Nonprofit organizations all over the country are feeling the effects of the current economic downturn. And, arts organizations, such as community theatres, are no exception.
Fundraising for arts organizations has never been easy. And, I’m not referring to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., or the Wang Center in Boston. Rather, I’m referring to your local community theatre, the ones that are run almost entirely on the blood, sweat, and tears of volunteers. Volunteers who build the sets, direct the shows, make the costumes, and appear onstage. So, if they’re not paying staff, then why are they so strapped for cash? Because they have to pay the royalties of the shows that are staged. They have to pay the rent and utilities on the space in which they are housed. If unable to find donated materials, they have to pay for costumes, props and set pieces. They have to pay for advertising. Being a tax-exempt 501c3 organization certainly helps, regarding to money being spent, but it doesn’t mean that the organization isn’t still accruing costs.
Understandably, people often feel that their charitible dollars should go to causes such as education, medical research, animal welfare, and social services, rather than theatres and museums. Many feel that as arts organizations typically charge patrons, while other organizations provide services free-of-charge, then arts organization can simply increase their prices, if they are financially strapped. But, is that a fair assessment? The purpose of smaller, locally-run theatre organizations largely being to not only provide creative outlets for people within their area, but to make the arts accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to go to New York City, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. Even for those who may live near a major city, or an Equity theatre, the admission to a smaller, local theatre is far less costly. So, it is fair to expect theatre to raise their ticket prices, in a down economy, thus making themselves less accessible, to the general public?
So, it begs the question…how are arts organizations weathering the current economic climate. What additional fundraising is being done? A community theatre organization in Poquoson, Virginia, Poquoson Island Players, with whom I’m involved, is in the midst of planning a musical revue, both as a fundraiser and celebration of their 25th anniversary. Are arts organizations “spending money to make money”, but increasing their advertising? Are they increasing the number of performances, in hopes of attracting more audience members? Or, are they cutting back, and saving the fnancial resources that they have? Certainly, there are numerous grant-making entities that provide funding for the arts, but rarely do those cover general operating expenses, to keep the lights on. But, is making a bigger push to obtain grant funding another avenue that arts organizations are exploring? Are they re-thinking the shows that are staged? For example, “Les Miserables” is a well-known show that would attract a large audience, thus bringing in a lot of money. But, the royalties are very expensive, as are period costumes and the building of a set for a production of that scale. It’s also a very demanding show and takes a high level of talent, amongst the performers. Should a smaller theatre stage a production of that magnitude, or is it more sound, financially, to do a show like “Tapestry”, which is a revue of Carole King songs and can have a cast as small or as large as desired, and needs only minimal set pieces, while not as well-known? Are there benefits to “partnering” with other nonprofits in your area. Stage a production of “Extremities” and donate a portion of the proceeds to a local rape crisis center. In turn, the other organization helps absord some of the cost, while also advertsing the show to their own supporters. (Thus, potentially increasing audience members and even long-term support for the theatre.) What are the best tactics to be used by arts organizations in the current economy, to ensure that they remain viable?
Every nonprofit is important. The sector, as a whole must find a way to continue to thrive, even in a down economy, through innovation and creativity. And, the arts are important, in our society, including those smaller, locally-run organizations. Not only do they provide a creative outlet, for those who volunteer their time, but they provide education and exposure to the arts, in an easily accessible way. It makes me recall a line from the film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, where, upon finding out that the school music program is going to be cut, Richard Dreyfuss states, “Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” In this current economic climate, what is the best course of action for arts organizations to take, to remain viable?