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Arts Groups Continue Battening Down The Hatches

FRANK RIZZO

September 06, 2009

HARTFORD - Like many businesses and individuals, major arts institutions in Hartford are hunkering down for the new 2009-2010 season.

"This is the year I am most concerned about," says Michael Stotts, managing director of Hartford Stage. "We have not yet fully experienced the effects of the economy."

That view is shared by other arts groups, including the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which are grappling with the dark realities of the economy at the same time they are seeing some hopeful signs, mostly in increased attendance.

Wadsworth In Black

The Wadsworth Atheneum, after mid-year cuts to its operating budget of nearly $9 million, ended the fiscal year June 30 in the black.

Executive director Susan Talbott attributed the slight surplus to the belt-tightening and special giving that exceeded mid-course projections.

But the surge of giving is a bit deceptive, she says. Many individual contributors reduced their annual gifts, but some were enticed to give for special initiatives that slightly raised the total giving figure from the previous year.

While many corporations stayed true to their early pledges, corporate giving nevertheless declined 10 to 20 percent, which remains a major concern for the museum.

Though it came too late in the year to have a significant effect on the budget, the museum's endowment the largest for an arts group in the state started to rally. On July 1, it was $66.1 million, up from January's $62 million figure but still significantly down from its high several years ago of $83.9 million.

"Even though we didn't have the crisis we expected, 2010 is going to be very, very tight, and we are anticipating a deficit," said Talbott of the new budget, which is slightly less than $8 million. "We will know better as the year goes along."

The staffing level at the museum decreased to 97 from 105 the previous year and 118 the year before. "I don't foresee additional layoffs unless we have a terrible unanticipated downtown in the market or a crisis in the museum," Talbott said.

Special funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mayor's Arts Stimulus initiative, which brought in $100,000, also helped boost staffing.

Salaries are frozen, and the museum suspended its contribution to the employee pension plan. "It seemed like a more humane way to go rather than decrease salaries across the board," Talbott said

Overall, the atmosphere at the Atheneum has improved since January, when museum directors across the country met.

"Then the mood was grim," Talbott said. "But at our latest meeting in June, people were starting to look to the future again."

HSO Endures

Hartford Symphony Orchestra initiated some major staffing and budget cuts last spring, but still ended up the fiscal year with a $500,000 deficit. The revenue totaled $5.3 million, but expenses were $5.8 million.

Executive director Kristen M. Phillips said the original projections for the budget she inherited for the '08-'09 season were overly optimistic. Contributed income ended up falling short by 20 percent. Most of the drop came from corporations and sponsorships, while individual giving kept pace with the previous year's.

Earned giving was off 10 percent, most of that from a shortfall at an opening-night gala last fall as part of a Joshua Bell concert, having one less show in the season and the Holiday "Pops" concert missing its mark, "despite the fact that it was our third-highest grossing Pops show in the last 15 years," Phillips said.

"Our big success story was our Masterworks series, with subscriptions up and single tickets sales way up," she said. The program concentrated on Beethoven. Subscription numbers have already exceeded last year, at 1,980, with a month to go before the first concert and several months before the end of the subscription campaign.

The new budget will be $5.2 million, accomplished through programming changes, the reopening of the musicians' contract and realizing full-year savings from staff cuts made in the spring. "It would be a challenge to maintain our current level of programming and cut more staff," Phillips said.

The new fiscal year in June got off to a shaky start involving HSO's Talcott Mountain Music Festival programming, which depends on walk-up sales. Four of the six concerts were affected by rain. Still, the Simsbury event brought an increase in sponsorships: $125,000, compared with $95,000 last year, and the concerts that were not "weather-impacted were wildly successful."

"We're committed to end the year in the black," Phillips says. "For us to maintain the current level, this will be an important year for us. We need to do well this year and grow and solidify our audience base that started growing last year. In some ways, I feel better now than I did in early March. We have a strong team, and we have a more realistic budget than the one we inherited. And we understand the economy better."

Bushnell Budget Flat

The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts ended its fiscal year in the black, with a surplus of $35,000 to $50,000, pending the settling of a contract issue with a touring show.

"We managed the expense side of the equation, and some of the shows in the second half of the season did better than we expected," said CEO David Fay. ("Greater Tuna" did very well, Fay said of the self-produced show that played in May.)

Fay cut $1 million of the $8 million operating budget as the year went on by eliminating incentive compensation, reducing staff and deferring projects.

He said there was a 15 percent decrease in corporate giving, and individual giving came close to projections. "But we got killed in the endowment," he said, which began the year at $18 million and plummeted to $11 million. (It is now at $13 million.)

The Bushnell budgeting is "essentially flat" for 2009-10, at $7.1 million, Fay said.

"We're nervous about the 2009-10 season because, in some respect, the full brunt of last year will show up this year," he said. "The corporate giving we receive was pretty much in place [before the economy declined]. We continue to be concerned on the giving side. All the corporations are staying with us, but many are reducing their gift. But we are not budgeting for less because we have the goal of adding new players, and some corporations are considering increasing, so we're crossing our fingers."

Subscriptions are expected to be down by 500 or so, but they anticipate making it up in single ticket sales, Fay said.

"I'm still cautiously optimistic. We've been planting a lot of seeds over the last few years, and a lot of the things are coming together."

Hartford Stage Ends Year In Red

Hartford Stage ended its 2008-09 season with two record-breaking hits, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Dividing the Estate." But it wasn't enough to end the fiscal year in the black. Managing director Michael Stotts projects a $100,000 to $150,000 deficit in its $8.5 million budget.

Even with increased ticket revenue and attendance, a $300,000 decline in contributions caused the deficit, he said. This came in a fiscal year in which the theater tightened its belt, cutting expenses, including salaries and staff

The 2009-10 budget of $8.6 million represents a 10 percent cut. It anticipates a decline in giving and lower ticket sales. Others budget cuts come from staff reductions and reorganization ("We lost six positions, some through attrition, but we laid three people off," Stotts said.)

Stotts and artistic director Michael Wilson volunteered to take 10 percent reductions in their salaries. Actor and designer salaries will be at the union-required minimum instead of the slightly higher level they had been receiving.

"The big concern is what continues to happen with the economy," said Stotts. "I don't think it's going to turn around quickly for the arts. We are budgeting for a bad year. I hope it's just not worse."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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