Performing Arts Stage A ComebackOctober 24, 2010
from The Providence Journal
By Channing Gray
Journal Arts Writer
The Dow has been on the rise.
But how are the fortunes of local arts groups faring?
That question was put to the leaders of a half dozen performing arts organizations, and the responses ranged from “fragile” in one case to “spectacular” in the case of the Providence Performing Arts Center, which is gearing up to host more than 100,000 fans expected to turn out for next month’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the famed Rockettes.
All those surveyed, however, agreed on one thing: times are tough.
“It’s the most difficult market I’ve seen in my 62 years on Earth,” said PPAC president J. Lynn Singleton, despite brisk ticket sales. During the 2008-09 season, when the bottom fell out of the economy, PPAC lost about $500,000 in corporate sponsorships. Now sponsors are beginning to return, said Singleton, thanks to solid offerings. This season, he said, PPAC has two of the top family shows in the country, “Radio City” and “Lion King,” which will play the theater for a month in February.
“Sponsors want to be involved with good product,” said Singleton, “and fortunately, we’ve had good shows.”
Not all arts groups weathered the economic storm as well as PPAC. Far from it.
Both Trinity Rep and the Rhode Island Philharmonic laid off staff during the darkest days of the economic downturn in the fall of 2008 and the winter of 2009. And both groups issued across-the-board pay cuts. The staff at Trinity took a 5 percent cut, which has since been restored. Philharmonic workers took a 6 percent cut.
Trinity also trimmed $1 million from its annual budget, which is now $7.8 million.
“We’re holding our own,” said a cautious Michael Gennaro, Trinity’s executive director. “And we’re pleased about that.” But what will next season bring? he wondered. Gennaro said he doesn’t believe the theater is out of the woods yet.
“We’re past something,” he said, “but I don’t know where it’s going.”
Festival Ballet Providence is not sure whether it’s the economy or a lack of marketing that has caused the company to run an annual deficit of about $200,000. Last month, seven members of the board quit over the financial direction the company is taking. But board members who drifted away a year or two ago have returned, said interim board president Don E. Wineberg.
The company has also hired a new managing director, George Tortarolo, who has extensive marketing experience. He managed Madonna’s 2004 World Tour, said Wineberg.
Festival Ballet is hoping Tortarolo can fill seats, which is the biggest challenge facing the company — that and finding a 500-seat hall, which is about the right size for dance’s smaller audiences. That’s not going to happen any time soon, Wineberg conceded.
Wineberg said Festival Ballet is about to embark on a stabilization plan that would reduce the payroll by laying off dancers when they are not being used. And each board member and staffer has been asked to sell tickets to the company’s all-Balanchine program Nov. 6 and 7 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Wineberg said the company is also hoping to cash in on a new “Nutcracker” being designed by children’s book author Chris Van Allsburg and Tony-winning set designer Eugene Lee, which should be up and running in a year or two. If the company could sell another weekend of “Nutcracker,” that would go a long way toward making up the budget gap.
“The company continues to be fragile,” said Wineberg, “but we are working to stabilize it.”
Every local performing group that stages a Christmas show is wondering whether Rhode Islanders will blow their holiday entertainment budget on Radio City, or will there be enough money and interest left to catch “A Christmas Carol,” “Nutcracker,” or the Gamm’s “Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Gennaro said that Trinity started selling “Christmas Carol” tickets earlier than usual this year, and that the strategy has paid off. Sales are right on track.
Otherwise, subscriptions at Trinity are down slightly, but Gennaro believes the company can make up the difference by January. Contributions are about the same or a little ahead of last year, he said, thanks to a push to increase the donor base. Contributions may be smaller, but the number of contributors is getting bigger.
Gennaro said that since he and artistic director Curt Columbus have been on the job, they along with the board have taken a “rigorous approach to the business of running the theater. We’ve had to become really smart business people.”
Most arts groups have taken their biggest hit from corporations, who were reluctant to sponsor shows and contribute when they were laying off workers and cutting expenses. The Philharmonic has scrapped its annual galas, which in the past have starred the likes of violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, because corporate support is so thin.
Otherwise the Philharmonic is “faring reasonably well, given the circumstances,” said executive director David Beauchesne. “But it’s still a very difficult environment,” he said.
Beauchesne said that earned income is down 5 percent, contributed income down 19 percent, and subscriptions down 14 percent. The orchestra’s endowment is off by about 30 percent.
The orchestra is coming off a good summer, though, when it performed a Fourth of July concert at India Point Park and played to an estimated 75,000 people at WaterFire.
“A lot of orchestras are cutting programs, drastically cutting salaries and going into Chapter 11,” said Beauchesne. “We haven’t done that.”
While Gennaro is worried about what lies ahead for next season, most of those interviewed felt the worst was behind them. Singleton said he has noticed more companies buying blocks of tickets to Radio City as a holiday outing for their employees. They throw a reception after the show.
“Two years ago,” said Singleton, “Christmas parties were a nonstarter. Now people are feeling better about themselves and that things are going to get better.”
But he is still cautious about bands, which perform a single night. Singleton said he cut back on those a couple of years ago, when he noticed tickets weren’t selling. People either caught their favorite acts at the casinos, or just skipped the shows because money was tight.
“People who had seen the Steve Miller Band said, ‘Oh, we don’t have to see them again,’ ” said Singleton. “Or people who went to the casinos on Wednesday night were not going to buy a PPAC ticket Friday night.”
But PPAC has weathered the slump better than most. When the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008, PPAC had already renewed its subscriptions for the 2008-09 season. Then in 2009-10 the theater had two blockbuster shows, “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” which both played the 3,200-seat hall for a month and did close to $1 million a week in business.
Singleton said he expects the theater to return to the level of corporate sponsorship that it enjoyed in the past, but it is “just taking longer than we would like.”