Arts organizations try weathering economic storm
Carnegie Library has experienced budget and service cuts despite the fact that library visits were at a 17-year high.
Share with others:
The Pittsburgh Symphony's chamber orchestra series -- gone. The International Poetry Forum -- kaput. The Pittsburgh Folk Festival -- missing in action for 2009.
The culprit in all three cases -- money, or rather, lack thereof.
The economic downturn is hitting home for the region's arts and cultural nonprofits. Groups across the spectrum have been cutting back, laying off or, in a few cases, closing up shop.
Pittsburgh is not alone in this trend, reflecting the nationwide effects of the collapsing financial industry. The upside, if one could call it that, is more interest in shared services, new marketing techniques and a tighter focus on core mission. The down side is, well, everything else.
Local leaders say the repercussions have been less severe here because the region tends to avoid both the economic highs and lows of other cities.
"Our cultural community has not been as hard hit as others," said Janet Sarbaugh, director of the arts and cultural program of the Heinz Endowments. "Attendance has not been hurt, but individual contributions have fallen, based on my conversations with many groups."
David Donahoe, president of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, agreed that ticket sales seem to be holding. "It's the contributed support, private or public, that's the real problem," he said.
And it's going to get worse, noted Philip Horn, director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
"Commitments were already in place for funding this year," he said. "Next year a lot of philanthropic support is going to shrink and we'll start to see the whole impact. Any organization with substantial infrastructure to carry will be seriously challenged in terms of facilities, heat, light and staff. Those on a shoestring aren't going to feel it as much."
Not all the money has dried up. The state just gave capital grants to the Pittsburgh Opera ($1 million), Heinz Hall ($1 million), the August Wilson Center ($1.5 million) and the Garden Theater ($2 million). And the National Aviary broke ground this week on a new indoor theater as part of a $23-million expansion.
In addition, some new funding will be available from President Obama's stimulus package, but it's too soon to say who in this region will benefit. The National Endowment for the Arts will get $50 million to distribute nationwide; the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts will get $360,000; and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is seeking $100,000 to re-grant. Local groups may apply through all those avenues, but can only get money from one of them. The funds are to be used to keep or retain staff.
Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed budget keeps much of its arts funding but zeroes out the entire state allocation to local museums and WQED. Many expect the Legislature to restore some money when the budget is taken up this summer, but with the state's $2.3 billion deficit there may not be much to work with.
On the investment front, there is only bad news. Endowments of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Heinz History Center and others have taken hits in the 30 percent range. Foundations and individual donors have cut back philanthropy as their money pools ebb likewise.
So, for example, the Heinz Endowments has reduced its arts and culture budget by 35 percent.
The Allegheny Regional Asset District, dependent on sales tax from diminishing purchases, is withholding 10 percent of every allocation from its $80.3 million budget until at least June.
At the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency that distributes $15 million in state and federal money to 1,400 constituent groups, this year's grants have been cut 4 percent and next year's proposed budget is $1.2 million smaller. The trickle-down pain is being felt almost across the board. Yet most organizations are finding ways to cope, said Sarbaugh.
"We have a smart and resilient arts community," she said. "They're being resourceful and taking action."
For example, she's seeing more cost-cutting collaboration among organizations trying to head off more draconian steps.
That's a welcome development, said Donahoe. "We've tried to encourage more shared services over the years with not too much response," he said.
One example: The Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has cut its next season from four to three productions. All will be done in collaboration with partners, and the group will not be renting the Byham Theater as in seasons past.
"When we realized this was not going to be a short-term economic problem, we went back to the drawing board," said OTP manager Mary Ann Lapinski. "We came up with creative ways of leveraging artistic expertise."
The upshot: "Beggar's Holiday" will be presented in the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild theater as part of its jazz series; a medieval romance, "L'incantesimo," will be set in the sculpture hall of the Carnegie Museum of Art; and a new musical drama by Martin Giles will be a joint production with the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre in Stephen Foster Memorial.
Then there's the Fort Pitt Museum, recommended for closure by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission as the state wrestles with red ink. Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, the Heinz History Center and Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum have each stepped forward with plans to save it.
Some groups have been ahead of the efficiencies curve. A long-standing group of six Downtown presenters meets monthly to find savings through bulk purchases, joint insurance and combined ticket services. And The Children's Museum's Charm Bracelet Project linking 17 North Side cultural entities is pursuing similar savings.
Last month, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council -- which also is cutting next year's budget and trimming services -- released a snapshot survey of 55 organizations. Some 23 of them projected year-end deficits up to 25 percent; 23 were decreasing budget plans for the next fiscal year.
Asked what measures they were taking, the greatest number said more use of technology and social networking (37). Then came revising their planning process (36) and sharing services with others (32). Twenty-two cited salary reductions or freezes, and 15 cited reduced performances or exhibit hours.
"It's possible that some groups will not survive," said Tiffany Wilhelm, GPAC director. "We're already hearing some inklings in that direction. But people are hoping to minimize the damage as much as possible."
Ted Pappas, managing and artistic director of the Public Theater, said the downturn has at least one consolation.
"Economic uncertainty forces you to go back to your mission, remind yourself of what's important and focus on that," he said. "At the end, you don't want to be a compromised organization."
First Published April 26, 2009 12:00 am