Arts organizations often appear to float in the ether above the fray, attuned to well-developed tastes and purist traditions.
During a faltering economy, though, too many have dropped dangerously or even crashed. But not Spokane Civic Theatre. This long-running civic institution is flying higher now than ever.
Last year theatergoers filled a record 37,000 seats at Civic. Since she joined the organization five years ago, the theater’s executive artistic director, Yvonne A.K. Johnson, has doubled revenue. It stood at $450,000 in 2005, and it’s now more than $900,000.
Johnson’s approach, which blends high artistic standards with keen business sense, stands as a model for other arts groups.
When the community appeared to be entering a recession, Johnson responded not by trimming the budget or the staff, but by adding plenty of musicals and comedies, as well as a fundraiser, to her season. She spent only accumulated savings rather than dipping into credit.
During the Great Depression, Americans escaped from the grim realities of their daily lives by flocking to lighthearted movies and musicals. Similarly, Johnson finds that Spokane audiences tend to resist heavy dramas these days but loyally troop out to attend shows that will make them laugh.
In fact, last fall’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” was the theater’s highest-grossing show.
Johnson observes that Spokane residents still spend money on entertainment, but they’re switching to more affordable choices. Rather than traveling to Europe, they’re staying closer to home to attend ball games and local plays and concerts.
She keeps ticket prices low (season ticket holders see 10 shows for $17 apiece) to keep enticing audiences.
This success hasn’t been a constant. When Johnson took over five years ago, the theater was perilously close to closing. The board gave her a year to turn the situation around.
During the last five years, she reorganized the staff, took over the play selection process and renovated every room in the theater. She dealt with a failing boiler, a fire and even a flood. And yet she managed to boost revenues and pay for $1 million in renovations.
She’s been helped by the loyalty and energy of volunteers who perform onstage and backstage and usher at the front door.
The secret seems to have been to respect the tastes of Spokane audiences while keeping a sharp eye on the budget. The city should celebrate, and learn from, that simple, recession-proof truth.