Posted: January 01, 2010

State of the state: Culture

Arts groups are fighting recession's sting

Maria Martin

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When every dollar counts, you set priorities. You must buy groceries, fill the gas tank and take the baby to the doctor.

But do you need to tour an art museum, or listen to an acclaimed musician?

Arts organizations are feeling the sting of the economy along with the rest of the nation, but those who speak out for groups like the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Ballet and the Denver Art Museum are united in the answer: yes.

"When times are tough, families need to discover the joy that comes with watching something like ‘The Nutcracker' or the upcoming ‘Beauty and the Beast' together," says artistic director Gil Boggs.

And to bring those great programs to the masses, many of the arts organizations are getting creative.

From Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra joined with Colorado Public Radio for an on-air fundraising campaign, Bringing the Music to Life. The drive culminated with a live broadcast of the orchestra's sold-out performance with musical icon Yo-Yo Ma. The campaign raised $625,758 for the CSO.

That's just one of many ways arts organizations have held ground during rough times.

"You look for ways to draw in the crowds," says Denver Art Museum spokeswoman Kristy Bassuener. "The Psychedelic Experience (Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965-71) did that in March. We had a much younger crowd, and it was also intergenerational. Plus, it was a collection the museum acquired, so we didn't need to pay for shipping and traveling costs."

Like other arts organizations, the DAM has cut back its budget. The result? The last two fiscal years, Bassuener says, were in the black.

"We've also seen that our Target/SCFD Free First Saturdays have definitely seen a lot more visitors in the last year or so," Bassuener says. "I think that could be attributed in part to families looking for affordable activities."

Jim Palermo, president and CEO of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, says marketing has been all-important in these tough times. In total, the CSO reduced its operating budget by nearly $2.5 million during the 2009-2010 season.

"What we're trying to do is be proactive. We've made significant cuts in annual operating costs. But when the economy recovers, we'll be in a good position for growth."

Denise Sanderson, chairwoman of the board of trustees for the Colorado Ballet, echoes the statements of those tracking budgets of other arts organizations.

"Like all businesses, it's really challenging," Sanderson says.

"We saw a drop in revenues. But the good news is that our artistic product is drawing outstanding reviews. We were one of only 11 dance organizations to get a grant from the NEA."

Ticket prices, she says, are all-important.

"People are looking for a bargain," Sanderson says. "And we've seen a rise in the number of people purchasing tickets later. We're not sure why. Are these last-minute purchases a sign of the economy, or simply younger people making last-minute decisions as to where they want their money to go?"

One thing everyone agrees on is that quality must remain solid.

"These are difficult times, but we have not cut back on our programs," Palermo says. "Our quality is untouched."

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Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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