Recession is bitter music for performing arts

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) In the span of a month, an opera company with which Wolf played for 19 years abruptly shut down and another orchestra slashed concerts to stay afloat.

"I'm actually practicing like a maniac to take auditions," says Wolf, who has seen her income drop by at least one-third. "It's very frightening, and I'm even looking into doing something else because I'm not quite sure how I'm going to make it."

Wolf isn't alone. Performers are scrambling across the nation, as symphonies, operas, theaters and ballet troupes struggle under the weight of shriveling donations, plummeting ticket sales and sagging endowments decimated by Wall Street.

From Baltimore to Detroit to Pasadena, venerable performing arts institutions are laying off performers, cutting programming, canceling seasons and doing without new sets and live music. Some are closing down completely.

Those on the brink face the difficult task of soliciting money from loyal donors who might be facing bankruptcy or unemployment themselves.

"You can't expect people to do something that they're not able to do," David DiChiera, general director of Michigan Opera Theater and the Detroit Opera House, says. "We're really functioning within a tsunami of economic and financial disasters, and we're just doing everything we have to do to get through."

Those working feverishly to keep the arts alive point to a 2007 study that found nonprofit arts groups and their audiences generate $166 billion in economic activity each year and support nearly 6 million jobs.

The report by the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts found those institutions get half their money from ticket sales, 40 percent from donations and 10 percent from government -- all of which have taken big hits during the economic downturn.

Bob Lynch, the group's president and CEO, says about 10,000 arts organizations nationwide -- about 10 percent of the total -- have shut down or stand on the verge of collapse.

"It's the worst I've seen it," Lynch says. "They're desperate. In every state, we're seeing some organizations going under."

Many in the arts, too, believe the crunch is only the beginning, since many organizations are still operating on budgets that include sales and donations from the last spring and summer, when times were better.

With that in mind, leaders of national arts organizations have been lobbying the Obama administration and Congress for $1 billion of the federal bailout money and the creation of a White House arts czar.

"The president is talking about creating and retaining billions of jobs -- and thousands of those jobs are arts jobs," Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, says. "Those programs will disappear if we have to endure the current situation without some assistance."

Some groups are trying to educate nonprofits about staying afloat. The New York-based League of American Orchestras has created a 45-minute Web seminar on money management for its members and held a recent conference on financial planning and fundraising strategies.

Such assistance may come too late for some organizations.

The Michigan Opera Theater, in its 38th season, has a deficit of about $600,000 because of declining donations from Detroit's Big Three automakers, DiChiera said. The opera is also having difficulty securing a credit line and has huge mortgage payments on its opera house, parking structure and related retail space.

DiChiera has canceled a production, laid off some employees, cut others to part-time and postponed plans to build an endowment fund. He prays every day that another major corporate sponsor won't announce bankruptcy or layoffs.

"You don't know they're coming until they suddenly appear on your doorstep in the paper," he says. "It's a very volatile situation."

Lagging ticket sales and deepening budget problems have forced the Sacramento Ballet to cancel the rest of its season. Ballet companies in Cincinnati, Miami and Madison, Wis., have also had to cancel shows or make other cutbacks in recent weeks. The Utah Shakespearean Festival has cut more than $700,000 from its 2009 budget, including three of the festival's 25 full-time employees.

In Sacramento, the canceled season came after a lackluster holiday season that forced the ballet to sell tickets to "The Nutcracker Suite" for $10 -- one-fifth the usual cost.

"We've tried to examine every nickel we're spending and why we're spending it," artistic director Ron Cunningham says. "You can't buy a pencil unless you ask first."

Meanwhile, Opera Pacific, in Santa Ana, Calif., ended four decades of performances when it abruptly shut down last November. The Baltimore Opera Company has also declared bankruptcy and canceled performances, and the Santa Clarita Symphony in Santa Clarita, Calif. canceled its 2009 season.

Musicians who played for Opera Pacific were told they were out of work during intermission on the final night of "The Barber of Seville." Then they played the second half.

"There were some people in tears," Jeanne Skrocki, former concert master for the opera's orchestra, says. "It's kind of what we do -- the show must go on and it does -- but it was difficult to say the least."

The departure of the opera left a $400,000 revenue hole in the budget of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which rented space to the company, says Terrence Dwyer, president of the center.

Officials at Opera Pacific did not return phone calls for comment.

The Orchestras of Pasadena abruptly canceled a November concert and a winter pops series after assessing its finances late last year. Half the staff has been laid off. The 81-year-old institution still owes nearly $1 million to its vendors and stayed afloat at the end of last year through personal checks written by board members, says Paul Jan Zdunek, who was recently recruited for his expertise in turning around struggling orchestras.

"You don't spend more than you make. You don't do that personally, but we did it as an organization," he says. "When the economy happened, it just sent us over the edge."

Unlike the orchestra in Pasadena, performers at the Texas Ballet Theater saw bad times coming early last year and tightened their point shoes. The troupe's 37 dancers raised funds to pay off $2 million in debt and decided to save $400,000 annually by using prerecorded music instead of a live orchestra, says Margo McCann, the ballet's interim managing director.

The company, which performs in Dallas and Fort Worth, hasn't had to make any major adjustments since, she says, but may scale back performances if ticket sales lag this spring.

McCann and others remain optimistic that despite the hardships, the recession will ultimately make the fine arts more resilient. Those that survive will have proven their value to their communities and learned tough lessons about responsible budgeting, she says.

That's a survival-of-the-fittest logic that appeals to Pasadena POPS director Rachael Worby, who recently saw her winter concert series canceled.

"The more depressed, as a whole, a nation or a people are, the more important it is to keep the lively arts alive," Worby says. "I think ultimately they're the source of what can make you sure that life, in fact, is worth living."


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