Last fall, when Congress was grappling with the first of several bank bailouts, Buckhead art dealer Alan Avery came to appreciate that the current recession is different from others he’s faced in his 27 years in business.
“There have been weeks when I didn’t have a single person come into the gallery,” says Avery, who represents such well-known artists as Chuck Close and David Hockney. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that happen.”
Sydney Ellis, director of marketing for 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points, is also familiar with that sinking feeling.
“We opened our first show last fall on the same day there was no gas in Atlanta,” she recalls. “That seemed to set the tone for the entire season.”
Kim Patrick Bitz, founding executive director of the Atlanta Coalition of Performing Arts, recently decided to launch a 25th anniversary e-mail fundraising campaign for his organization, which operates the AtlanTIX half-price ticket booth.
In its first three weeks, the campaign collected just $380.
“We’d expected a few thousand,” says a stunned Bitz.
Nearly every member of the Atlanta arts community has a similar anecdote illustrating when the impact of a slumping economy made itself felt. If Flora Maria Garcia looks worried, it’s because she’s heard most of them.
Garcia is CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition, a publicly supported entity whose mission is to advocate for better funding and recognition for local arts organizations and increased public awareness of cultural offerings.
Last fall, when Garcia first began hearing horror stories, she quickly surveyed every arts group on MAACC’s mailing list. The results were dismal.
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and never seen it this bad,” says Garcia, who came to Atlanta a year ago from Dallas.
Of the 159 groups that responded to the survey, nearly 60 percent reported a decline in revenue over the previous 12 months. More than half reported lower ticket sales. More than a quarter of the respondents said they had been forced to cut programming to save money, and nearly 40 percent said they expected to end the year in the red.
That was in November. MAACC is now compiling the results from its latest survey, and the news appears to be even worse than before.
“Over the next year, I predict we’ll see a number of organizations fold,” says Garcia. “We’ve got 450 organizations in the metro area. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”
Almost on a daily basis, she says, Atlanta wakes up to a fresh indicator of the hard times to come. Here’s a partial list:
The Atlanta Ballet opened its season in October with Swan Lake. Ticket sales for the world’s most famous ballet ran 30 percent lower than expected.
In December, Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars canceled a planned production of the Broadway musical Tarzan after reportedly losing $500,000 on previous shows, and announced it will cut its 2009 budget by as much as half.
In late February, the High Museum announced a series of pay cuts, layoffs and staff furloughs. The next day, the Alliance Theatre was forced to cancel a Stephen Sondheim revue after its New York-based backers failed to raise funding.
Earlier this month, Georgia Shakespeare canceled the annual Shake at the Lake in Piedmont Park because the company couldn’t afford to stage the free production.
Just in the past week, the Shakespeare Tavern announced that financial constraints have forced the cancellation and replacement of A Little Night Music, which calls for a cast of 10 actors, with The Mystery of Irma Vep, a two-person show.
The past year also saw the closing of the Jewish Theatre of the South in Dunwoody, Neighborhood Playhouse in Decatur, and Theatre Gael in Midtown.
All of this can make it sound as if the crisis in the arts is simply an issue of box-office interruptus or a falloff in consumer spending. The real problem is much larger and more dire, Garcia says.
“Corporate giving is down, private foundations have seen the value of their endowments fall nearly 40 percent, and individuals are holding onto their money and not going out as often,” she says. “Across the board, every revenue stream for arts organizations is being hurt by the economy.”
That goes also for government funding, which is typically one of the first legs of the financial stool to be kicked out from under nonprofits. Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which handed out $565,000 in grants this past year, has trimmed funding to $465,000 for the year to come. The city has cut all funding for the 31-year-old Atlanta Jazz Festival, which had to fall back on private sponsorships. Organizers of the Memorial Day event say the festival’s survival will depend on this year’s concessions income.
Funding from the Fulton County Arts Council dropped less significantly over the past year, from $2.7 million to $2.5 million, but Susan Weiner, executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts, says state funding is falling.
“I know I’m going to be cut more than 10 percent this year,” says Weiner, whose agency recently completed its own survey of arts groups across the state.
“The results were devastating,” she says. “We’re looking at a growing crisis.”
The Georgia Council for the Arts is expecting a cash infusion of about $300,000 from the federal stimulus package, but that money will be spread across the state and likely will have little impact in metro Atlanta. The only locally based granting organization that hasn’t cut its awards budget is the private Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, which will soon dole out $500,000 — the same amount as last year — to a handful of lucky arts groups. But the good news is likely temporary.
Support from endowment-based organizations like the Metro Arts Fund will be the next shoe to drop, explains Karen Beavor, CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.
