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Sunday, January 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Arts under pressure: Major players in Northwest hit hard by sagging economy

Seattle Times music critic

These are uneasy times in our region's arts community, as we head into the last half of the fiscal year with a dismal economy.

Some of the region's biggest performing-arts companies and museums are struggling with large deficits, including the Seattle Symphony, Bellevue Art Museum, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and the Village Theatre. Several more are forecasting big deficits by the end of the fiscal year. Long-established ACT Theatre, facing large deficits, instituted layoffs and postponed this year's season until this fall in the hope that a winter schedule will bring in more crowds.

In general, the grim realities of reduced contributions and declining arts-commission support have taken a toll that has every company squeezing pennies until Lincoln yelps.

Alarmed by distress signals from arts groups around the country — from the debt-ridden orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia to the postponed plans for a big new museum in Los Angeles — we've focused on the major groups here at home in an effort to take the pulse of Northwest arts.

Why the big groups? The majors produce the lion's share of the region's most visible art and attract a hippo's share of the audience. If they're in trouble, the arts in general are in trouble.

We've uncovered both good and bad news. The bad news, not surprisingly, is the red ink carried forward and/or projected in many budgets, the almost universal drop-off in contributed income, and a few worrisome downturns in attendance. The vast majority of the groups are cutting programming in some way, whether it's replacing new works with older ones or simply abandoning more ambitious efforts. Public funding has shrunk drastically.

The good news: Several companies are getting more ticket buyers than ever before, and the majority of the arts groups are sufficiently well managed and have either cash reserves to drown the deficits or plans to trim programs and make ends meet.

We'll take you on a tour of the arts majors' vital signs. One caveat: The statistics given to us by each group are produced by that group, and attendance statistics have not been independently verified. We asked for real attendance figures, not how full the house was after all the comp tickets had been passed out.

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