Here are edited excerpts from Tuesday's
Key Issues forum in Hartford, which was moderated by Courant Place
Editor Tom Condon. The full transcript is at www.courant.com/forum.
Panelists were Jennifer S. Aniskovich, executive director, Connecticut
Commission on Culture & Tourism; Coleman H. Casey, president,
board of trustees, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art; David R. Fay,
president and CEO, Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts; Linda
Jackson, managing director, Connecticut Opera; Michael Wilson, artistic
director, Hartford Stage Company.
David R. Fay: The arts certainly are fragile, but
I'm not sure that this sense of fragility is unique to the arts.
I think our whole society today really has a sense of fragility.
We're all going through an enormous
transition. Certainly the events of 9/11, but also the stock market,
the tech bubble, all of those things swarming on us at the turn
of the century have conspired to create a great sense of fragility.
The arts are certainly suffering from that, but I also know many,
many people who are worried about their jobs due to various mergers
I guess the one good thing is that we don't have mergers and acquisitions
in the arts. Nobody wants to take over another person's deficit
and combine it with theirs.
Michael Wilson: On
an annual basis on average we do about 62 percent of our operating
budget from the box office. Currently that means we need to sell
about $100,000 per week in tickets to make our budget. The other
38 percent comes from contributions, which means we need to raise
$55,000 a week. ... Our current grant from the [state arts] commission
covers half a week of our operating expense. ... National and state
is about half a week each. The city is over-strapped, there are
no funds coming from the city. So there's your public support -
one week out of 52. That's very different than it used to be at
these organizations 10 to 15 to 20 years ago. ...
Look at even foundation giving. The
Greater Hartford Arts Council, our greatest contributor - we got
four weeks of support from them and while it was very generous,
that is less than when I started here. We used to, essentially,
get about five weeks of support from them. So now we're out trying
to find that other week.
There are some very generous foundations,
some of them are represented in this room. But foundation giving
has stayed flat for 20-plus years as our operating expenses have
grown with inflation 3 percent each year, even though we pay our
employees much less than they would get in the private sector. ...
Our generous corporate giver is helping pay for a week and a half
of contributed funds at the Hartford Stage.
Jennifer S. Aniskovich: And
if I could put that in perspective: We did a quick analysis a little
while ago of the operating budgets of the arts institutions that
we fund through this grant program, the multiyear operating support
program. And we found that we were giving less than 2 percent in
the aggregate of operating budgets of these organizations. I'm pleased
that the state of Connecticut is giving something when many states
are cutting their funding entirely. But a healthier range is 5 percent
to 10 percent. So I think that there's a real gap there in terms
of state support between what's being given and what's really needed.
Linda Jackson: Wow,
I wish we were doing 60 percent of our operating from the box office.
At the opera we probably cover only about 40 percent of what we're
doing out of box office, so we are completely dependent on the generosity
of others. It's difficult for us because on the one hand we're charged
with preserving an institution that some view as archaic, while
at the same time we try to be relevant and current and attract new
In the last couple of years, through
mergers and acquisitions, where we might have had two corporations
giving us money before, we now have one. Or because a corporate
headquarters has moved out of Hartford, where once Hartford was
the sole city that was the recipient of corporate funding, there
are now four or five cities around the country that that money has
to be split among . ...
When I started working in the field
of opera, there were much more arts in the schools. Now we've also
been charged with having to provide educational components to our
programs. You can't get funding from anyone anymore unless you have
an education component to your programming, and yet the amount of
money that we got to do that hasn't increased at all. We didn't
get more money just because now we're suddenly becoming teachers
as well as performers.
Also, when I started, I don't remember
finding myself in the same pool with health organizations and other
social agencies for funding. Arts organizations got money from a
certain group of people, and health organizations and battered wives
got money from a different one. Now we're all in the same pool and
we're all struggling for those dollars.
Fay: We run about
50-50 in terms of earned-to-unearned. The challenge that we face
as a presenter, primarily as a middle man, is that we try to keep
as much of the gross box office receipts in the community as we
can. That becomes increasingly difficult, though, when the producers
of many of the shows basically dictate the terms.
