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The art of survival 

Arts groups nationwide have faced crippling budget shortfalls since the recession began in 2008. To our north, Denver's Colorado Ballet nearly had to shut down this year after a reported 60 percent drop in donations. To the south, the Arizona Commission on the Arts reported an 80 percent decrease in contributions to its arts organizations in 2009.

Colorado Springs' arts scene has fared better economically, and local leaders chalk that up to a couple factors.

"It's partly due to the fact that the arts scene has been sort of small and scrappy, and we've never had large corporate funding or a huge amount of government funding — both of which have taken big hits," says Bettina Swigger, executive director of COPPeR, the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region.

Also: "People are realizing the importance of supporting their own community and aren't driving to Denver as much to see a show," says Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation, which restricts its funding to area arts organizations. "People want an authentic experience with their families and want to connect with their friends and neighbors."

Make it cheap

There are more than 200 arts and cultural nonprofits in El Paso and Teller counties, Swigger says, and there have been casualties in the past couple years: the Festival of World Theatre, Edifice Gallery, Gallery Two Ten, WeUsOur in Manitou Springs. In May, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center president and CEO Sam Gappmayer told the Indy that the FAC has decreased its staff by 20 percent in the past two years, and he estimated the operating budget had seen a similar drop. And the Smokebrush Gallery and Foundation downsized significantly in 2008, closing its main gallery, reducing operating space by two-thirds and laying off staff.

But among other signature members of the area's arts community, there are signs of hope.

After nearly succumbing to Colorado Springs' budget crisis in 2009, the Pioneers Museum rallied community support and now is working on a new business model that would allow it to operate as a private nonprofit. Museum director Matt Mayberry said last week that City Council members have enthused over the idea, and mentioned it as a possible prototype for other organizations.

Meanwhile, a new marketing strategy has helped the Colorado Springs Philharmonic stand apart as the state's only professional symphony orchestra not cutting any programming because of the recession, according to Nathan Newbrough, president and chief executive officer. Instead, the Philharmonic expanded programming and has scheduled 42 performances for its 2010-11 season that begins in September.

To increase ticket sales and revenue, the orchestra last season began offering a 50-percent discount for newcomers. Subscribing households jumped from 800 in 2008-09 to 1,830 last year, Newbrough says. The same promotion is back this year and going strong, according to Newbrough, partly because seats for a series of seven concerts are available for as low as $9 a ticket.

"We were concerned about renewals of last year's first-timers, but we're coming up on 60 percent, which is really good in the industry," he says.

Newbrough believes the 2010-11 season will be corner-turning for the orchestra financially, now that it's recovered from a 2003 bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring that left remaining internal debt. (It's a big year artistically, too, with the organization selecting a new conductor; see p. 20 for that story.) This is the first year its $2.4 million annual budget is "totally reasonable and based on predictable outcomes and doesn't rely on a thin dime for an angel donor or emergency fund-raising," Newbrough says.

Build a tribe

Solid attendance, diversified revenue sources and a refusal to cut programming have helped TheatreWorks, a professional theater company associated with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, weather the economic storm, according to Drew Martorella, executive producing director.

It starts with relying more on individual contributions and ticket sales and not as much on foundations, corporations and the Colorado Council on the Arts, which cut its annual grant to TheatreWorks from $18,000 to $10,000. Its $1.2 million budget for this fiscal year is the same as it was two years ago. And with "really strong" earned revenue and an uptick in individual giving, the group, which performs up to 200 shows a year for about 30,000 attendees, is poised to grow, Martorella says.

Recent performances such as the 2010-11 season opener, Merry Wives of Windsor, have been playing to audiences of 80 to 90 percent capacity seating, he says, and pre-show ticket sales heading into the upcoming season are up 40 percent over last season.

"That's an extraordinary leap," he says. "It's all about building a tribe of good people to rally around you, and once you do, you can be sustainable."

On Sept. 9, COPPeR will unveil a cultural strategic master plan, a series of goals to improve the local arts scene. The effort has been in the works for two years, Swigger says. Objectives include increasing access and enjoyment, expanding arts education, creating sustainable organizations and integrating art into the fabric of the community.

newsroom@csindy.com

  • In a scary economy, local cultural organizations insulate themselves with ingenuity.

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