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Creative Economics

State of the arts: Tightening belts and adapting in order to continue thriving

By Jane Durrell · September 2nd, 2009 · Visual Art

Staff positions have taken the biggest hit as Cincinnati’s arts and cultural institutions hunker down to survive the recession. Some organizations have adapted through deliberate attrition.

“In 2007 we had a staff of 12. Now we’re down to seven, so we’re basically all doing two people’s jobs,” says Tamara Harkavy, director of ArtWorks, the lively program that unites students and artists to produce murals all over town.

At the Cincinnati Art Museum, staff is down by 5 percent. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park eliminated “effectively four full-time positions.”

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) has cut the equivalent of three full-time jobs. “We’ve lost valuable people,” says ETC Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers.

At Cincinnati Opera, there has been a reduction in staff salaries and benefits as well as loss of staff positions, and other institutions report similar measures.

“It’s a painful time,” says Raphaela Platow, director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), where changes include reorganizing staff responsibilities to fewer people, canceling an exhibition, moving another to the next fiscal year and extending the run of all major exhibitions.

Other institutional belt-tightening has included shorter hours, curtailed programming and the simple expedient — at CAC — of altering the temperature setting.

The bright side — surprisingly, there is one — is that attendance is up for many organizations. Cincinnati Opera’s 2009 season exceeded 2008 in both attendance and ticket income, despite eliminating one performance of Carmen. An increased emphasis on programming at the CAC has encouraged repeat visits to exhibitions, Platow says. Membership numbers are up at the Taft Museum of Art.

At Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, which has run in the black for the last 17 years, Executive Director Buzz Ward says, “It’s important to know that although we’ve made cuts that reduce the budget by $700,000 we will continue to maintain high artistic quality as well as fiscal responsibility.”

Playhouse subscriptions are declining slightly, following a national trend, Ward says. “Across the country, changing demographics are altering how people buy tickets.”

Both ETC and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) are bucking that trend.

“We’re currently way ahead on subscription sales,” says Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC artistic director. “We finished in the black this year — minor black, but black. We’ve not changed the season itself, but we’re being very careful, watching cash flow on a weekly basis so there are no surprises.”

Subscriptions are up at ETC, too — last year single ticket sales broke all records for the 24-year-old theater.

“We’ve had a large reduction in donation amount, but not in the number of donations,” Meyers says. “While we’ve made hurtful cuts, reducing budget and staff by 25 percent, they will not affect what is seen on the stage. And we are expanding, not cutting, our educational outreach.”

A reason for increased attendance, Meyers says, is that “people are not staying home. They’re out in force” and perhaps finding more things to do closer to home.

Aaron Betsky, Cincinnati Art Musuem (CAM) director, said in an e-mail that the museum’s renovation and expansion plans are not on hold but are being re-evaluated “given the changed economic climate.

We hope to make some announcements about that this fall.”

CAM staff reductions came about from scaling back the projected major institutional campaign. For the rest of the staff, Betsky says, “We did not reduce salaries, but we did suspend some of our pension matches. We did not cancel any exhibitions, but we did move some projects around, and we are going to use this opportunity to experiment with new ways we can bring people and art together.”

He mentions adding a members’ lounge, discussion groups, kids camps and various other programs. Meanwhile, the museum’s extended hours on Wednesdays have been cancelled, and holiday closings doubled.

Phillip Long, acting director of the Taft Museum of Art, reports by e-mail: “The Taft reduced its current budget by $400,000 in light of reduced revenues. Endowment and sponsorship income is down, membership is up slightly, but income is down. We cancelled an exhibition and closed the museum on Tuesdays. We’ve cut expenses to the bone. … A few part-time staff were let go.

“The Taft has long had a conservative financial model. We have a challenge next year on exhibitions as they were booked before the market reversals. Exhibitions for fiscal year 2011 are much less expensive, so the indigestion will be next year.”

Next year might be harder for institutions for other reasons as well. Because fiscal years usually run September through August, the 2008-09 budgets were set when the market meltdown came last fall. Harkavy notes another aspect: “Foundations work on three-year commitments. As they start to average their losses over the next three to five years, we’ll feel it.”

The Playhouse, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, had much funding in place, “deferring for a year the full effect of recession,” Ward says. “Next year, our 51st, will be different, but we have a little extra time to plan for it.”

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) began charting a new fiscal course early in the year. New CSO President Trey Devey, widely experienced in orchestra management, came on board in January, and in February a comprehensive plan addressing the organization’s financial challenges and need to bring the budget into balance was announced.

The Cincinnati Musicians Association agreed to a concessionary contract through March 2013, and administrative cost-cutting measures went into effect. Despite difficult choices, “We will never lose sight of our core mission — to present world-class music,” Devey says.

At the Cincinnati Museum Center, attendance is strong and membership levels are holding, but corporate involvement has shrunk. Museum President Douglass W. McDonald says the tax levy on November ballots in Hamilton County “is vital to maintaining Union Terminal. … This is the absolute bare minimum needed.”

Douglass hopes this levy will have the same support as the institution’s 2004 levy, which passed by the largest margin of all county levies that year.

Other institutions closely allied with arts and culture are Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Janet Walsh, director of public affairs for CPS, says of the district's funding levy on the ballot in November, “It’s important to note this is a renewal, not additional funds. It will not raise taxes but will provide an important 14 percent of our operating budget. Property tax collection is down; foreclosures mean we can’t collect all we’re owed.”

Enrollment is up in the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), which currently has significant support in residuals from the MTV reality show centered on the school, Walsh says.

The first-ever levy for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County also will appear on November’s ballot.

“We are in survival mode,” says Amy Banister, public relations director. “State budget cuts have eliminated over 250 staff positions, cut 241 hours a week and cancelled or postponed
capital projects. Usage of the library, however, has increased dramatically in every area. Without new funding up to 20 branches may close, further hour reductions and staff cuts will result and also fewer purchases of books and materials.”

At CCM, where future performers receive rigorous training, recession effects mirror those of the university itself.

“With declining state support and the special costs of instruments, travel, individual coaching, et cetera, the college must build a hefty ‘war chest’ of scholarship funds to attract and keep the very best students,” says a CCM spokesperson.

The Fine Arts Fund’s spring campaign fell $1 million short of its $12 million goal, but another $1.1 million in special funding from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation kept its support on track for day-to-day expenses of 18 arts groups and a grants program supporting additional initiatives by approximately 70 nonprofit groups.

Institutions are invaluable in bringing art and culture to us, but what about the source, the individual artist or performer? How has the recession treated them? Much as it’s treated everything else, it seems.

Well-known local artist Brian Joiner has taken on a mailroom day job because of significant decrease in art sales. Annie Fitzpatrick, a popular local actress, says, “There are fewer and smaller productions and less out-of-town work because it’s more expensive for the theater. Actors’ second jobs, teaching or doing voiceovers, are fewer. Some companies have closed down. (The effects) are really random.”

Long-established visual artist Constance McClure has lowered her prices, “remembering that the economy has affected almost all of us.”

If times are tough, it also seems that giving up is not an option on the arts and culture front. The institutions and the people involved are determined to make it work.

“I don’t mean to be rosy,” says ETC’s Meyers, “but it could be worse. East Coast foundations got hit by Madoff. We didn’t get that.”

Here in conservative Cincinnati, a not unusual outlook seems to be “Recessions, we’ve seen them before. They pass.”

Meanwhile, for both institutions and individuals, it’s tough going.

[Photo of the CAC's Raphaela Platow and the Cincinnati Art Museum's Aaron Betsky by Scott Beseler.]



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