Culture crunch

From Trinity Rep to Festival Ballet to Gallery Z, the creative community strives to overcome economic challenges
By GREG COOK  |  December 3, 2008

ACROSS THE BOARD: The tight squeeze for funding is familiar to Trinity Rep's Columbus, Black
Rep's King, and RISCA's Rosenbaum.

In July, Island Moving Company in Newport moved its annual summer dance series from Fort Adams, where it has performed outdoors for several years, to Great Friends Meeting House. "I thought ticket sales would be up" because of the switch indoors, says executive director Dominique Alfandre. But "ticket sales were not so great over the summer."

In retrospect, perhaps it was an early sign of international financial problems beginning to affect local theater box offices. For months, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown has been slowly poisoning the economy and building into a global financial crisis. It came to a head in September when market indexes crashed and the federal government came to the rescue of several major financial firms.

Alfandre says its performance of Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff, which runs though December 5, "was when we really noticed it — because that sells out right away, and it hasn't this year. But I think we'll reach our goal."

"Since the market crash," says Curt Columbus, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, "we've watched our ticket sales, which had been doing well, hit a wall. Almost like a cartoon animal — splat. Then we started pushing the discount ticket sales and things started to move again."

In September and October, Trinity's The Dreams of Antigone played to 90 percent capacity, Columbus says, but that was driven by the sale of discount tickets. Audience members seeking bargains seem to be the reason previews of A Christmas Carol have sold out — an unusual occurrence — but more pricey seats during the regular run remain. The result is that revenues are down. Trinity is hoping contributions — which, Columbus says, "are holding with last year's level" — will help make up the difference.

Fifty-eight percent of Rhode Island arts organizations report selling fewer tickets and 72 percent are seeing a downturn in contributions, according to a survey of 31 arts groups that the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) conducted in late October. Small and medium-size arts organizations (with budgets under $1 million) are even more heavily affected, with 89 percent saying that contributions are down.

State agencies, foundations, and other private donors that could be lifelines for arts organizations face their own economic troubles. The result, the RISCA report says, is that 57 percent of arts groups are planning program cuts. Already staff is being laid off, performances scaled back, and art classes eliminated. The result could be a local cultural scene that is smaller, less ambitious, and less vivid.

"How many arts organizations are going to be here next year?" asks RISCA executive director Randy Rosenbaum. "It's really hard to say. My sense is we're going to see a hunkering down of the arts community."

And we're still just at the beginning. Many peg this as the worst financial crisis to hit the arts since — at least — the banking crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s, when, Rosenbaum says, state funding for the arts in Rhode Island was slashed by 58 percent.

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