We recently did "Wicked,"
and we wound up retaining, out of $2.9 million gross, about $450,000,
which isn't a whole lot. ...
From the mid-'70s, certainly '78 with
the Tax Act, to today, we've seen probably the single largest buildup
of performing arts spaces in the history of the country. I mean,
even tertiary markets now have their cultural identity and their
performing arts facilities.
In the live performing arts, there
has been this enormous distribution system created across the country
that simply did not exist 30 years ago. As a result, for us, the
Broadway road has become a real economic generator because someone
other than the producers of those shows actually built this multibillion-dollar
infrastructure across the country.
And it's interesting that most of this
building has been done on the backs of economic development, not
artistic excellence. These people magnets created a dynamic in these
downtown communities, in the urban centers, that then was amplified
by sports stadiums and convention centers, also people magnets,
and that has given a rebirth to the urban centers in this country.
But now everybody is saying, OK, we
got them, now how do we keep them filled and lively and active?
And that's the challenge we're facing today.
Commercial vs. cutting edge
Aniskovich: A question
for artistic organizations is how far along the continuum do we
want to go toward commercially viable, and how comfortable are we
from getting away from artistically pure? If you know you've got
this artistic purity here and this commercial viability here, how
much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice for the earned dollar?
Wilson: The theaters
... were not initially founded to be popular attractions and that's
really what's happened, the market forces -
Aniskovich: I disagree
actually and I'm sorry to argue here.
Wilson: Well, I can
show you our mission. We were not a popular theater in the beginning.
Aniskovich: At the time that - well, I'll argue
in a friendly way.
Condon: Don't hold
back. [Audience laughs.]
Aniskovich: I will
disclose that my former training was as a tax lawyer and I helped
set up nonprofits. One of the things that the IRS looks for in your
mission is your service to the community. The reason that arts institutions
and other institutions get tax-exempt status is because they've
been deemed to serve the community. So in a very real sense your
institution and others like yours were created because there was
a popular demand for what you had to offer. ...
The demand that existed 100 years ago
or 60 years ago in a particular area for a particular art form has
changed, and we see that in no place better than in technology.
The demand has changed. So the question for arts institutions is,
Are you willing to change?
Coleman H. Casey:
I see arts groups, traditionally and still today, as being intellectually
challenging to the communities. They need to be community-based,
they need to bring their communities into them, but they need to
challenge those communities. The community needs to be stretched
intellectually by what's going on, and stretching involves risk,
financial risk. It involves putting on a play that may not be popular
or an art exhibition that may be cutting-edge or a musical performance
that may not be to everyone's taste.
How can organizations challenge their
audiences intellectually if they don't have the money to do it?
They play it safe. And when you start playing it safe, the institution
loses its vitality. ... You can't afford to take risks, at least
not repeatedly, if you can't meet that risk financially. You're
constantly scrambling from program to program, from show to show,
from exhibition to exhibition, to balance the budget of the organization.
What arts groups need more than anything
else is capital. They need venture or risk capital. They need capital
to stabilize the organization and they need capital, not a lot,
to take risks, to do the experimental, to do the intellectually
challenging. That capital is unrestricted endowment. And where is
it going to come from? It's not going to come from corporations,
it's not going to come from foundations. Foundations are endowments
themselves. Why would they give their endowment to somebody else?
It's going to come from individuals. Individuals give most of the
capital money in this country.
And where is that money likely to come
from? It's likely to come from those of us who are in the room and
our parents, if they're still alive, when they pass away. What are
they going to do to leave a legacy, to use a phrase which we're
all familiar with, for these great arts organizations in this community?...
There are more donors here today than
there were 25 years ago. Some of the older donors, the traditional
donors, those we all know the names of, they passed away, unfortunately,
and many of them did leave us legacies, but there is tremendous
new wealth in this community. You see it in the development of the
city and its suburbs. Look at the housing that's going on here.
There are people building extraordinarily expensive houses. Those
people have resources. There are new businesses starting up here.
This is a vital area and we can, we need to play on it.
