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Economic difficulties did not upstage some success stories

No local arts news was more riveting this year than word that the Wang Center for the Performing Arts was bouncing Boston Ballet's "The Nutcracker" out of the Wang Theatre after 35 years, to make way for the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular."

The Wang and the ballet together lit up a once-dreary Theater District with "The Nutcracker" and established it as Boston's brightest family holiday attraction -- the biggest "Nutcracker" in the world, according to the two organizations.

At this time next year, though, the dancing sugar plum fairies, magical Christmas tree, and Boston Ballet Orchestra will be gone from the Wang, replaced on the stage of Boston's largest, grandest theater by a touring holiday extravaganza starring the Rockettes.

Where the ballet's "Nutcracker" ends up is still undetermined, despite a much publicized search for a new home. What is clear, though, is that the Wang decision exposed the troubles facing both institutions -- a frailty that is mirrored in many local arts institutions struggling to raise funds and build audiences in a difficult economic climate.

The problems this year at the ballet and Wang are deeply rooted, like weeds that have grown out of control and are now threatening to strangle a neglected garden, argues Jill Medvedow, the director of the Institute for Contemporary Art. Other institutions are similarly affected, like the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the New England Aquarium, she says.

"In the absence of public support for the arts, there are no safety nets when a Boston Ballet or the aquarium or the Wang get into trouble," Medvedow observes. "Both standards and offerings are going to suffer."

"The Nutcracker" season sells out occasionally, but ticket sales have been soft since the late 1990s, for a complex of reasons --competition, price, poor visibility from the cheap seats at the Wang. Before getting the boot from the Wang, the company had already downsized its season, staff, and venues, closing off the Wang balcony during repertory performances.

Meanwhile, in part because of competition, but also because venue needs and audience tastes are changing, the long-flush Wang has lost money in each of the past two years.

With the threat of an Iraq war looming, and the economy lurching forward, cultural leaders braced themselves for bad news at the outset of 2003. They were not disappointed.

"We're dealing in an atmosphere that is more economically challenging than any in [my] 35 years [in arts management]," says American Repertory Theatre executive director Robert Orchard.

Boston Lyric Opera announced it would scale back its season from four to three productions. When war broke out, box office receipts at many theaters dropped precipitously as patrons stayed home.

Arts consumers spent their entertainment dollars more discerningly than they did during peaceful, prosperous times, and that cut into box office business late last winter and spring.

Support from public and corporate donors has continued to decline, and artists and organizations are biting their nails about the sale of Fleet, by far the most generous and innovative donor to cultural causes in Boston.

But the year was marked by more surprising successes and welcome turns of plot than groaning failures, observers point out.

A long-awaited Boston Foundation report on the comparative size, strength, and philanthropic support of cultural communities across the country showed that there are more arts organizations and activities per capita in the Boston area than in any of the regions it surveyed. What's more, individual philanthropists here support their cultural community more generously than their counterparts elsewhere.

The Peabody Essex Museum reopened in Salem with an aggressive emphasis on contemporary art, cross-disciplinary programs, and an ad campaign making fun of musty museumgoers.

Emerson College's Cutler Majestic lit up a tired block in the Theater District, a neighborhood that is bound to get bigger and brighter in 2004, when "The Lion King" inaugurates a newly renovated Opera House on Washington Street.

Attendance is strong at several places, including the Huntington Theatre Company and Opera Boston.

Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre has been packing its Sanctuary in Cambridge during its repertory shows as well as for the intimate, dance-driven "Nutcracker."

The ICA has expanded its hours, and attendance rose by more than 26 percent to 37,000 this year.

At the same time, worries that arts consumers would seek out the cultural equivalent of comfort food this year turned out to be misplaced.

Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's Opera Unlimited Festival sold out a series of contemporary operas last spring, and Opera Boston drew 22,000 people to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see its "South Pacific" in August.

This year's range of sellouts and must-see shows included everything from Tan Dun's "The Map" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Pops concerts at Symphony Hall; from the Kirov Ballet and "Children of Herakles" to "Waiting for Godot" and "Hairspray."

Audiences looking for the tried and true want it with a twist, observers say.

Organizations are showcasing "star attractions": Nathan Lane in "Butley" at the Huntington, Len Cariou in Overture Productions' "Follies in Concert," Stacy Keach in "A Christmas Carol," and Degas's painting "Duchessa di Montejasi with her Daughters" at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The MFA's highlighted Degas and Sargent exhibitions have increased attendance and interest in the museum's permanent galleries, which was the intent, says an MFA spokeswoman.

Boston audiences also have come to expect variety.

Take Broadway in Boston's lineup at the Colonial and Wilbur theaters this year, which was filled with Tony-winning Broadway hits such as "Hairspray" and "The Producers."

"But we started with `The Exonerated,' and we're ending with `Def Poetry Jam,' " points out Broadway in Boston president Tony McLean. "Meanwhile, we have six weeks of Shakespeare running at the Wilbur," where Peter Hall's "As You Like It" just closed.

"Because we've been forced to work with less money, I think there's more of an emphasis in the nonprofit world on quality, not quantity -- going a mile deep and not so wide," says Carole Charnow, general director of Opera Boston.

"In a mega society, where everything is of mind-boggling scale, audiences want something very special when they go to see a concert or exhibit," adds Mateo. "They want intimacy, they want imagination, they want smaller sizes, and something truly new."

But small is not automatically better, observers are quick to caution.

Whether a theatergoer is watching dance in an intimate studio space or Shakespeare on Boston Common or "The Nutcracker" this year at the Wang, where it is selling well, "the experience has to be unusual -- extraordinary in a certain way," says Mateo. "It's just gotta be good."

Maureen Dezell can be reached at dezell@globe.com.

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