Drama plays out floridly on stage, sometimes even more intriguingly backstage, but this season the most riveting dramas are unfolding in the financial offices of some of Tucson’s performance arts groups.
Tucson’s major arts organizations have taken quick action to counter the economic calamity that has hammered philanthropy and made some season ticket holders jittery enough to opt for single tickets.
The Tucson Symphony Orchestra in April announced a $1 million emergency fundraising campaign, and UApresents wants to raise $750,000 in donations this fall, up from the prior year’s $480,000 campaign. Arizona Opera is slashing its budget by $1 million to just under $6 million for 2009-10.
Yet the shows themselves go on, largely unhindered by the financial hurdles facing arts administrators. They insist the troubles are manageable, though not without pain. Read into that layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts – just like in the real world.
“It’s impossible to predict the future of the economy and its impact,” TSO Executive Director Susan Franano said about the need for an emergency fundraiser. “We can’t rely on ‘business as usual’ to work as in the past.”
The arts are an economic engine as well as a vital business recruiting tool to bolster Tucson’s quality of life for business and people considering a move to Tucson.
“Tucson is a beautiful place to live, an easy place to live,” said Curt Reimann, administrative partner of the Snell & Wilmer law firm. “The arts play a significant role in making Tucson a neat place to live.”
A 2001 University of Arizona study determined Tucson’s non-profit arts organizations had an annual economic impact of $96.8 million, including direct spending of $39.5 million, direct employment of more than 1,700 people and $24.4 million in audience spending. That’s three times the estimated $31 million annual economic impact that spring training baseball had and nearly equal to the estimated $100 million financial output of the roughly 50 venues that make up the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, according to studies by The UA Office of Economic Development.
“It truly is a business,” said Darryl Dobras, owner of DBD Investments and chairman of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. “Millions of dollars are spent on the arts. The people who are relocating here would like to have a good lifestyle. A lot of educated people are looking for something besides a job. When any new business comes, they ask ‘What’s the culture there? What do you have?’”
As recently as January, Arizona Opera was enjoying a 15 percent increase in ticket sales and the company was still ahead in contributed income.
“We sort of hit the wall in February,” said Shadi Mogadime, Arizona Opera’s interim senior director of marketing and development. Contributed income was expected to be 10 percent lower than the projected $3.1 million for the 2008-09 season.
“I think we’ll still be able to come in with a balanced budget,” Mogadime said in June.
The 25 full-time administrative staff at Arizona Opera all got a two-week unpaid furlough last season. This season that will be replaced with an across-the-board 10 percent salary cut, and there were four layoffs, Mogadime said.
In recent months, Arizona Opera’s executive director and senior directors of development and artistic operations all left the company, which allowed a consolidation of executive ranks.
But Tucson won’t see fewer performances. It already had its opera runs cut from three to two performances in 2006. Arizona Opera will reduce the number of performances in Phoenix for each opera from four to three this fall.
Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Tucson Symphony’s $1 million emergency campaign doesn’t signal imminent doom, Executive Director Susan Franano said. It’s more a cash reserve that TSO may have to tap into at a moment’s notice.
TSO saw a 3 percent gain in single ticket sales last season, from $795,200 to $819,745, but that did not offset a 9 percent drop in subscription revenue from $1.4 million to $1.276
So TSO last season issued a 4.8 percent pay cut to its 70 musicians and gave the 27-person administrative staff a choice of 5 percent pay cuts or 10 unpaid furlough days. It laid off two full-time and one part-time staff member in November, and another full-timer resigned and was not replaced. Those who took the furlough last year saw a 5 percent pay cut starting in July.
“Consumer behavior has changed to a mode of committing less upfront,” Franano said. “It is important to meet subscription goals to hold down the much higher costs of marketing tickets on a single sales basis.”
Arizona Theatre Company
A year ago, Arizona Theatre Company was “going great guns” with a 90 percent subscription renewal rate.
“In October, coincidental with the economy, it all stopped,” ATC Managing Director Kevin Moore said. “New subscriptions stopped. We noticed very quickly we’d have to take action quickly to avoid a significant shortfall by the end of the (fiscal) year.”
ATC made its full-time staff of 75 take three days off unpaid last season with senior staff volunteering to take two or three weeks off without pay.
“I took two weeks,” Moore said.
ATC staff got 5 percent pay cuts July 1 to replace last season’s furlough days, but the ATC office will close 12 days, scattered one day at a time through next June, with staff not paid those days.
ATC is keeping six shows and the same number of performances of each show as last season but will stage plays with smaller casts. It is cutting its Actors Equity roster from 47 to 32 players.
Broadway in Tucson
Broadway in Tucson, A Nederlander Presentation, works with a different model. One, it brings in road shows and doesn’t have its own production staff, and thus has only three employees. Two, it aims at a mainstream audience with hugely popular shows like “Mamma Mia” and “Lion King” and is now negotiating to land “Wicked.” Three, it doesn’t rely on philanthropy.
“We’re doing fine,” Broadway in Tucson Executive Director Lendre Kearns said. “In fact, we’re a little shocked to be doing as well as we’re doing. ‘Mamma Mia’ batted the ball out of the park. It was one of the top five to eight shows Broadway in Tucson has done in five years.”
Like her counterparts, however, Kearns does see vulnerabilities. Last season, top price tickets and cheap seats sold well, but Kearns saw “soft” sales in mid-price tickets and new subscribers.
“So much of what we do is dependent on the title,” Kearns said. “We’re operating in the black. It’s a little nerve racking. You just don’t know what to expect.”
Broadway in Tucson for the first time this year let renewing subscribers make a $100 down payment at renewal time with the full payment not due until tickets are mailed months later.
“This was really well-received by subscribers,” Kearns said.
“We are in really strong financial health,” Natalie Bohnet, executive director at UApresents, said about her series at Centennial Hall.
UApresents was already evolving the past three years before the economy fizzled. The worst of times for Bohnet came in June 2004, not in 2008 or 2009. Just promoted from finance director in 2004, Bohnet wrestled with an $852,000 accumulated deficit.
UApresents has trimmed staff from 25 to 14 over the past three years.
After Broadway in Tucson came to town five years ago, Bohnet eliminated offerings other arts organizations were also doing.
“We are no longer doing Broadway shows or a chamber music series,” Bohnet said. “We are focusing on our strengths: large orchestras, well known superstars, jazz, world music.
“For the past three years, we’ve had a positive balance at the end (of the fiscal year).”
Ballet Tucson saw record ticket sales last year, but a 40 percent drop in donations.
The professional dance troupe will stage four concert series, like always, but will save costs by performing revivals rather than new productions, Managing Director Thomas Gilliam said.
“We have had to scale back a little bit,” Gilliam said. “But we were able to rehire all our dancers.”
Ballet Tucson has not had work furloughs, but the administrative staff was cut from eight to seven.
“We’re being more creative about our fundraising,” Gilliam said. “We are having private dinners at board members houses.”
Said Cynthia Hansen, Ballet Tucson’s board president: “The Tucson arts scene is what it is today – unique, vibrant, eclectic – because its supporters, businesses and individuals alike, have amazing heart and it’s this heart that keeps our many arts groups alive. That in itself is a noteworthy distinction about our city.”