Stage & Dance

Arts groups brace for economic slump

In Central Kentucky, most people have to drive, so they have to buy gas. But they don't necessarily have to go to, say, the theater, and Bluegrass-area arts and entertainment presenters worry about what the current economic travails will mean.

”I cannot give a definitive answer,“ says Carl Hall, general manager of Rupp Arena. ”But any time your discretionary income decreases, it's not good for our business.“

Richard St. Peter, artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington, says, ”President Bush and guys on Wall Street can say whatever they want about us not being in a recession. But none of us have ever paid this much for gas, and it has an impact.“

The price of gas, which at press time was hovering just under $4 for a gallon of regular in Central Kentucky, is what arts administrators return to in discussing the economy's potential impact. That includes the effect of gas prices on travel, which audiences and artists alike must do to get to the theater, and the ripple effects that higher gas prices can have on household budgets, corporate philanthropy and ticket prices.

Most groups say they haven't seen an impact yet, mainly because gas prices spiked after most presenters had wrapped up their seasons.

Right now, says Larry Snipes, director of Lexington Children's Theatre, his theater is doing well, having just concluded a strong season. But questions linger, among them whether schools will cut field trips out of their budgets, decreasing the audience for school-day performances, which are a significant portion of the theater's revenue.

Hall says Rupp Arena's first real economic test could be performances by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in September because the tickets will be the first to go on sale after people have lived with the current economic climate for a while.

For many arts groups that run September-to-May seasons, the main selling point now is season tickets. No administrators interviewed for this story reported a decline in ticket sales from this time last year.

Summer arts groups worry that people might not be able to swing a ticket or the gas to see their shows, but they also see potential benefits.

Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg, which usually draws 52 percent of its audience from 50 miles away or farther, is using the advertising slogan, ”There's no place like home.“

The theater, which is presenting The Wizard of Oz, is targeting locals who might forgo an expensive trip to the beach this summer and are looking for something fun close to home.

”We have people come from all over the country to see us,“ says Martin Childers, executive director of the theater. ”So what we're saying to people close to us, who maybe don't know about us, is, "Why don't you come?'“

Lexington's SummerFest, which will present three stage shows in the Arboretum on Alumni Drive, is offering a festival pass for $25 for adults, as opposed to $10 for each performance, in hopes of attracting ”staycationers.“

"Fairly impervious'

Presenters will always say that tickets do not cover all the costs of putting on a show. Not-for-profit groups in particular rely on private and public donations.

In its recent fund-raising drive, LexArts, the United Arts Fund in Lexington, raised almost $1.2 million, exceeding its goal by more than $30,000.

LexArts president and CEO Jim Clark says the Lexington area is ”fairly impervious“ to the economic downturn ”because of the ­European and Saudi influence within the horse industry“ and growth at high-end employers, including the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

On the flip side, Kentucky Arts Council executive director Lori Meadows laments that recent cuts to the state budget have sliced into her funds, so the arts council will have to pass the pain on to organizations and artists it supports.

Some groups already are seeing cracks in their donor bases. Lexington Art League executive director Allison Kaiser says donors in the $50-to-$600 range have been scaling back contributions, although that has been counterbalanced by increased giving at higher levels.

Actors Guild's St. Peter says that late in the season, three donors whom he declined to name had to reduce or renege on their pledges, resulting in a total loss of $20,000 — 5 percent of the annual budget of $420,000.

St. Peter says much of the loss was recovered by the theater's first-ever fund-raising event, in late April. Still, that money had been planned for other things.

Touring groups get hit hard

That brings us to the other side of the ledger. As income flattens or declines, costs are rising.

This particularly hits entities, including Rupp Arena and Lexington Opera House, that present touring artists.

LuAnn Franklin, general manager of the opera house, says she has had discussions ”we wouldn't have had five years ago“ with touring companies about fuel costs.

Rupp's Hall cites as an example the Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood concert that played Rupp on April 26. The tour traveled in 22 tractor-trailers and 14 buses.

”When you figure those vehicles get about 8 miles a gallon, and they run on diesel fuel, which we'll just round up to $5 a gallon,“ Hall says, a major act can pay $25 a mile, ­possibly even more.

He says those costs can't be passed on to the ticket buyer, so show-goers probably will see scaled-back productions, because a lot of those trucks are hauling rigging for light shows and other stage spectacles that are not core features of a concert.

”What you'll probably see is more talent-based tours and less of a show,“ Hall says.

That could extend to local companies, where audiences might see more of a minimalist, Our Town aesthetic. St. Peter says that Actors Guild passed a ”zero-growth budget“ for the next fiscal year and that if additional cuts are required, they probably will be made in the productions.

Trimming costs

Some companies are scaling back already, but Lexington Ballet artistic director Luis Dominguez says he is trying to lock in plane fare and some other costs for guest artists next season before they spiral out of reach.

”Pretty soon, a flight to New York is going to be $600, and we can't do that,“ Dominguez says.

The Lexington Ballet's school, which has about 140 students, has distributed lists of students who live near one another to encourage car-pooling, particularly for students who live outside Fayette County.

Childers, of Jenny Wiley Theatre, says he is primarily concerned about teens who participate in the stage choruses and drive more than an hour to get to Prestonsburg. He also is allowing some employees, such as costume designers, who aren't housed near the theater in Jenny Wiley State Park, to work at home when possible.

Neither Dominguez nor Snipes, of Lexington ­Children's Theatre, has seen a decline in enrollments for their classes.

Kaiser, of the art league, says she has started hearing from artists who can't afford to ship works that have been accepted into exhibits

”This is the first time I have ever heard that,“ she says.

Kaiser says the art league has seen a decrease in artwork sales. ”I think folks are very insecure about what is happening,“ he says. ”Even if their circumstances are stable, they are practicing more frugality. They're staying closer to home and looking for ways to cut costs.“

In essence, with the cloudy economy, artists and presenters are like everyone else.