Saturday, January 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sour notes sound in arts community

Seattle Times music critic

Arts under pressure

Tomorrow in Entertainment & the Arts: Seattle Times reporters gathered financial data from 15 major local arts institutions plus the major public funding agencies. Several of them are in serious financial trouble, and all of them are struggling with difficult times by cutting budgets and programs.
First of two parts

An unprecedented boom decade for the arts that spawned new theaters, halls and museums has given way to an era of serious peril for the Puget Sound area's performing-arts companies and museums.

Stuck with the expansion in both programming and personnel of a more prosperous era, arts companies are pruning budgets and rosters as deficits loom on many balance sheets.

The worst news comes from the long-established ACT Theatre, whose finances are in such perilous shape that the company has laid off staff and pushed the start of this year's season from the spring to the fall.

The Northwest Chamber Orchestra and the Bellevue Art Museum are grappling with deficits greater than one-third of their total current budgets, and the Seattle Symphony and Village Theatre are among several other companies posting substantial red-ink shortfalls.

And the slow trickle of public money into the Opera House's transformation into McCaw Hall has necessitated a controversial $27.8 million "bridge loan" from the city of Seattle, which owns the building.

How does that picture compare nationwide? A look at some major national players shows a lot of red ink.

Famous orchestras are showing big deficits — Chicago ($6 million), Cleveland ($1.3 million), Philadelphia ($1.3 million). Things are so bad in Pittsburgh that the board president was publicly mulling over the possibility of selling Heinz Hall last month. The San Jose Symphony is bankrupt, and the Colorado Springs Symphony nearly so.

San Francisco Opera is making cutbacks to deal with a $7.7 million deficit, and other opera companies from Chicago to Dallas are dropping expensive productions.

And in Los Angeles, the struggle to complete Disney Hall has led — just as in Seattle — to a big loan ($22.5 million) from the reserve funds of financially strapped Los Angeles County, which has already spent $91 million on underground parking for the new home of the L.A. Philharmonic.

Art museums struggling

Things aren't much better at our nation's top art museums; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shelved its $300 million expansion by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. And the New York-based Guggenheim Museum is dealing with a slashed budget, ominous signs from unprofitable partnerships in Berlin and Las Vegas, and the cancellation of a proposed $650 million Frank Gehry-designed museum in lower Manhattan.

Even in the European capitals, where arts groups historically have luxuriated in huge state subsidies, sour notes are sounding from such cultural sites as Berlin, which is considering a consolidation of the city's three venerable opera houses.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, cutbacks are having a direct effect on the scope of programming audiences can expect to see. Programs are falling, from the Arts in Education program at the former Seattle Arts Commission — now the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs — to a reduced Music of Our Time series at the Seattle Symphony.

Pacific Northwest Ballet has trimmed performances from two different programs this spring and replaced a new work with an already-performed one. Smaller groups, such as Book-It Repertory Theatre and the Pat Graney (Dance) Company, are losing grants from agencies who are facing their own budget crises.

Convergence of trends

Several worrying trends have hit the arts all at once.

• The stock-market doldrums, which have left individual, corporate and foundation donors, as well as ticket buyers, with less discretionary money, and the arts companies themselves with reduced income from any investments and endowments they might have.

• The disastrous shortfalls at state, county and city budgets have resulted in cuts, some of them very deep, in available funding for the arts.

• Ticket-buying patterns have gradually changed, with audiences opting for individual tickets or smaller packages instead of full-season subscriptions. This forces theaters and orchestras to market each event more heavily, while doing without the big wave of early-arriving subscription money.

It didn't help, either, that one of the major players of the past prosperous decade, the Kreielsheimer Foundation, closed its doors in 2000 by provision of its bylaws.

What is particularly missed now is the foundation's "challenge grants," which spurred matching funds from other donors so the terms of the grant could be met. No other foundation has stepped into the Kreielsheimer shoes, which look to be empty for some time.

"This year is tougher than last, no question," said Peter Donnelly, president of the Corporate Council for the Arts, which oversees all the region's major and minor arts groups as it dispenses operating grants from corporations in King and Pierce counties.

"Several corporations have put us on notice that their contributions are going to be flat or down. In the performing arts, I'm out and about a lot, and I don't see a falloff in attendance. I do see people being a lot more selective about how they spend their money. This is a time for everyone to hunker down and be more frugal."

The past decade was one of unparalleled prosperity for the arts, bringing with it a building boom in new theaters and museums, and enough money to sustain the groups in their new homes.

Separate facilities

The greater Seattle community came to the realization that "multipurpose" buildings don't really serve anyone well, whether talking about football and baseball stadiums or opera houses.

But sustaining the new programs in concert halls and museums is another thing; there's no turning back. As Donnelly puts it, "Benaroya Hall is not going to be a carwash. It can only be a concert hall."

One possibility Donnelly favors: mergers of smaller groups who could share management, marketing, facilities and other expensive commodities. Such mergers might be hard to effect, however, in disciplines where artistic turf is highly prized and hotly defended.

Donnelly said it would be "terrible if the momentum of the last 30 years is lost. Our job is to maintain these great organizations, which have so much value in the community."

Many arts managers who have been in place only for the past decade have seen only the upswing of the arts-economy pendulum.

Veterans like Donnelly, former managing director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, know there are boom eras and bust eras because they've lived through both.

"We got through those downswings before," Donnelly said, "and we'll get through them again — but not without a lot of cautious and imaginative management."

Melinda Bargreen:


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