Not out of the woods yet: Arts groups in a fiscal thicket

Hansel and Gretel, illus. Arthur Rackham, 1909. Wikimedia CommonsThe smashing success of last Friday’s Dance United gala benefit notwithstanding, it’s a Grimm world out there right now for Portland’s arts organizations: There go Hansel and Gretel, trailing bread crumbs as they traipse into the thick of the woods, and here come the birds, pecking away at the crumbs so there’s no trail out again.

There must be some way out of here. What Hansel and Gretel and the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theatre and all-classical radio and Portland Center Stage and the rest need is a financial GPS.

For arts groups here and elsewhere, the fissures of the global economic meltdown have become a chasm, a canyon carved by the raging River Deficit. Given the state of the financial union it’s astonishing that Oregon Ballet Theatre has managed to almost wipe out its $750,000 emergency shortfall in less than a month. Celebrate this as a victory, because a victory it surely is.

But the sobering truth is, it’s only the beginning. Now the hard, tough work begins. And it’s going to be extremely difficult keeping up the sort of adrenalin that has at least temporarily pulled OBT back from the brink.

This string of financial crises has predictably pulled out the trollers, the mocking wise guys who laugh and declare that if arts groups can’t survive in the marketplace, they deserve to die (presumably, like Bank of America and General Motors). These loudmouths understand nothing about the not-for-profit world, or if they do understand it, they despise it with every fiber in their rugged-individualist, social-Darwinist bodies. Ignore them. They are happiest when someone shouts back.

Even among arts people the current crisis has inspired a lot of hand-wringing about “dead art forms” and the possibility that in an age of radically new media and runaway-success popular art forms,  people just don’t care any more about things like dance and serious music.

I don’t buy it. In a way, the “traditional” arts have never been more popular. The Oregon Symphony, which has piled up a $1.5 million deficit in the just-ending fiscal year, sold more tickets in the just-past season than ever before. OBT is playing to packed, enthusiastic houses. Portland Center Stage keeps extending its Storm Large musical hit, Crazy Enough. Radio market share at KQAC, Portland’s all-classical station, is booming. As I make the rounds I see good-sized crowds at fringe events, too, from puppet shows to new vaudeville to cold readings of new play scripts. Dance and classical music, for all their financial woes, are undergoing a renaissance sparked by rigorously trained and exquisitely talented young performers — the very people who are supposed to have defected to American Idol and Twitter and “reality” TV. What’s more, they’re extending the boundaries of their art forms, reinterpreting them for today’s world even as they keep their heritages alive.

And audiences have responded. If there’s a crisis — and there is — it isn’t a lack of enthusiastic audiences, who are finding ways to continue to participate even in the midst of their own financial travails. The thirst for art is real, and our greatest hope for long-term optimism.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that a whole lot of vexing smaller problems have come together to create one huge one.

— First, of course, is the inescapable fact that performing arts simply don’t pay for themselves at the box office: If they’re lucky, they cover half of their costs that way. So, ironically, without supplemental forms of income the more successful you are — the more shows you have to put on to meet audience demand — the more money you lose. And probably the “success” you achieve is riding on the backs of the performers, who generally work for a fraction of what they could earn in another business. For all its progressive image and popularity in the national press, Portland remains a smallish city that wants the best of everything but still hasn’t figured out that to get the best, you have to pay for it.

— Second, the concept of what in times of royalty was called noblesse obligethe obligation of the ruling class to provide for the well-being of the society as a whole — has worn thin in the past several decades. Portland certainly has individual and corporate donors who regard themselves as stewards of the culture; without them we’d be sunk. But there are fewer of them than in older, more established Eastern Seaboard cities, or even than in the Seattles and San Franciscos of the West, and despite the spending of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, new high-tech industries haven’t adopted as part of their corporate cultures the responsibility of giving in the way that old-line industries such as banking and energy resources have. Around the early 1980s even most companies that regularly give to arts groups began to shift their donations from their charitable divisions to their marketing departments. They wanted something in return, and they wanted numbers — which made, say, the populist Cinco de Mayo festival a more attractive buy than a high-quality but narrow-audience group like Portland Baroque Orchestra. It’s striking that most of OBT’s $750,000 in its emergency fund drive came in relatively small donations. Ordinary people who care give what they can. The big boys haven’t been kicking in.

— Third, the arts occupy just one of several decks on a sinking economic ship. Forget government bailouts: There’s a lot of private bailing going on. And it’s understandable that in times like this, when people don’t have jobs or food or roofs over their heads — Oregon’s official unemployment rate has hit 12.4 percent, and the unofficial rate is undoubtedly higher than that — arts funding is taking a second or third position to providing for the physical basics. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s simply reality.

