In recession, arts groups get creative to survive

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's arts economy continues to send mixed signals. Even as some arts organizations are being slammed by the recession, others are having their best year ever.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's arts economy continues to send mixed signals. Even as some arts organizations are being slammed by the recession, others are having their best year ever.

One thing is clear, however: the way arts organizations do business is changing -- possibly forever.

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts Executive Director Sheila Smith talks to many arts organizations, and isn't hopeful for the arts economy.

"What's been unique about this recession is that all of the different funding sources for arts organizations are being reduced at the same time," Smith said.

Fewer ticket sales and smaller grants from foundations hit by the downturn can often result in shorter seasons, staff layoffs, and other, perhaps surprising things, Smith said.


"A lot of them are also expanding the geographies that they serve, so that they are reaching larger groups of people," Smith said.

Smith said this is counter to what you would think would happen in terms of an economy, but that arts organizations are trying to build their supporter base by reaching out further.

The recession has changed how the arts economy functions, according to many in the arts community. Even as the economy bounces back, companies will be leaner and meaner. Many predict a big increase in collaborations of all kinds as organizations explore issues of shared interest while also try to spin funding further.

Walker Art Center Director Olga Viso said it is clear arts institutions are thinking in new ways.

"It's a different future. It's a future we may not have imagined," Viso said. "But I think the challenges are in propelling a new kind of creativity and ways of working together."

There's also likely to be a renewed interest in customer happiness. This has long been important to Hal Cropp, the artistic director for the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, and he's seeing results.

"Things are going extremely well at the Commonweal," Cropp said.

The Commonweal set a new record for ticket sales last year, and this year it's on track to improve. Cropp said the theater doesn't just rely on its location in a popular tourist destination, but also on its new theater that opened July 2007.


"People have found that it's a pleasant place to come," he said.

The Commonweal is part of a coordinated effort to draw visitors to Lanesboro, built on the combined attractions of the Root River Trail and the artists living and working in the area.

Cropp said the Commonweal philosophy declares anyone coming through the door is to be treated like a member of the family -- they even call everyone who has come to a show within a week.

"We don't ask them for money, we don't ask them to come again," he said. "We just say, 'Thanks for coming, we hope you had a good time."'

Cropp said he let's them share their thoughts about their time at the theater, and that's the end of the conversation. He said it has indeed reinforced people's attendance at the theater.

Cropp also credits the Commonweal's success to maintaining high artistic standards and diversifying funding sources to avoid reliance on one in particular.

In Duluth, Zeitgeist Arts is trying a different model that ties everything together. It recently opened a black box theater, a restaurant and two art house movie theaters on Superior Street.

Kat Eldred is CEO of Zeitgeist Arts and co-executive director of the Zeppa Family Foundation. The foundation owns the building that houses the venues, and provides offices for several other arts nonprofits. The foundation sometimes gives money to outside groups wanting to rent one of the theaters.


"We're six months into all three venues being open, and we are out of the gate strong," Eldred said. "We have exceeded expectations."

Eldred said the downturn hurt the foundations funding just as building work was due to begin. She said this led to creative problem-solving using local businesses to offset costs while creating local jobs. She said Zeitgeist now has a reputation as an upscale arts destination, at down-home prices.

"Our cafe looks upscale and fancy but you can get a burger here the same as at any other place in town," she said.

There could be another long-term impact of the recession. At the McKnight Foundation, Neil Cuthbert said, with many arts organizations led by aging baby boomers, he is expecting the hard times may convince a fair number to step aside.

"I think there is going to be some interesting stirring of leadership," Cuthbert said. "The opportunity for new leaders, new artists (and) kind of another generation to start having a greater profile ... I think would be great."

One final impact of the recession could be on programming. Minnesota Citizens for the Arts' Sheila Smith said the smarter arts organizations are working hard to produce the most exciting, creative work possible to pull in audiences -- and that can't be bad.

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