Jackson: I'm not convinced
that something that's commercially successful necessarily means
that it's not also artistically satisfying. I think one of the mistakes
we tend to make is believing that art somehow isn't supposed to
be entertaining. I used to go to Opera America conferences and listen
to people talk about it and think, you know, there is absolutely
nothing wrong with people really enjoying going to the opera.
Fay: "The Lion
King" is coming in shortly. That's not only going to be important
for the Bushnell, it's going to be important for the community.
Six and a half weeks, 150,000 people will come through the hall.
When you talk about economic impact, there's no question that there
will be an economic impact on all of Hartford.
The economic drivers of our industry,
the presenting industry, are the big Broadway shows now, so we do
prioritize getting those onto the calendar when we can get them.
I have to say, though, there's always
this challenge and it's not unique to the Bushnell. Any multiple-stage,
multiple-user performing arts facility across the country has the
same fight over the calendar. ... If we had 15 more venues, calendars
would still be an issue because it's "I want that Friday night,"
it's not "There are 365 days, give me a couple of them."
I think we have to be careful not to
think art is something that isn't appealing to - I won't say the
masses, but to a large enough constituency that it's going to work
Last spring we presented the San Francisco
Symphony with Michael Tillson Thomas at the podium, one of the world's
great symphonies. Over the years we have found that presenting non-Hartford
based symphonies - the audience has been declining. So we presented
this, we spent $17,000 in advertising, and we had about 950 paid
to show up in our 2,800-seat hall and we lost $72,000. Now, over
the last 10 years you can look at the presenting of the major orchestras
and you can see that wasn't unusual, that wasn't a blip.
A few days later, we put a free announcement
on the square-enix website, which is the website where all the gamers
who play Final Fantasy will go to play with their worldwide buddies.
The announcement was that in six weeks we were going to have 80
musicians sitting on our stage playing the music from Final Fantasy,
which is gorgeous symphonic music by an Asian composer and a no-name
conductor out of Chicago, Ernie Roth, who was going to be there
conducting. And that is the only advertising we did, it was a free
posting that sat for six weeks.
We had about 2,000 young people buy
tickets to see a symphony concert. We made more than $10,000. Our
partner on the date made another ten grand.
Eighty musicians were employed that
evening. We had a DJ come out - yo - and the 150 remaining subscribers
to my classical music series were all down front. Afterward we got
letters [saying,] "At first I thought I was in the wrong theater,
but thank you so much for bringing young people to see a symphony
concert. We haven't heard screaming and yelling at a symphony for
a long time."
I learned something that night. In
that six weeks of juxtaposing those two experiences, there is a
relevancy that we need to work on and I'm not talking about getting
rid of the classical repertoire, I am talking about rethinking the
way we present and the way we create. ...
A few months ago, I sat with the gal
who books our concerts. She was explaining to me that the particular
audience for the concert we were doing no longer listens to "terrestrial"
Now, I had to sit back for a second
and take this in. I have two 19-year-olds and a 22-year-old. They
download their music to their iPods. They don't listen to radio
at all. ... I said, "How do we get to them? I guess we should
just all e-mail them?" She said "E-mail? They don't e-mail
I went, "Wait a second, I'm a
dinosaur and I'm talking about e-mail here?" She said, "They
text-message each other."
I picked up the phone and called my
son's girlfriend and said, "Hello, this is Colin's dad."
"Yes, Mr. Fay?" And I said, "Look, X artist is coming
here," and she goes, "Oh, really?" "Would you
like to come with your friends?" She says, "Yeah."
I said, "Well, I'll give you two
comps if you will communicate to all of your friends." She
said, "I'll text-message them right now."
And she did that, she text-messaged
some others and tickets started to sell. It was a fascinating experience.
I sat with another college-age student
about a week ago who explained to me ... the face book, which is
the college communication device, which is online. You're cool if
you've got over 1,000 people in your face-book group.
Now, that means 1,000 people who know
you, you know them, and you sit there and go "So-and-so is
coming to the Bushnell, everybody come." Boom, 1,200 people
who have been infected, as we talked about viral advertising, suddenly
are interested in the show because Tom Condon just face-booked me.
And so we're trying to figure this
all out right now, and when you talk about the iPod age, the way
you communicate, it's vastly changing - so we're trying to catch
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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