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.