Arts groups feeling the economic squeeze

Organizations say high costs, scarce funds might mean cuts

November 13, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special to The Baltimore Sun

After 10 years of performing The Nutcracker at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia, the Howard County Ballet is moving its popular holiday tradition to Reservoir High School.

The price tag was too high and funding too scarce to use the Rouse Theatre this year, said the ballet's director, Kathi Ferguson. She also has cut back on staffing and looked for ways to reduce overhead, and plans a smaller dance concert than usual in the spring.

Like many other segments of society, local arts organizations are feeling the squeeze of the tough economy.

"The arts are going to suffer drastically," Ferguson said. "People are going to cut something out, and cutting out arts is what is going to happen."

Other leaders in the local arts community are more optimistic. But all agree tough times are here for groups facing lowered ticket sales, donors with less to give and cuts in government grant programs.

For many, the first step is to cut costs and plead with donors. Next year, they say, it could be necessary to reduce the scale and number of performances.

"It is just a very unsettling time," said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council. "We're doing what we can."

She noted that arts groups are certainly not alone as all types of organizations face a funding crunch. For the council, the pinch has been painfully evident during its fundraising campaign.

"Even people who have supported us in the past have had to reduce the amount they give us," West said.

The arts council will try to generate more funds at its annual gala, the Celebration of the Arts, in the spring. But West said she is concerned about the challenges that lie beyond.

"I think we will really start seeing the effects next year," she said. "Many groups rely heavily on the grant they receive from us. If we could give flat funding [instead of the typical yearly increases], I think that's a best-case scenario."

Already this year, the Maryland State Arts Council cut the grants it had awarded to numerous local organizations by about 12 percent, and most groups do not expect to see the additional funds that are supposed to come at the end of the year.

Member organizations of the arts council are scrutinizing budgets, looking for places to cut, West said.

"They are asking what is essential, what can be postponed and what do they have to eliminate," she said.

Frances Dawson, director of Columbia Pro Cantare, believes the chorus will make it through its current season, but she also worries about next year.

"Every day is another piece of news that makes it hard to think about another season," she said.

Since Dawson has run the group out of her home since its founding, her overhead is pretty low. She said she is considering smaller instrumental groups to accompany the singers next year and will have to think about other ways to make the concerts smaller and less expensive.

"I hope people will keep all the arts in mind," she said. "It is a panic feeling. ... It's very scary."

Nichole Hickey, executive director of Columbia Festival of the Arts, agreed.

"It's a challenge," she said. "Like everyone else, we don't know where it's going, when it's going to end."

Hickey said the festival is down two-thirds in its sponsorships from where it was this time last year. But she is hopeful businesses and individuals understand the value of the festival to the community, even if they are taking longer to respond.

She said the festival board and staff are going to look at the results of its mass mailing to donors, which is done after the winter holidays, before finalizing decisions about the 2009 season. She said they are committed to the free LakeFest weekend, and they are working toward a season similar to years past.

Carla Du Pree, executive director of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society takes solace in the tendency for literature to remain popular in difficult economic times, including during the Great Depression.

It is fitting, she said, that the group's largest fundraiser, the annual Evening of Irish Poetry and Music, scheduled for Feb. 20, will feature a reading by memoirist Frank McCourt, who recounted his childhood in abject poverty in the book Angela's Ashes.

Du Pree is hopeful that McCourt will prove to be a big draw, and that other events, including a new "literary gathering of women" in the spring will generate robust ticket sales.

Leslie Malin of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre, based in Ellicott City, also was optimistic that her group could hold firm on its plans for now.

The biggest issue facing the company is the loss of the sponsor for free tickets for children to its outdoor performances at Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, she said. One company has stepped up to fund part of the program, but another sponsor is needed.

"My feeling is, [a ticket] is a small enough luxury. ... People maybe in a time of economic crisis want to be able to go out and they are not going to be breaking the bank," she said. "They want to go out and forget their troubles."

That is where a local arts event may be particularly appealing right now, said Michael Stebbins, producing artistic director of Rep Stage, the theater company in residence at Howard Community College.

Stebbins said he, like everyone, is facing the challenge of where to cut costs, and that he is considering more plays with small casts.

But a possible bright spot is that people look close to home for arts and entertainment options when faced with economic challenges, he said. With a local performance, there are fewer miles to drive, free parking and lower ticket prices than at theaters in Baltimore and Washington, he said

"You are getting, in my opinion, as high quality entertainment for less than half the price," he said.

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