Fund-raiser Blues

Every day seems to bring more bad news. "Consumer Spending Tumbles," blared last Friday's Houston Chronicle, two days after the Federal Reserve lowered the benchmark interest rate — again. A subsequent Google News search for "economic crisis" yielded more than 1,200 hits from the local daily alone.

Bob Dylan pegged it exactly in 2001's "High Water (For Charley Patton)": It's bad out there — enough to make you want to crawl under the bed (after socking all your money away in your mattress, of course).

Nobody's even brought up the D-word yet, but they might as well.

Inevitably, the worsening financial situation has begun to spread to the arts. The New York Times reported last Tuesday that venerable companies such as New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have already been forced to cut back in areas like number of rehearsals and even health insurance. Upcoming performances have already been canceled in Detroit and Pasadena, California.

Fine-arts organizations find themselves in an especially sticky set of crosshairs. Besides the obvious fact that leaner times generally make grants and donations harder to come by — from individuals, foundations and corporate patrons alike — the endowments that safeguard these groups' financial security are often tied up in investment portfolios, not exactly the most stable sector of the market lately. The Times reported the Philadelphia Orchestra's endowment, for example, shed $60 million in a few short months.

In Houston, the situation isn't quite as grim — yet. Officials at several local ­performing-arts groups told Noise they're wary of the current situation and concerned about their long-term fund-­raising and donations prospects, but for the moment haven't suffered any immediate damage. And considering many checks won't get written until closer to the end of the year — if they get written at all, that is — the best they can do right now is wait and see.

"I don't know if we have enough information as of yet, but we are watching our ticket sales and our contributions — the trends there — very, very closely," says Houston Symphony Executive Director and CEO Matthew VanBesien. "It'll be interesting to see how it plays out on the corporate side — the corporate-­contribution side has been one of our strongest areas."

VanBesien notes that the financial-­services sector — probably the hardest-hit of all in the crisis — has been an especially strong growth area, but even before the meltdown on Wall Street, the symphony started its season in a hole. After an opening weekend VanBesien says was "arguably the most financially successful we've ever had," Hurricane Ike hit, forcing the orchestra to cancel two weeks of ­performances.

As for the orchestra's endowment, Van­Besien says he won't have any definite October figures for another couple of weeks but does expect to see some ­downturn.

"We know just anecdotally from other nonprofits that have an endowment that that's going to be a real issue," he says. "It's less an immediate effect than a ­longer-term effect because the money we're able to draw from the endowment isn't determined on a year-by-year basis, it's over 12 quarters.

"The good news is because of that, some of that will be smoothed out, but it's still there," he adds. "If this downturn were to persist and the market were not to recover for a number of quarters, then that makes the impact that much greater."

What that means is that groups like the symphony will have to work even harder on the fund-raising front, and so far VanBesien says he hasn't seen any evidence of that drying up. Many corporations have made multiyear commitments, he adds, "which is very helpful for a nonprofit."

Houston Grand Opera is coming off the most successful 15-month fund-­raising period in its 54-year history, says Director of Development Greg Robertson. Although HGO's endowment has lost about 20 percent of its value in the past few months, he says the opera hasn't felt any further impact from the financial crisis. Helping shore up HGO's bottom line is an almost never-ending pool of potential donors in single-ticket buyers and subscription holders.

"We have people who have self-­identified that they like what we do, because they're coming to see our work," he says. "We just haven't been able to get them to cross that threshold and become a donor, so we still have a lot of people that we need to go out and talk to and form relationships with who like our product."

Should the opera eventually be forced to cut back, though, Robertson says canceling productions — like the Michigan Opera was recently forced to do with Pagliacci — is not a very efficient way to save money at all.

"It's true for us, but also for symphonies and ballet companies — most of the costs we have for any season are already committed before we start the season," he says. "If we're doing a production that might cost $2 million, we might be able to save three to four hundred thousand dollars if we completely cut the run of a production, but it's going to cost us a million five or a million six."

For boutique organizations like Da Camera and DiverseWorks, who lack the broad subscriber base, generous corporate patrons and formidable fund-­raising machinery of a major symphony or opera company, the situation is even more ­precarious.

"We're very cautiously optimistic," says Da Camera Executive Director Sarah Loudermilk. "We've actually had one of our best years ever for subscriptions; that may be in part because we're offering smaller packages."

Loudermilk says single-ticket buyers are waiting longer to buy tickets for the ­chamber-music society's events — two or three days before events instead of two or three weeks — but they're still coming. On the fund-raising side, though, Da Camera is already feeling a pinch.

"Not so much from individuals, but corporations are being very cautious," she says. "Especially in the banking industry and investment firms. They've been big supporters of ours over the years. Right now I'd say [our fund-raising] is at about $50,000, and our corporate fund-­raising campaign has always hovered around $100,000, so that's a pretty big impact."

Da Camera is already looking at ways to adapt to this new reality. "Next year's not the year to do an extravagant production," Loudermilk says. "We're being conservative in our planning — we may not be bringing in international artists; we may be looking closer to home."

DiverseWorks' grants were committed before the downturn, says Performing Arts Curator and board member Sixto Wagan, so they're insulated from the crisis for now, but the multidisciplinary art center is likewise adjusting its future revenue projections downward.

"Since things are still in flux, they don't want to commit us to anything," he says. "So right now we're really going as bare-bones as possible."

Besides scaling back production values and technical-staff hires, Wagan says DiverseWorks will probably start collaborating more with other organizations to co-produce events "so our few dollars can go a lot farther."

"It's always been our mandate to support artists and their creativity," he says. "So there's never been a change in optimism, it's just [now] we're trying to be as practical as possible, and work with artists so they can be as practical as possible."

If there's a silver lining in all this, it's that when times get hard, people turn to the arts as a source of refuge and solace.

"Artists are really clear on where they are, and are really great about changing an idea or emotion into something other people can experience," Wagan says. "When it comes to times where people are unsure and can't really put it into words, usually artists are the best people to put it out there first."

As we all tighten our belts, unsure when (if ever) things will turn around, let's remember that. Regardless of the economy, artists are one of the most important assets this or any other city has.

So the next time you're bummed out about headlines like "Greenspan: Financial Crisis to Impact U.S. Economy Severely" (Houston Chronicle, October 23) and want to take your mind off your troubles, think twice about plunking down ten bucks for Saw V or Beverly Hills Chihuahua. See what's on tap at DiverseWorks, or check out the opera for the first time. Go to a free Houston Symphony or Houston Ballet production at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Now more than ever, they could use your support.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray