When the show doesn't go on

The Wall Street Journal

Some patrons of the arts are finding themselves in a new role these days: creditors.

In April, George Merkle renewed a subscription for him and his wife to the San Antonio Symphony. In May, the symphony suspended its concert series and later declared bankruptcy, leaving subscription series ticket holders in the lurch.

"The season, I think it was around $700, is down the drain," Merkle said. "I have to listen to the radio now."

He recently received a letter from the bankruptcy court with a claim form to seek reimbursement.

Reduced government funding and a sluggish economy has been devastating for arts groups nationwide and their patrons. Over the past 2 1/2 years, eight professional orchestras have suspended their seasons or have ceased operations altogether.

The picture isn't much prettier for dance groups or museums.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York closed its doors for two weeks in August and has canceled some exhibits. The Boston Ballet cut back the number of performances to 86, from 106, saving about $1.6 million in production costs. Ballet Tech, a 30-year-old New York dance company, suspended operations for the entire 2003-2004 season after projecting a $665,000 deficit.

Other companies are paring productions or are substituting cheaper acts for programs with high production costs. For example, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota dropped Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," a three-act opera, and replaced it with "The Impressario," a one-act Mozart opera.

But some institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin's Performing Arts Center, are taking a different approach -- discounting heavily to increase their business, which can represent an opportunity for art aficionados on a tight budget.

Slashing costs

The squeeze poses a dilemma for thousands of art patrons. Nobody, of course, wants to buy season tickets for an orchestra or dance troupe that may not perform. But if people stop buying tickets from every organization with shaky finances, even more would go bust.

Arts organizations say they have little choice but to slash costs.

"You can't have artistic integrity without financial integrity," says William Mason, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. To cut costs, it has dumped Berlioz's seldom heard "Benvenuto Cellini" and replaced it with the Gilbert and Sullivan crowd pleaser, "The Pirates of Penzance."

The company has "taken a little heat" from newspaper critics and customers for the switch, Mason said.

But to put on "Benvenuto Cellini," the opera company would need to hire a supplemental chorus, ballet dancers and extra stagehands. The simpler production of "Pirates of Penzance" will cost about $1 million less and is expected to sell more tickets.

Some organizations are openly acknowledging their difficulties.

Merkle, the San Antonio Symphony subscriber, said that when he renewed, the company called to let him know that his money could be at risk. "They were actually pretty fair about it," he said.

But he said he still was confused as to whether his tickets might eventually be usable, so he hadn't filed his claim form with the bankruptcy court.

Because the San Antonio Symphony filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it still hopes to resume operations next year, and said that customers like Merkle would get credit toward future performances if that happens.

Just the same, Paul Salazar, director of patron services for the symphony, said he is urging patrons to file bankruptcy claims in case the symphony is unable to resurrect itself.

Patrons out of luck

Bankruptcy lawyers say ticket holders generally are considered unsecured creditors, one of the last groups to get paid in a bankruptcy filing. They get paid only if there is money left over after the payroll has been met and secured creditors such as mortgage lenders have been paid off.

Other patrons say arts groups should have been more explicit about their precarious financial situation.

Gert Steckerl, a retired hospital coordinator, said the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., called her in February and asked her to renew her subscription. She paid $837 for tickets for her and her husband.

Three months later, the philharmonic filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the Steckerls were out of luck.

"I felt they had acted in an unethical manner," Steckerl said, whose entire entertainment budget is now blown.

The orchestra's lawyer, Brian K. Gart, said the Florida Philharmonic fully expected it would have enough support to put on the next season at the time subscription renewals were sent out. He added that the orchestra is considering its options, one of which could be to reorganize and offer subscribers free concerts in exchange for dropping their claims in the bankruptcy proceedings.

Few changes at big venues

Some groups said they are going out of their way to appease season-ticket holders while slashing their performance schedules or raising ticket prices.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, which increased ticket prices as much as 21 percent when it moved this year to its new home and trimmed the number of performances, has offered seat upgrades and free tickets to disgruntled subscription series holders.

"It's not their fault we've reduced performances," said D. David Brown, the company's executive director. "It's our responsibility to make it better than it was before for our subscribers."

When the Boston Ballet cut Tuesday and Wednesday performances from its series, it said it bent over backward so that people holding season tickets for that day could attend the performances of their choosing.

Of course, many arts institutions are finding ways for the show to go on without compromising what's on stage. Big performing arts venues like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and Lincoln Center in New York say they haven't had to make changes to their season.

Likewise, well-known companies with large endowments aren't cutting back. In fact, the American Ballet Theatre actually is expanding its fall season at City Center to three weeks instead of two.

Deals help stimulate sales

But if you are worried about subscribing to a group that might go broke or slash its programs, you may be better off sticking with brand-name institutions. Performing-arts venues often have the advantage over individual companies of being able to book a comparable company if one drops out.

For example, when Ballet Tech of New York suspended its season, the Joyce Theater -- where the dance company performed -- filled the void by booking such artists as tap dancer Savion Glover and the Smuin Ballet.

Another tactic may be waiting until the last minute to buy your ticket. Arts institutions hate this, saying it only exacerbates their financial problems. And seating choices can be limited. But more arts groups say they are offering last-minute deals to fill seats.

Indeed, the good news about the bad financial times is that there are more deals of all types for art aficionados on a budget.

The University of Texas at Austin's Performing Arts Center has lowered ticket prices 15 percent to 20 percent and recently featured such crowd-pleasers like pop singer Gladys Knight to stimulate sales. The Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University is offering an extra 10 percent off to members who buy tickets in advance during the "pre-sale" event.

Others are offering more ticket flexibility. Cal Performances at the University of California at Berkley now allows single-ticket buyers exchange tickets for other performances for a $5 fee. In Washington, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company offers a three-play package now along with its five-play subscription series. The cost for the three-play package runs from $87 to $114 depending on seating and comes with a 50 percent-off coupon for a friend.

In these tough economic times for the arts, said Abby Fenton, Woolley Mammoth's director of development, "We have to make sure we're reaching out to more people, not less."

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