Arts Groups Watch, Plan for Economic Fallout

by ekramer on November 26, 2008

Sure, the end-of-the-year holidays have significant meaning for different faiths, but this time is also when arts organizations take stock of their current season…and plan for the next. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports on how the current economy is factoring into what we might see and hear in the future.

Summer’s high fuel costs and the economy now on the skids means holiday spending will be less lavish this year for many Louisville families. That includes the Glissons, says mother-of-three Amy Glisson.

“It’s going to be very tight having done a lot of things this summer with the gas being so high, we overdid it,” Glisson says. “So, now we’re just trying to lay back a little bit.”

That sentiment has city arts organizations paying close attention to how people are spending their money, including the Louisville Ballet.

In a studio, dancers are furiously rehearsing the final scene of “The Nutcracker” for this year’s run that opens next week. Ticket sales for this production are key to the company’s survival.

“Nutcracker is 25 percent of our annual budget: three and a half million dollar budget, 25 percent of that hits in about 10 days in December,” says Jack Lemmon, the company’s executive director.

So far, the ballet has sold 40 percent of the tickets it needs to sell. While Lemmon says it’s too early to tell if the economy is affecting Nutcracker sales, he says sales for performances in early October were off.

“I could feel tickets sagging,” Lemmon says. “That was the week the stock market kind of went shoop. Our ticket sales didn’t do quite as well as I would have thought.”

Signs from other arts organizations are mixed. Actors Theatre of Louisville is hitting its ticket sales goals for holiday shows. They’re 29 percent of the season’s total ticket sales. Attendance of the Speed Art Museum’s current exhibit of historic American Art was less than expected, causing the museum to lower prices.

Over at the Frazier International History Museum, revenue from attendance makes up 20 percent of the budget, and in the past few months, it has fallen about 2 percent.

“We could easily lose 5 percent of our income there,” says the museum’s  executive director, Madeline Burnside. “I’m hoping it’s not that drastic.”

The museum has a hiring freeze, and Burnside and staff are planning future exhibits that are inexpensive to produce.

“You’ve got to prepare for the worst and fight for the best,” Burnside says.

People who advise arts organizations says be conservative when planning. On is Teresa Eyring, who heads the Theatre Communications Group and its 460 member theaters, including Actors Theatre.

“This would be a time to be thinking about really how bad could it get and how would we function if that worst case scenario came to be reality,” Eyring says.

Actors’ managing director, Jennifer Bielstein, says the theater doesn’t plan on scaling back on any current season productions, but it’s gone through its budget and deferred some capital expenditures.

“We are budgeted so tightly,” Bielstein says. “Every dollar is accounted for where it’s to be spent, and with our planning cycle of committing to a season, a year to a year and half in advance, it’s hard to make those short-term reactionary adjustments when funding sources decrease.”

Arts leaders are now planning for next season and that is where they are looking to scale down costs. Actors Theatre and the Broadway Series are considering fewer shows. The Louisville Ballet, the Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Opera plan to announce their seasons early to be first in line for people’s entertainment budgets.

Most organizations are trying to avoid lowering ticket prices. But leaders say if people’s discretionary income falls further, they may have to do just that.

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