Arts groups join forces to survive tough times

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Come together.

It's the title of a nonsensical song by The Beatles, but for arts groups in Pittsburgh, it's a concept that's keeping them alive.

In recent years, the region has seen a number of front-office collaborations among arts organizations, driven mostly by the financial realities of the poor economy.

"Pittsburgh has a reputation for being particularly collaborative among arts groups," said Maggie Johnson, director of marketing and audience development at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which provides support for 250 organizations and 3,000 individuals and serves as the voice for arts and culture in the region.

The latest is the Pittsburgh Music Alliance, which announced its presence last week. It loosely binds five small music organizations: Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh Camerata, Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society and Renaissance & Baroque.

It joins myriad arts collaborations, ranging from cost-saving "shared services" between Downtown arts groups to full mergers such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh Dance Council. In between there are degrees of combinations: co-presentations such as the University of Pittsburgh's Music on the Edge and The Andy Warhol Museum; facility-sharing arrangements such as the Pittsburgh Opera and Attack Theatre; and partnerships like that between the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has a staff position devoted entirely to adding to an already abundant group of partnerships around the region, including in East Liberty, at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in New Castle and universities in Western Pennsylvania.

The Alliance was formed "to expand audiences, raise awareness about the rich performance calendar in Pittsburgh, and celebrate the broad range of music created over the span of 500 years," said Andrew Swensen, its newly appointed managing director.

These organizations have a long history of quality performances in the region and a rich past of competing for audience and grants. But the recession has made for strange bedfellows, in this case the uniting of a full chorus, a period instrument trio, a chamber choir and two presenting organizations specializing in romantic and ancient music.

"We are five small arts organizations that appeal to the same demographic," said Matt Dooly, managing director of the Bach Choir. Each group has a representative on the Alliance.

He said the new cooperative seeks "to cross-pollinate and enhance the understanding of our season offerings." Audience development will be central, with discounts for buying tickets to multiple events, subscription deals and a social marketing campaign.

An equally important impact will come in the administrative and planning side. When groups don't talk to each other, fundraising efforts and programming decisions can work against each other. Case in point is that within five weeks this spring, two performances of J.S. Bach's "St. John's Passion" will be heard in Pittsburgh, one led by Chatham Baroque and the other by the Bach Choir.

"We need to coordinate concert dates, and look at each other's programs," said Gail Luley, who represents two groups, the Camerata and Renaissance & Baroque.

"All of us have learned at one point or another that protecting perceived musical turf or simply not communicating with one another comes at the expense of leaving potential audience members in the dark," said Joshua Foster, executive director of Chatham Baroque.

One thing the Alliance will not be doing is fundraising; It is not a separate 501(c) (3) nonprofit.

Although the Alliance is a "cooperatively managed endeavor" each of the five groups will continue to select and administer programs independently.

That's the structure that works best for the member groups, but in the case of the Cultural Trust, mergers made more sense.

"I and others believe that the name of the game is to put enough funds and resources into the art form and as little into the administrative function," said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Trust.

Before joining the Trust, each of the groups -- The Three Rivers Arts Festival, First Night, Dance Council and International Children's Theater -- had administrative costs that were eating up as much as 20 percent of their budgets that were constantly pushed into the red. Merging with the Cultural Trust meant survival for these groups, although the price was complete independence, with their boards dissolved and programming coordinated with the Trust.

But each of the groups has its own dedicated staff and branding, Mr. McMahon said. "It is similar in the way that modern universities operate when they have law schools and business schools with their own identity."

Groups that merged with the Trust asked for a guarantee that they wouldn't be phased out in the future.

"With Dance Council, I turned that around, asking the board, 'Can you guarantee me that there will always be dance in Pittsburgh [on your own]?' " said Mr. McMahon. "I can guarantee that we have no intention of curtailing or eliminating modern dance."

That a merger can be the beginning of the end for the smaller group was seen when the PSO absorbed the venerable Y Music Society in 2001. Founded in 1926, this presenting society had experienced drastic subscriber decline and was likely to fold before PSO stepped in. But three years later, facing its own financial woes, the PSO regretfully dissolved the society.

"It was added to our chamber orchestra series at the Jewish Community Center and enhanced," said Lawrence Tamburri, president of the PSO. "But when we moved the series to Carnegie Music Hall, it wasn't financially possibly to continue it."

But on the whole, collaborations are seen as an overwhelming positive for arts groups.

It doesn't matter what the degree of connection. The newly formed Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh is a networking group. The Pittsburgh Glass Center and Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts began a process to merge the two groups in October 2010. There are even cases of collaboration across traditional lines, such as the partnership announced in March between a social service agency, the Hill House Association, and an arts organization, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty.

"A well thought-out collaboration on any level is a good thing," said Ms. Johnson of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, itself a merger of ProArts and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance. "The more people who have a chance to be exposed to more arts experience, the more they will attend. There is rarely any harm.

"It is about trying to lift all ships."


Correction/Clarification: (Published April 12, 2011) The boards of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Glass Center in October 2010 began a process to merge the two groups, which was expected to take 12 to 18 months. A story in Monday's paper about arts groups uniting to survive tough times implied that the merger had already occurred

Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings . Twitter: @druckenbrod.


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