To sell tickets, the arts get creative

Economy forces groups to rethink everything from fundraising to show times.

It's Monday, when New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is closed to the public. But Barbara Klett and Dianne Millington, along with about 20 others, have just toured the Leonardo da Vinci show.

While most visitors had to wait for at least an hour before being quickly herded through the exhibit, Ms. Klett and Ms. Millington walked right in - and then examined and discussed each work for two hours.

"It was divine," says Klett, smiling.

For the first time ever, the Met has opened its doors on Mondays to members to let them peruse blockbuster shows in near solitude for $50. Offering the privilege is just one way the Met is trying to curtail its $5 million deficit while showing appreciation to members. The museum has also raised ticket prices and laid off employees.

The Met is hardly the only artistic center grappling with tough financial times. Symphonies, ballets, theaters, and museums across the country are slashing programs, cutting back their staff and, in the cases of the Tulsa and San Jose symphonies, disappearing completely.

Overall, state funding for the arts plunged 13 percent between 2002 and 2003, the first time it had decreased in 10 years, according to The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. Some states, such as California and Massachusetts, slashed their arts budgets by more than 50 percent. Others, including New Jersey, Missouri, and Arizona, are threatening to cut art agencies entirely.

Faced with a precarious combination of terrorism-wary travelers and increasingly thrifty patrons, cultural institutions are grappling with the worst economic situation in recent history.

"These organizations are like farm animals in the 1930s dust belt," says Randall Bourscheidt, president of the Alliance for the Arts in New York. "They have less and less to sustain them."

To survive, cultural establishments nationwide are pooling resources, taking artistic risks, and stepping up outreach - rethinking everything from fundraising tactics to show times to get people back to the box office. In a time of financial famine, the arts are getting creative.

Take Broadway, where ticket sales dropped 10 percent after Sept. 11 as travelers all but disappeared. So the grande dame of entertainment went online. At, visitors can buy discounted tickets, make dinner reservations, and explore nearby activities. "The response has been phenomenal," says Patricia Haubner with the League of American Theatres and Producers. "It makes Broadway seem accessible."

Theaters on and off Broadway have also pushed back curtain times to 7 p.m. to accommodate local professionals.

Convenience is a major concern at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. With 95 percent of its 400,000 annual visitors traveling more than 100 miles by car, the festival has faced the problem of a public less inclined to plan in advance. In response, Ashland now offers a 20 percent discount to visitors who book early.

It also has revamped its advertising strategy. "We run smaller ads more frequently in newspapers, hoping to build awareness," says Paul Nicholson, the executive director. "The fact people aren't making reservations three to six months out changes the way we try to reach them."

From rivals to partners

Another solution that cash-strapped institutions are trying is collaborating with former rivals - a practice shunned in sunnier economic times because it was less effective in advancing an institution's name.

"Worrying about the brand of our companies now is counterproductive," says Melanie Joseph, artistic director for the Foundry Theatre in New York, which is producing a play with another local theater.

"Since there is no money, we need to be able to work together with a different kind of ego. It's not about the identity of the producers. It's about the work."

For its artistically daring Next Wave Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is teaming up with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a local National Public Radio affiliate, and the Japan Society.

"We have everybody talking about everybody else," says Karen Books Hopkins, director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "As a result, all boats rise."

Such symbiosis is also helping to sustain companies in small and mid-size cities, where pooling resources means maximizing performance quality and fundraising opportunities. For example, Ballet Idaho has partnered with The Eugene Ballet Company, and the two swap dancers, costumes, and artistic directors.

"It really helps us increase the quality of our productions," says Jack Lemmon, executive director of Ballet Idaho in Boise. By joining forces, "we have the resources of a much larger city."

Family night at the ballet

In addition to this, Ballet Idaho has introduced the Family Series, selling tickets to dress rehearsals for a low price. After performances, children can meet the dancers and take a brief lesson.

"We're getting people used to being involved in the arts," says Mr. Lemmon. "In 20 years, these kids will be our audience, and it is a sneaky way of getting parents interested."

Similar outreach tactics are thriving at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which is celebrating its centennial this year and had to decide whether or not to go forward with an ambitious, 18-month series of festivities.

Sticking to your vision

"When you hit a very dark time, it is important not to cut the most important thing you do," explains Anne Hawley, the museum's director. The Gardner has introduced jazz and classical concerts in its courtyard, as well as Dante readings and Vivaldi concerts, which sold out almost immediately.

"You would think Bruce Springsteen was singing," says Ms. Hawley. "By reaching out to new people in the community, we have been able to bring in new supporters."

Despite a $7.6 million deficit, the San Francisco Opera is also sticking to its artistic vision. Though the company slashed 12 performances, it has refused to back away from the cutting edge. Rather than relying on well-known warhorses to sell tickets, the opera has maintained a number of contemporary productions.

The tactic has worked. Last season, it presented the first complete US staging of "Saint Francois d'Assise" by Olivier Messiaen. The elaborate production drew the best crowd of the season. "It really created a buzz," says Robert Cable, the opera's public-relations manager.

To engage younger audiences, the opera introduced $15 student tickets and has created educational programs.

Many arts organizations are also rethinking their fundraising tactics and are devoting more time to one-on-one meetings with potential givers. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has cut several programs and an opera this season, and anticipates a loss of $3 million, the director is taking a grass-roots approach.

$60 and counting

Ms. Hopkins says she is putting her energy into wooing new patrons for donations of any size. "We're moving very quickly to get ticket buyers converted into donors," she says. "It takes a lot of $60 donors to cover losses."

Fundraising has also gotten more personal. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival now allows individuals to sponsor specific productions. The world-renowned dance company Alvin Ailey has taken a similar approach.

That company was left in a bind after it started work on a new building in midtown Manhattan. The city planned to donate $13 million to the project and now says it can front only $6 million.

"We have started construction. We have to go on," says Sharon Gersten Luckman, executive director of Alvin Ailey.

To help fill the funding gap, Ms. Luckman began incorporating images of the future structure into an aggressive fundraising campaign. Playbills include drawings of the glass high-rise, and informational packets for potential donors show computer-generated images of dance classes enjoying a spacious studio.

The campaign inspired longtime dance-lover James Abruzzo to make a donation. "The company has articulated such a good case for support," says Mr. Abruzzo, who has been a fan of Ailey for 30 years. "I feel like I know where my donation will be going."

Back at the Met, Klett and Millington also feel their money was well spent.

"It was worth every dime of the $50," says Millington, who came from Connecticut to see the show. "Otherwise, why would I bother to come all the way here? It would be too crowded. I wouldn't be able to see anything."

The two women have been members of the museum for more than 30 years, and feel the members-only Mondays are a nice perk. "I don't know why they didn't think of it before," Klett says.

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