Stage & Dance

With economy in shambles, this could be curtains for some arts groups

Tuesday was a bad day for the arts in Kentucky.

In Frankfort, the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet learned that it was facing deep cuts in the Kentucky Arts Council and the Governor's School for the Arts.

In Lexington, a situation was unfolding that illustrated how fragile the finances of arts groups already were.

When a winter storm closed schools across Central and Eastern Kentucky, the Lexington Children's Theatre was forced to cancel two performances at its Short Street home, two in Morehead and two by its touring company.

"We lost $10,000 in one day," Children's Theatre director Larry Snipes said of the lost revenue. "In better times, we could react to that. But now, it really makes things difficult."

Performing and visual arts groups generally run on lean budgets even in good times. The national economic crisis also is doing a number on the box office and fund-raising efforts of these modestly funded groups.

Some arts groups might not live to see better days.

"We are not built to withstand a crisis like this," said Richard St. Peter, artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington. "We start almost every year at zero, and because we don't have any assets to borrow against — we don't own our building, we don't own vehicles or anything like that — we are very dependent on the economy. We are very dependent on single-ticket sales, subscriptions and contributions."

In the past few months, Actors Guild has hired a business manager and development director to manage and seek revenue. But St. Peter wondered, "Will we have enough time for these initiatives to take hold? Time equals money equals time, and right now we don't have enough of either. And we are not alone."

Across the country, orchestras, museums, theaters, dance companies and other arts organizations have laid off staff, cut programming and reduced hours to reconcile their lean budgets with shrinking revenue.

Just this month, the Baltimore Opera filed for bankruptcy, and Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune shut down just three years after winning the Tony Award for best regional theater. The Metropolitan Opera in New York and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra are hawking cut-rate tickets to get butts in usually expensive seats, and the Cincinnati Ballet had to cut a performance of the holiday cash cow The Nutcracker because of low ticket sales. Even on Broadway, crowd-pleasers, including Gypsy and Grease, are closing.

Funding cuts everywhere

Kentucky is starting to see its own gloomy arts headlines.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson announced on Dec. 1 that already-scheduled funding for 26 of the city's arts groups would be slashed by 50 percent to cover the city's $20 million revenue shortfall. The Louisville Orchestra, for example, saw a $220,000 commitment reduced to $110,000, prompting the orchestra to cancel several performances, including an annual concert honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

No similar cuts have been announced in Lexington, and Mayor Jim Newberry said he expects the Lexington Fayette Urban-County Government to be able to fulfill its arts commitments, but Louisville's cuts didn't go unnoticed here.

Allison Kaiser, executive director of the Lexington Art League, said, "It came hard and fast, and that is why we are all looking at our budgets to see what a worst-case scenario would be."

Then there was the announcement out of Frankfort about a 4 percent reduction in funding for the Kentucky Arts Council, which provides financing and support services to artists and arts groups across the state. Gov. Steve Beshear has proposed an increase in the cigarette tax to boost revenue, but a worst-case scenario might mean layoffs and the elimination of some programs, including services that are supposed to help arts groups survive economic crises.

Before last week's announcement, the arts council already had experienced cuts of 12 percent and 4.5 percent.

"We're cutting down pretty deeply," said Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

"Pretty deeply" means, for example, pulling back funds that already have been approved for projects. The council has not laid anyone off, but it hasn't been able to fill open positions, including education director, which is considered a crucial post in the group.

That also means less support to member groups.

In Lexington, the arts umbrella group LexArts has decreased the goal for its 2009 Campaign for the Arts to $1 million after raising nearly $1.2 million last year. Proceeds from the campaign go to operating support for Lexington's largest arts groups and project grants for arts groups and individual artists.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government makes an annual pledge to the campaign — $350,000 the past several years — and it has offered challenge grants totaling $250,000 in the past two years.

Newberry said he expects to be able to fulfill the city's pledge for the 2008 campaign, but it is too early to tell whether the city will be able to provide the same level of support in fiscal year 2010, which is the budget from which a pledge to the 2009 campaign would come.

Newberry reiterated his support for the arts, saying, "It's vitally important in terms of our economic development. Arts have been a high priority in this administration."

A case for culture

No arts leaders contacted for this report said the arts should not receive cuts on par with the levels that others are being slashed. But they say it is incumbent upon them to restate the value of the arts at a time when philanthropic dollars are desperately needed to help people with food and shelter.

"It is a very difficult argument to make. In fact, there's almost no argument for it," says Peter Kucirko, executive director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. "But were it not for the arts in some form, we would not have clothing, we would not have utensils, most of the basics. Someone created these things that make us human, and the arts are the basis of creativity.

"What makes a culture are its art forms, and these come from creative ideas."

Most area arts organizations are finishing fund-raising campaigns of their own and making final appeals to donors.

"We're working a lot harder, and we're just not seeing the same results we did this time last year," said Kaiser, of the Lexington Art League.

David Cupps of the arts advocacy group Arts Kentucky says he is planning an arts-awareness campaign for the 2009 session of the General Assembly.

"We need to make sure the arts are not dismissed as unnecessary frills," he says.

Now playing: survival

For many groups, weathering this economic storm means everything is on the table.

"We have to revaluate everything we do," Louisville Orchestra chief operating officer Robert Birman says.

At Actors Guild, St. Peter says the company will scale back from a season of six shows to five, and the works will be lighter, more familiar titles.

Snipes, of the Lexington Children's Theatre, says that in a tough economy, the theater's creativity is limited because it cannot afford works that it considers important but would be a tough sell at the box office. Every show has to sell well, he said.

Before they get to next season, though, arts groups have to get through this season.

The Philharmonic's Kucirko said that in addition to funding cuts from the state, the assets in its foundation's investments have decreased 25 percent in the past year, resulting in a smaller dividend to inject into the orchestra's operating budget. The search for a new music director to succeed the retiring George Zack also is putting a strain on the orchestra's budget, because it must pay guest-artist fees, transportation and other expenses for each of the visiting conductors applying for the job.

"There's very little fat to cut," Kucirko said. "I've told the staff not to use the color copier."

The stories are similar across groups, say Meadows of the Kentucky Arts Council and Jim Clark, president and chief executive of LexArts. The fear is that the headlines will go from tales of belt-tightening to stories about groups closing.

Neither would name organizations they worry about, but Meadows says the most vulnerable groups have few assets or revenue sources beyond the box office and donors, and they "don't have the business skill set to figure out how to make it through this."

St. Peter says Actors Guild could coast to the end of the year if someone gave the group $50,000. But there aren't a lot of donations that size floating around these days.