“Private foundation giving is still strong right now because they budget on a two-year cycle,” she says. “It’s not going to be that way next year.”
In other words, arts groups now being buoyed by private grants should brace themselves for when that money dries up as well.
The economic crisis, of course, isn’t being felt only by nonprofits. Last month, Fay Gold, the grand dame of Atlanta art dealers, surprised many in the arts scene when she announced she would be closing her gallery after nearly 29 years.
Gold, who has represented Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other art world luminaries, says she will remain a private dealer with a “virtual gallery.” She had already been considering scaling back operations, but the sour economy has forced the timing.
“Our sales can’t support our overhead,” she says. “It’s hard to sit out a recession in an 8,000-square-foot gallery with five employees, and I don’t think things are going to turn around any time soon.”
DEPRESSED YET? Although the recession is likely to get worse before it gets better, that doesn’t mean arts groups should throw in the towel. But it does mean an end to business as usual, says Metro Arts Fund Director Lisa Cremin.
“My greatest fear is that arts organizations are just hunkered down waiting for this to pass,” she says. “There’s a new normal, and to do nothing is death. Adaptability is key to survival.”
Perhaps more than ever before, groups are looking for lessons among the few bright spots in the arts scene. In that case, Exhibit A would be Dad’s Garage.
“Relatively speaking, things are going well, which makes me a little nervous,” says Lena Carstens, managing director for the scrappy Inman Park theater group.
Last year, when the economy began tightening and corporate bookings took a sharp decline, Dad’s froze salaries and cut a full-time position. But individual ticket sales have remained at an astonishing 95 percent of capacity. Carstens has a theory to explain her group’s good fortune: Dad’s is fun.
“If you’re able to provide entertainment for people looking to escape their problems, they’ll come,” agrees Garcia.
It shouldn’t surprise economists that Dad’s is selling more beer during intermission. Also, Dad’s is cheap, with ticket prices running an average of $10 to $15. Performing arts groups across the city are finding that audiences are increasingly looking for a deal and shunning the highest-priced seats.
Ellis, with 7 Stages, says her organization is hurrying to apply lessons learned from the realities of the economy. The theater, which has long specialized in more serious and experimental works by contemporary playwrights, lowered ticket prices but has continued to see its box office lag by 40 percent. The group just received a grant to hire a staffer to wrangle more private support, but Ellis worries that there may not be much available money out there to wrangle.
“We’re trying to find new and innovative ways to attract audiences,” Ellis says. “We have to change everything we do.”
As difficult as it is for small or mid-sized groups to change the way they do business, it’s even harder for the largest groups.
“Arts organizations are suffering commensurate to their size,” says Joe Bankoff, CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, which includes the High Museum, Alliance Theatre and Atlanta Symphony.
The ASO, for instance, must employ a certain number of musicians — union musicians, no less — to perform its repertoire. But there are other ways an orchestra can adapt to changing times. While still in its first season, the ASO’s new amphitheater in Alpharetta has been a hit with OTP audiences the symphony hadn’t been able to reach before.
Another survival imperative, Cremin tells arts organizations, is to solidify connections with core supporters.
Independent radio station WRFG-FM (89.3) used this strategy in recent weeks when it launched an intense, 10-day fund drive aimed at overcoming a potential shortfall. Station administrator Joan Baptist, one of only two paid employees among an all-volunteer staff, says the drive was a great success, netting $51,000.
That money should be enough to carry WRFG through the next couple of months, but the station, which relies almost entirely on individual donations and a few grants, needs to meet higher overhead costs that came with upgrading its signal last year.
“We figured a stronger signal would bring us more listeners, which would mean more support, but it hasn’t worked out that way yet,” Baptist says. While she was pleased with the impromptu fund drive, Baptist says she realizes the station dips into that well only so often.
Arts organizations aren’t the only ones trying to adapt to the new normal. For the first time, the Woodruff Foundation is considering giving grants for purposes other than construction projects.
“We recognize it’s not a time for an arts organization to build a new venue, so we’re thinking about what we might do to help these groups,” says foundation President Russell Hardin.
The Woodruff Center (which is not affiliated with the Woodruff Foundation) is also planning to make its proprietary electronic ticketing system available to other performing arts groups to aid smaller venues.
Other ideas are likely to be generated by MAACC’s next event, a March 16 town hall meeting titled, “Strategies for Art & Culture Organizations in the Current Economy,” with opening remarks by Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Even pulling together and pooling resources and advice won’t make the crisis go away for arts groups. The question is, who will survive?
Says Cremin: “It’s unimaginable that this community will look the same in another year or two.”
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