"We've had cash flow problems for three years running," says James Handakas, newly appointed acting general manager for Baltimore Opera. "We've always managed to get through it. Our concern now is that we don't know how the economic downturn is going to affect contributions. December has always been a huge month for us, when a lot of people write checks."
Handakas says the company, with an annual budget of about $6 million and a modest endowment of about $1.5 million, has "a relatively manageable" accumulated debt of $715,000.
The "re-positioning project" will include a couple of staff layoffs, as well as using a consultant to guide changes in management practices and spending choices. (Longtime general director Michael Harrison has moved from the administrative arena and is now artistic director.)
To save money, the company is substituting a less costly set for the March/April production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. And productions already planned for next season may be modified to gain further savings.
"We don't want to make huge cuts," Handakas say. "But we need to see if there are ways to limit this cash-flow drain. We will have an aggressive campaign in December to let the public know we are here and to urge them to continue giving."
Other arts groups will be making similar efforts in the weeks ahead. Baltimore Chamber Orchestra music director Markand Thakar, who has turned his salary back into the orchestra, informed his musicians yesterday that "an urgent appeal letter is going out to 600 current and past subscribers and donors" and that "new potential funding sources are being solicited."
"Awareness is half the battle," says Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "We're increasing communication to our donors, reminding them more than ever why we value their support."
The BSO, with a $27 million annual budget, is the state's largest arts organization and, after years of heavy debt, has been on firm fiscal footing since 2007. The downward shift in the economy could endanger that record.
"Our season subscription campaign exceeded our goals, but we have sold 8 percent fewer single tickets at Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall] than this time last year," Meecham says. At the Music Center at Strathmore, the orchestra's second home in North Bethesda, single ticket sales are down about 12 percent.
"We don't need [cash] immediately," he says. "But we're looking at ways to make up for the state arts grant cut, and we are looking at making expense cuts, too. I'm not panicking. But ... I do not think business as usual will be sufficient for any organization."
At the BMA, Bolger echoes that sentiment. "We're not looking at any dramatic changes for the museum at this time. But we're concerned, and we're being prudent. The whole staff is engaged in discussions to see where we can save money."
Anticipating a $400,000 budget shortfall, the museum has already targeted $300,000 in cost cuts. Bolger points to some other positive news.
"A capital endowment campaign raised $40 million between July 2006 and June 2008, and another $2 million since June," she says. The goal is $65 million, with nearly half targeted for the endowment.
There are no plans to return to paid admission, which has been free at the BMA and the Walters for two years.
"We're a little bit off both in membership and annual giving," says Toni Condon, director of development at the Walters. "But we haven't had people renege on or renegotiate [contribution] pledges. And we haven't cut anything at this point."
Condon, however, is hearing the word "no" more often when requesting financial help for museum projects, "even from people who have been close to us for a number of years." And as corporate and foundation funding tightens up, she's relying on multiple sponsorships for exhibits. "If there is a trend, it's that [exhibits] are not supported by one individual or one corporation; you have to piece it together out of a lot of different size gifts."
No one knows whether arts donors will continue to step up if the economy weakens further.
"The arts may weather the downturn better than the for-profit sector," says Washington National Opera executive director Mark Weinstein. "Nonprofits are mission-driven, not bottom line-driven."
As Weinstein sees it, that mission is all the more powerful because it relies on the community, and the community, in the end, will not want to see the arts disappear. But, he said, arts organizations must be managed realistically and prudently.
The Kennedy Center's Kaiser, famed for turning around financially troubled performing arts institutions in this country and England, hasn't abandoned his basic philosophy for tough times: Don't diminish the artistic product. "Cut everything else first," Kaiser says. "That said, if you have to reach that step, announce something exciting for the next year or year after that. And focus on how much exciting work you can do on a smaller budget."
A significant precedent for weathering tough times can be found at the BMA, which opened its John Russell Pope-designed building when headlines told of stock declines, rising unemployment, and dire warnings about the nation's economy. It was November 1929.
"The museum rose like a phoenix right after the launch of the Great Depression," Bolger says. "And throughout the 1930s, we continued to get great gifts of collections and to serve the people of Baltimore, to do the basis of everything the museum does today. Maybe that's what gives me the strength to think we'll do it again."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.