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Ent Center for the Arts, initially showing deficits, edges toward secure financial footing 

POCO A POCO

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The Ent Center for the Arts at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs operated at a loss of $120,800 during its first two years before seeing finances stabilize in the first quarter of the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Deficits are common for newly opened performing arts centers, one expert says, and some always require donor subsidies.

But the revenue shortfall and departure of the center’s director triggered UCCS to hire a consultant to analyze ticket sales, as well as to launch an internal appraisal of personnel in order to “align the venue for continued success in coming years,” UCCS spokesperson Chris Valentine says in an email.

Already the center has trimmed the 19-member staff by one job and is reevaluating another while temporarily filling at least four other posts with contractors and students.

“Art centers often take several years before revenues begin to cover expenses, and the Ent Center for the Arts is no different,” Valentine says, adding the budget deficits were “planned for” and have been offset by “the generosity of our donors.”

The 92,000-square-foot arts complex, at 5225 N. Nevada Ave., is part of UCCS. Funds for its $60 million construction came from a 15-year marketing agreement with Ent Credit Union, an allocation from the Colorado Legislature, the University of Colorado Office of the President and private donations.

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The Ent Center is home to several programs: TheatreWorks, a professional, regional theater company; the Artist Series, which hosts professional artists’ appearances, and the Galleries of Contemporary Art. UCCS Presents is the administrative entity that oversees the center.

The center expected to rely on ticket sales and building rental for half or more of its budget, but that revenue has fallen short of projections, records show.

In the year beginning July 1, 2017, officials projected ticket sales and building rental income at $1 million, or just less than half of the $2.1 million budget.

But the center, which opened in January 2018, generated only $779,000 in ticket sales and building rental, or 27 percent of $2.9 million in actual spending that year. That left the center with a deficit of $36,265.

In its second year — its first full operational year — ticket sales and building rentals were expected to bring in about $1.5 million, or 56 percent of the budget, but again fell short, generating $1.15 million, about a third of that year’s $3.35 million budget. The deficit came to $84,569.

For the current year, which began July 1, officials forecast ticket sales and building rentals will generate nearly $1.5 million. But the first quarter’s sales and rentals, through September, totaled $173,980. At that pace, tickets and rentals will bring in about $700,000, or about 28 percent of the $2.5 million budget.

But tickets and rental in-come aren’t the center’s only sources of money.

A portion of student fees, imposed on UCCS’ roughly 12,500 students, has added about $220,000 to the center’s budgets during its first 27 months, while UCCS’ general fund contributed just under $1.6 million. Gifts, grants and scholarships totaled nearly $1.7 million and provide a backstop when money runs short, Valentine says in an interview, noting donors gave $1 million to the center last year.

Yet another money source is from transfers from UCCS’ dormitories, retail food sales, bookstore and other auxiliary ventures on campus.

Noting the center brought in $51,524 more in the first quarter of this fiscal year than was spent, Valentine says, “We’re on track to make money this year. The goal is to be self-sufficient in the end.”

Meanwhile, several jobs are filled with contractors and/or students — development (fundraising), marketing and external relations, and education/outreach. A development and communications coordinator post is currently vacant and under review. “They’re looking to see how we use this FTE [full-time equivalent] to do something else,” Valentine says.

Two TheatreWorks employees — company manager and artistic producer — will be laid off effective Dec. 31, and one TheatreWorks producer will be hired in their place. An audio engineer job will be posted soon, Valentine says.

For now, Chad Garland, director of the University Center, which includes the bookstore and conference center, fills in as acting UCCS Presents executive director until a replacement can be hired for Drew Martorella. He left last summer after 24 years to take a position as managing director at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse in Pennsylvania.

Though he served as executive director of UCCS Presents, Martorella denied being at the center’s helm and noted directors of each component of the center are responsible for their budgets.

“To say the Ent Center for the Arts ran a deficit while I was at the helm is disingenuous and inaccurate,” he says via email. “It was, as far as I know, fully funded .... So if the Ent Center for Arts ‘showed a budget deficit,’ it had nothing to do with me.”

After Martorella left and the financial picture came into focus, UCCS hired TRG Arts, a local firm that helps arts marketers, fundraisers and executives achieve sustainable revenue and patronage, according to its website. TRG, Valentine says, will be paid $12,000 to investigate “ticket marketing strategy,” but he didn’t elaborate other than to say, “Do you sell more [tickets] for a lower price or fewer for a higher price?”

Admission for events that range from galas to operas to art exhibits can cost up to $54, or more. A ticket to the Mayor’s Young Leaders Awards on Oct. 29 costs $34.75.

Performance centers aren’t in business to make money, so frequently the goal is to break even, says Zannie Voss, director of Southern Methodist University’s DataArts, a national center for arts research that analyzes thousands of performing arts operations.

“It’s not unusual to have slight deficits in early operating years,” she says. “It’s going to take time before they’re able to develop a loyal following.”

While Voss says program revenue, which includes ticket sales and concessions, tends to account for 53 percent of revenues across the industry, it’s unclear what earnings are included in the data provided by UCCS for ticket sales.

Regardless, Voss advises that whichever agency helps fund a performing arts center will tolerate deficits for only so long. “Then we have to reassess whether the operating model is sustainable,” she says.

Asked about the center’s financial issues, El Pomar Foundation’s CEO Kyle Hybl didn’t directly address that but said El Pomar’s $5 million contribution to various UCCS expansion projects on North Nevada Avenue, including the Ent Center, has been a worthy investment.

“The Ent Center is a unique and valuable arts asset in our community,” Hybl says. “El Pomar is proud to be a supporter of the Ent Center for the Arts.” 

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