The Arts Community Reveals its Secrets for Surviving the Economic Downturn

Fiscal Responsibility and Focus on Quality Programming

“We had a year plus where we were rebuilding before things went south so we really had all of our ducks in a row in terms of our internal structure and systems,” said Shannon Walenta, Managing Director of the Blue Barn Theatre.

Walenta said the theatre went through a financial crisis in 2007, just before the market bottomed out. After openly telling the community they were in trouble, the theatre held a barn-raising event and had an outpouring of support. The theatre was able to pull itself out of a deficit situation.

Since then, they’ve worked diligently to use their money wisely and everything continues to grow. 

“Single ticket sales are up, donations are up and foundation support is up,” said Walenta.

The Blue Barn Theatre was one of approximately 30 arts groups and cultural organizations that participated in the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study, conducted by Americans for the Arts.

The arts and culture industry in Omaha provided 89 million dollars worth of economic impact to the city and state last year. Arts and culture accounted for 3,400 full-time jobs, both directly and indirectly, in Omaha. 

Marjorie Maas, Director of Nebraskans for the Arts, said this was the first year Omaha participated in the study, “This is the baseline study that we will be comparing ourselves to in five years.”

Maas said even though Omaha doesn’t have previous years’ numbers, it’s obvious the city grew between 2005 and 2010.

“There’s the Holland Center, the sculpture garden at the Joslyn, and Film Streams and the Kent Bellows Studio both opened. We know by the physical structure of the arts community that there’s more than there was,” said Maas.

With a staff of two full-time employees, the Kent Bellows Studio is smaller than the Blue Barn, which has two full-time employees and four part-timers. The studio started operations in October of 2007.

“It’s not easy to start a non-profit and have the bottom fall out of the housing market 12 months later,” said Anne Meysenburg, the studio’s Executive Director.

She said Kent Bellows Studio was fortunate because they had a seed donor and weathered some of the initial economic issues by being lean with their expenditures. It’s a mindset that has persisted throughout their five years of operation.

“As much as we can, we keep the percentage of our resources dedicated to our programs as high as possible,” Meysenburg said. “We’ve got to make sure we have the biggest impact we can with very few resources.”

In keeping with the idea of doing more with less, the studio has plans to add an AmeriCorps person to their programming department, which means they don’t have to pay as much for that employee.

Film Streams also opened right before the recession hit.

Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ Executive Director, said the organization was lucky because they did their capital campaign in 2006 and 2007 before the downturn.

Still, there were a few economic bumps in the road. “2009 was a slow year for us in fundraising and with the lack of well-grossing independent films, audiences were smaller than we hoped.”

She said since then Film Streams has bounced back quickly.  Like the Kent Bellows Studio though, Jacobson said they want to be careful about growth.

“The downturn was a lesson to a young organization. We are working to bring our fixed costs down. We can expand and contract programming if necessary, but you just can’t count on continuous growth,” said Jacobson.

Jacobson is decidedly excited about the future. She said the theatre offers 150 programs in a year and thinks if they continue operating with this model, they will continue to have a dynamic organization.

Solid fundraising and living within your means are the key to preparing for a financial downturn according to Jack Becker, Executive Director of the Joslyn Art Museum.

“We try to have a multi-Europe approach to looking at exhibitions as well as budget. I have an MBA, so I look at the numbers. Then you try to project out as best you can and have smart people around the table who can help you talk about economics,” Becker said.

Becker is cautiously optimistic about the future and said the city is a great place to be in terms of population, education and economics.

Maas wishes more people would change the lens through which they view the arts, seeing them not just as something they do in their spare time but also as an industry that supplies jobs and has a real economic impact.

“Then I think the arts would seem more worthy of their support, attention and dedication. I think we’re going to cling on to these numbers in talking to state senators and mayors’ offices. It’s a tool that will be used for a long time,” she said.

The full report is available online at nebraskansforthearts.org.

posted at 03:27 pm
on Thursday, August 30th, 2012

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