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Economy taking toll on Spokane’s cultural institutions

Nonprofit arts organizations habitually teeter on the edge of disaster – even in a bustling economy. Now, the Great Recession is causing ticket buyers and donors to grip their dollars even more tightly. How bad is it? The omens are everywhere:

• The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture recently had to let an employee go for budgetary reasons – the CEO.

• Interplayers Theatre has cut back its full-time staff – to zero.

• The Spokane Symphony had to pass the hat this month – right in the middle of a concert.

Here’s a look at the state of four of Spokane’s biggest cultural institutions: the symphony, the MAC, the Spokane Civic Theatre and Interplayers.

The Spokane Symphony

When symphony executive director Brenda Nienhouse passed the hat – actually the wicker baskets – at the May 9 and 10 Beethoven concerts, she was understandably nervous.

Would people see it as a sign of panic? Would they resent being asked for more money, since everyone had already spent between $20 and $50 for their seats?

When the baskets came back, she was relieved to find more than $20,000 in donations.

“We got a lot of positive feedback,” said Nienhouse. “We are very grateful for the support.”

Even with that help, the symphony is facing a budget deficit “in excess of $100,000,” said Nienhouse, when the fiscal year closes on June 30. That’s at least 2½ percent of its $3.8 million budget.

A deficit of this size doesn’t threaten the continued existence of the orchestra, but it’s certainly big enough to be considered a serious financial crisis. The symphony hasn’t run a deficit for many years.

That’s why the symphony is taking unprecedented steps to raise money before June 30. Passing the hat is only one. It has also scheduled two additional early summer concerts: “The Best of Mozart,” on Friday at 7 p.m., and “The Best of the Movie Music of John Williams,” June 5 at 7 p.m.

That latter concert will include a creative fundraising idea: A beer garden in the Fox Theater’s parking lot, called the Maestro’s Brew Party. Coeur d’Alene Brewing created a special Maestro Brew beer to be served at the event.

Maestro Brew is also available at the Steam Plant Grill, with a portion of the proceeds from each pint going to the symphony.

All of this should help put a dent in that $100,000-plus deficit.

These budget problems have been caused by the same forces hurting orchestras all over the country: Both ticket sales and donations are down.

“Everyone makes discretionary choices with their money,” said Nienhouse. “And those who rely on their portfolios may not have the dollars they had before.”

The first harbingers came last year when the symphony noticed a sharp drop in contributions. Later, after the first of the year, ticket sales begin to drop – even as the orchestra was launching into an exceptional creative stretch, culminating in the “Letters from Lincoln” premiere and the Beethoven’s Ninth concert.

More pain will arrive with the next fiscal year’s budget on July 1. Management is already working on plans to cut costs and get back in the black.

Meanwhile, Nienhouse said that patrons can help cut the size of that deficit in several ways.

“Subscribe, contribute and get involved as a volunteer,” she said.

Oh, and one more thing: “Buy the beer!”

Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

No organization is caught in a nastier vise than Spokane’s premier museum.

“It’s a major catastrophe,” said Ron Rector, the new interim CEO.

The museum relies roughly equally on state funding and local funding (which includes donations, admission fees, memberships, gift shop sales, etc.).

Both have plummeted. The state is cutting 20 percent, and local funding is projected to be down by as much as 50 percent.

So the MAC is facing the likelihood that its budget will be reduced by $800,000 – around 30 percent – for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The museum’s board took an initial step in dealing with this crisis a week and half ago, when it accepted the resignation of the previous interim CEO, former Spokane mayor Dennis Hession. Rector, a longtime board member, took over the job for $1 a year.

That savings is enough to carry the MAC through the end of this fiscal year on June 30.

But that’s just the start. Hession, before he left, drew up a plan to lay off 14 employees, the equivalent of 30 percent of museum’s staff. Now the MAC’s board and staff is working on a new plan.

That plan may have different priorities, yet the fundamental math has not changed. An equivalent number of layoffs are still looming, and will have to be implemented by July 1. Rector said he can only hope that the museum won’t have to eliminate entire programs.

What can the public do to help? Joining the MAC as a member ($35 individual, $50 dual) would be a significant help, especially if thousands decided to do so.

“We’ll fall back and regroup,” said Rector. “And we’ll still have one of the best assets for the arts in the region.”

Spokane Civic Theatre

The region’s major community theater – one of the largest in the country – is in relatively good condition because it relies heavily on ticket sales for its $770,000 budget. Ticket sales have been a bright spot at the Civic this season (as they were on Broadway), which shows that in tough times people still crave song ’n’ dance.

However, not all is rosy. Yvonne A.K. Johnson, the Civic’s executive artistic director, recently got some bad news: The theater’s endowment fund is down 40 percent. The fund had been invested aggressively in domestic stock.

Normally, the Civic gets a nice $60,000 annual check from its endowment, but this year it will be $40,000.

“It will be tight, but doable,” said Johnson. “We’re freezing salaries and scaling back when we can.”

The Civic counts on donations for only about 5 percent of its budget, but those are down as well.

“We’ve been tightening all along,” said Johnson. “We’ve been preparing for a recession the whole time I’ve been here (since 2005).”

There is a downside to relying so heavily on ticket sales: It puts enormous pressure on directors to deliver a popular show – or else.

The theater can ill afford to have lukewarm sales for even one big musical. So Johnson is crossing her fingers and taking heart in the fact that, so far, subscription renewals for 2009-2010 are looking strong.

Interplayers Theatre

Spokane’s sole professional theater just finished its best season in a decade, in terms of revenue. Board president Jim McCurdy said four out of its seven shows were what he called “hits,” and the other three were at least “stable.”

This means that plans for the theater’s 29th season are well under way and the lineup of shows will be announced in a matter of weeks (rights to the Pulitzer-winning “Doubt” have already been secured).

Sounds like a success story. Yet before we break out the champagne to celebrate, here are a few sobering facts:

Interplayers remains alive only because its operating costs have been pared to the bone. A theater that once had up to six full-time staff now has zero.

The artistic director, the producing director, the box office manager – they’re all part-time. The actors, designers and costumers are all paid, but strictly on a contract basis.

Cutting out full-time salaries was necessary medicine, administered to “create a sustainable operating structure,” said McCurdy.

In addition, to survive the new season, Interplayers must “maintain its subscribers and gain (corporate) sponsorships.” Because of that, it is “being very deliberate” in its plans for next year, said McCurdy.

Plays will be selected with an eye toward drawing power, and the theater will be more aggressive in seeking corporate sponsors for productions. Finding those sponsors has become more of a challenge than ever.

Meanwhile, the long-term future of Interplayers continues to hinge on the sale of its building, which has been on the market for months without any takers.

McCurdy said there are two options: sell the theater, with a lease-back agreement which would allow Interplayers to remain in the top-floor performing space; or, sell the theater outright and relocate to another performing space, such as the Bing Crosby Theater.

Failing to sell the building is not an option.

Without a sale, Interplayers would never be able to retire its considerable debt. So the future must include a sale, whether it happens “this week or in two years,” said McCurdy.

“Interplayers could be debt-free with more money in the bank than it has ever had,” he said.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com.

 
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