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Facing the music – Area theaters scale back their budgets

By   /   Sunday, March 29th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Facing the music – Area theaters scale back their budgets

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Performing arts centers in Santa Barbara have managed to keep steady attendance rates, but the trickle of ticket sales hasn’t been enough to save them from slashing staff and postponing productions.

“This is a time when we, like many others in the performing arts, have very real challenges in terms of staying a viable business,” said John Robinson, executive director of the Santa Barbara Symphony. “We’ve got some work to do this fiscal year to avoid ending with a deficit. We’ve already taken measures to cut costs around anything that wasn’t critical to our mission.”

The Santa Barbara Symphony reduced its staff by 10 percent and cut its production costs, and it’s not the only organization to do so. The Lobero Theatre has implemented a hiring and wage freeze and will be scrimping on extras as well.

“It takes money to present; it takes money to produce; it takes money to perform,” said Executive Director David Asbell. “And even in the best of times, ticket sales don’t cover that whole cost. Where we are hardest hit is that we have fewer performing arts groups paying to rent our building for events,” which he said usually makes up 10 percent of annual revenue.

The other 90 percent comes from ticket sales and fundraisers.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have steady ticket sales during the first quarter and be able to present some good shows during the holiday season,” Asbell said. But at the same time, there’s a bit of competition. “Santa Barbara is blessed with a wealth of performing arts, but we’ve got a very small base of followers, and there’s a lot going on. There’s the symphony and a whole mess of other venues out there.”

Because performing arts venues are fighting to fill every seat, Asbell said patrons of the arts can expect to see playhouses save money by selecting shows with fewer cast members, while dance companies will perform old routines instead of hiring choreographers.

“They’ll be looking very closely at cost, because they know that it’s probably unrealistic to think that ticket sales will pick up,” he said. “So they’re going to be making decisions for the next 12 months based on the economic climate right now.”

Robinson said people in the performing arts industry are dealing with the economic dip as best they can, and some are even holding their own. “Santa Barbara was probably hit pretty hard because there’s a lot going on in the financial sector, but it’s got some resilience,” Robinson said.

“Our ticket sales are pretty strong this year, and we’re heading into our first season at the Granada, which has improved acoustics, plush seats … it just makes concert-going a much more glamorous experience than it was before,” Robinson said of the 1,553-seat theater, which reopened in 2008 after an extensive renovation.

While Asbell agrees that going to a concert “definitely helps people escape the doom and gloom of reality,” he doesn’t think the performing arts sector is insulated from today’s financial woes.

“I think that when the stock market lost about 40 percent of its value in two or three weeks, nobody knew what was going on, and so people didn’t buy anything,” Asbell said. “We definitely felt the impact then; ticket sales during that period were down significantly, but we know it can’t last forever, so we’re making the prudent decisions we need to now to get through this period.”

Asbell said the Lobero Theatre wasn’t forced to cancel any events during what he called the “horrendous October downturn,” though even high-profile events had trouble filling the theater’s 680 seats.

“When we had more resources available, we would book someone who wasn’t well-known if we thought it was a truly great artist. But something avant-garde like that doesn’t have a wide appeal, so we’re reconsidering those riskier events,” Asbell said.

Robinson echoed Asbell’s conservatism, adding that most area performing arts organizations are in the process of lining up schedules for next year, “and I would imagine that you’d see a sparser calendar and more organizations doing things that they feel are lower-risk and less expensive.”

While local performing arts organizations may not be showcasing many “riskier” eclectic acts during the upcoming season, Asbell said the downturn has had at least one unexpected benefit for venues: “Since everyone is scaling back, we’ve actually gotten calls from bigger performers who aren’t usually interested in smaller venues like us. Acts we never thought we’d book are being priced out of the bigger venues, and so they end up here in Santa Barbara.”

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