— Fourth, when the markets get whacked, arts groups get whacked. Simple as that. People who give money give money that they feel comfortable to give. When your stock portfolio (even if it’s only the mutual funds in your 401K) is bleeding, you stop giving. And when you stop giving, the groups that have relied on your gifts are suddenly in deep squat.

What all of this means is that arts groups are going to have to seriously hunker down, cut costs, and do their best to ride out this storm — at the same time that they keep the press on for crucial contributions. Trouble is, our culture hasn’t been in this sort of storm since the 1930s, and despite hints that the thing’s bottomed out we really don’t know how long this depression is going to last or what its long-term effects will be. We can howl all we want, and howl justifiably. But the cold fact is that in troubled times, spending on art is one of the first things to go.

The big challenge is to keep our core arts groups in business, even if they have to scale back on what they do. To lose an Oregon Symphony or an Oregon Ballet Theatre would be disastrous because once it’s gone, it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to bring it back. If the company remains, it is far easier to build it back again once the economy gets rolling again. But if you lose it, it’s lost.

Maybe government will play a significant role in this, although in Oregon I wouldn’t count on it. The state Legislature has already confiscated money given by citizens specifically to fund the Oregon Cultural Trust. In Portland’s tri-county area, D.K. Row reports that the nascent Creative Advocacy Network, a group formed to push for an arts-funding ballot initiative, has hired an executive director. The idea began with Portland Mayor Sam Adams, but his continuing political problems mean that the ballot drive has to keep its distance from him while still keeping his support — a tricky task.

Here’s a rundown on what’s happening at several important institutions. It’s by no means comprehensive: Groups across the city, from small to large, are struggling with the same situations. And I urge you to check in with Charles Noble, the Oregon Symphony violist whose Daily Observations is one of Portland’s best cultural blogs. He’s posted several good commentaries and news reports on these questions:

Oregon Symphony: The Oregonian’s David Stabler reports that times are tough. The symphony will run a $1.5 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends in two weeks, and that’s on top of an accumulated $8 million deficit from previous years. Expenses, in the meantime, were up 8 percent for the year. That’ll change. Staff has been cut from 50 to 28, with pay cuts. Neighborhood concerts are being axed (the Waterfront Park show will remain), and there’s the possibility that rehearsals could drop from five to four per program — a move that would inevitably, if subtly, effect the quality of the playing.

And the company has reopened contract talks with its musicians. It’s asking them to cut $750,000 from their salaries for the next fiscal year, which would amount to about $10,000 per player. Bear in mind, this is hardly from a Lang Lang level to begin with.

All-classical radio: Charles Noble reports that John Dodge, program director of All Classical FM, has resigned. In an email to staff that Noble reprints, Dodge said: “This is easier than you might imagine, as the position has just been eliminated from next year’s budget.”

KQAC has the advantage of being able to run fund drives as a natural extension of its broadcasting and Web activities at its online station, but its latest drive has been difficult even though by market share it’s one of the healthiest classical stations in the nation, jumping from a 2 share to a 3.5 in the past two years. Says Dodge:

“In a commercial station, a 1.5 share ratings increase like this can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue. Perhaps we will monetize this improvement in time. Meanwhile from 2005 to 2008 our pledge drive results more than doubled –”from the low $200’s to the mid $400’s. That was no accident or coincidence.”

I’m not sure where the specific problems lie. Anyone out there know more about this?

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Immediate crisis just about over. Longer-term crisis about to be tackled. The company has made severe cutbacks, but needs desperately to stabilize its funding, curry some reliable major donors, get at least a start on an endowment. Simply put, despite its obvious artistic success it can’t survive without solid financial footing. And as Noble suggests, once a group has gone the emergency public plea route, big donors — including corporations and foundations — become wary. The challenge is to assure them this was a one-time failure and that a sound financial plan is in place to stabilize the organization. This is difficult because the people you have to reassure are the very ones whose money you need if you’re going to stay in business. In the meantime, audiences won’t have the full ballet orchestra next season, and those musicians won’t have that job. That’s a big loss, and I hope to explore that issue more deeply in future posts.

Portland Center Stage: Big budget cuts in the past year, a tight ship next season, lots of layoffs — including Mead Hunter, who led the literary department of a company that has hung its artistic hat largely on its commitment to developing and producing new plays. What happens to that commitment? And the company is still sitting on a stubborn shortfall of close to $9 million in its drive to pay for its new home, the $36 million Gerding Theatre at the Armory.

Like Hansel and Gretel, arts groups tend to be plucky and creative. But it’s going to take more than bread crumbs to get out of this mess.