With the nation’s nonprofit arts organizations suffering in the dismal economy, the stalwart John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is offering crisis consulting to see them through.
The arts aren’t at the top of many lawmakers’ lists for a federal bailout. So Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president, announced an unprecedented “Arts in Crisis” initiative on Tuesday to offer free assistance to performing arts managers across the country.
He said his team could devote significant time and up to $500,000 in expenses to provide emergency planning for fundraising, budgeting, marketing or other strategies as box office revenues decline and donations and endowments run dry.
“I worry about many, many arts organizations disappearing,” Kaiser said. “My concern is: Are they cutting the right things? Are they going to survive? And are they going to be able to compete for resources when there are fewer resources to compete for?”
Orchestras, ballets and opera companies from California to Maryland and even New York City are facing huge budget deficits. The Los Angeles Opera is laying off 17 people, cutting salaries and will stage fewer performances this year. The Miami City Ballet is cutting eight dancers. The Baltimore Opera has declared bankruptcy.
The nonprofit group Americans for the Arts estimates 10,000 arts organizations could disappear in 2009. In New York, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which rebounded from a financial crisis that closed its doors in 2004, is cutting salaries for its entire staff by 10 percent to avoid layoffs and programming cuts.
“There’s a silent erosion happening. That sort of makes the whole situation a little more daunting,” said Laveen Naidu, executive director of the Harlem dance company co-founded by Arthur Mitchell. “When we look up after the dust has settled, I think that we are going to be sorry that we weren’t more proactive sooner.”
Kaiser charted an emergency financial restructuring for the Harlem group to reopen in 2004 and continues to consult with Naidu, a dancer who was new to arts management when he took over the company’s administration. Kaiser is also credited with rescuing London’s Royal Opera House and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York.
Kaiser’s first piece of advice for struggling groups: Focus on generating revenue.
“Too often the nature of survival is to focus on cutting costs,” he said. “The second is when we do have to cut costs, cut programming last, not first. I fear that’s not what’s happening now.”
Cutting back on artistic innovations and programming makes it harder for a group to recover and compete for funding, he said “and you appear as a less exciting organization” — a mantra Kaiser repeats from lessons developed through the Kennedy Center’s arts management institute.
Not immune to crisis
The center’s designation as a presidential memorial gives it some federal funding and stability, but the bulk of its $150 million annual budget must be raised privately. And even it’s not immune to economic cycles. Kaiser began trimming the budget by 5 percent in early 2008, anticipating the recession. Still, he found two donors to cover the cost of helping other struggling arts groups.
One arts group learned what it was like to suffer a crippling blow even before the recession took hold: The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which lost its home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and had its musicians, who own the company, scattered across the region.
But the musician-owned group rebuilt, with help from Kaiser, by becoming more mobile, playing in 22 different venues around seven parishes. Many times the group has played in Baptist churches instead of concert halls, reaching new audiences at the same time.
“We didn’t have a lot to lose. We had everything to gain,” said Babs Mollere, the orchestra’s managing director. Now the group is bracing for tough times in 2009. “We talk about the second hurricane taking place with the economic scene,” she said.
Congress included $50 million in its economic stimulus package for the National Endowment for the Arts, which arts advocates say could save more than 14,000 jobs in local arts groups. The money was removed, though, from a Senate version of the bill and has become a target for some who want to cut wasteful spending, making any boost in arts funding uncertain.
“I’ve never seen it as bad as this,” Kaiser said. Some groups have done better with budgeting a cushion of cash reserves, but others need help, he said. “If too many get ill, it’s bad for the entire arts world.”