhere, donations, season subscriptions, and ticket sales are down.

"It's always a struggle, but now it's become more acute," said Stevens. "Not only are donations more difficult to come by, it's getting harder to recruit board members because of the greater financial responsibility implied."

The orchestra is holding cost-cutting meetings and ramping up marketing and partnership efforts in response. To start, the organization hopes to join with the All Newton Music School to make concerts more inviting to students and their families.

Music venues of all sizes are tightening their belts as well. The Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham and Circle of Friends Coffeehouse in Franklin report a 20 percent drop in fall and winter ticket sales.

"What we're also seeing is that people are waiting longer to buy tickets," said Circle of Friends volunteer organizer Jake Jacobson. "It's understandable because people are afraid of losing their jobs."

For Circle of Friends, a small, well-respected, volunteer-run operation that does not rely on donations, the consequences are manageable. Equipment purchases are being put on hold.

At Amazing Things, renovations may need to be slowed.

"Our concerts are breaking even and membership is growing, but our private donors are hurting. We just lost a pretty major gift because the donor took such a hit in the market," said founder and executive director Michael Moran.

The three-year-old arts organization, which programs roughly 350 events per year with a paid staff of 1 1/2, is conducting a $500,000 capital fund-raising campaign. The money is earmarked for completing renovations to its new headquarters, a former firehouse in downtown Framingham that Amazing Things opened in 2007.

"We can ride this out. We already run lean, but I'll take a pay cut if I have to," said Moran. "In these times, we also have to look for ancillary income. We're hoping for a major state grant and we're increasing space rentals. We also need to get out the message that people need to think local for their entertainment, but a little less local than their TV."

Ticket sales at the Center for Arts in Natick, one of the area's premier concert and arts venues, have held steady. But donations began weakening in the fall.

"Contributions account for 40 percent of our operating budget. So, we're taking a very hard look at our expenses," said executive director David Lavalley, noting that the downtown arts center is carrying $700,000 in renovation debt that they are only able to service with donations.

"This is serious for us," said Lavalley. "I'm optimistic, though. People love TCAN, and I don't think the local residents can imagine a downtown without a thriving arts center. The challenge is to translate that support into donations."

The Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham bucked trends with a successful annual fund-raising campaign in the final months of last year. Executive director Katherine French attributes the success to a sincere appeal to donors to remember the importance of the arts in difficult times.

"It seemed to resonate with people," said French. "We did have some larger donors say they still believe in us but were terribly sorry to have to give less. But we also saw an increase of smaller donors. We had many artists who are not terribly well off donating $25 and $50."

Like the DeCordova and the New Art Center in Newton, the Danforth has experienced only minor repercussions from the recession. Although sales of art and gift shop items are down, registrations for art classes are up at all three museums. When informally polled by the museum, Danforth patrons explained the classes replaced more expensive outlays like vacations. Nonetheless, all three organizations are combing through their budgets for savings.

As a first step, the Danforth is "going green" with its announcements and mailings, French said, with the switch to e-mail expected to save the museum thousands in printing and postage costs.

Printing is also on the chopping block at Newton's Turtle Lane Playhouse. After recently obtaining nonprofit status, the theater is on track for fund-raising, ticket sales, and workshop fees, but organizers remain cautious.

"We've always tried to live within our means, but not knowing what's coming, we're making an extra effort now. I'm always turning down the heat," said general manager Robin Chamberlain. "The Internet is also turning out to be a blessing to little places like us. We can get the word out much more cheaply than printing that way."

Budget concerns are filtering into artistic decisions at Turtle Lane and other area theaters. Directors are looking for shows with smaller casts and less expensive costumes and sets.

"We will absolutely not be doing 'Hello Dolly' with a cast of 50 this year," Chamberlain said.

The directors of both Waltham's Reagle Players and the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown echoed the intent to reduce production expenses.

"Everyone is looking at downsizing," said Rick Lombardo, the New Rep's outgoing artistic director. "These are scary times. I'm fearful that organizations that are most exposed, and that have just been getting by, will have to close their doors. But we're theater people. There's always as sense that we'll find a way."

"I'm very aware of the climate and we have been affected," said Reagle Players founder and artistic director Robert Eagle. "But out of this abyss, some good things can happen.

"When I was teaching I went through the horrible cuts made at the schools in the '80s, but the people left really began to pull together and made things work."

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