Fund-raising campaign by theater group seeks to erase $1 million debt


Faced with a million-dollar deficit, the organization that books shows at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and Lyric Opera House is launching the first fund-raising campaign in its history.

The Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts hopes to raise $2 million over the next two years to offset the deficit and establish a fund to help keep the center going.

Steve Goldstein, the center's general manager, said the deficit is ZTC primarily the result of renovating the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, which the center ran until it was taken over last October by the city.

Mr. Goldstein said the deficit will not affect the current season.

"That's really not even a consideration at this point," he said. "The subscription renewal is going to go out on schedule, as it's always gone out in the past, and we certainly expect to get out of this and continue next season and in future seasons."

The fund-raising campaign is being led by Roger C. Lipitz, chairman of Global Health Management and head of a new, expanded board of directors being assembled for the nonprofit performing arts center.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a local business group, has joined Mr. Lipitz's fund-raising effort. He said there are already indications that corporate donors and foundations are willing to contribute nearly $1 million -- including a formal commitment of $250,000 from the Abell Foundation.

Most nonprofit theatrical organizations around the country do regular fund-raising, but the Baltimore group has managed to avoid that throughout its 19-year-history.

It has done so by investing money generated by such blockbusters as "Les Miserables" and "Cats" and using the earned interest to create a substantial reserve fund, said Rebecca Katz, the center's marketing director.

But when Mr. Lipitz began assessing the center's financial health last spring at the request of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, he discovered that the organization's situation had changed considerably.

"What I found was a facility that was having extraordinary cash drains -- one from Pier Six, which was the major problem, the second being just the change in the economics of theater over the last decade," he said.

The center, he said, "had gone from an operation that was able to operate in the black from its productions of Broadway theater to one which, for a number of reasons, was no longer operating in the black, even excluding Pier Six."

He said the reasons included a slow economy, increasing competition, extraordinary increases in the cost of bringing productions to town, and an inability to land blockbuster shows because of the size of the city's theaters.

Donald Hutchinson, GBC president, said the group has taken on the fund-raising project because it wants to put the center "in a position where [it] can focus on the long-term financial stability of the operation."

He and Mr. Lipitz are meeting with businesses and foundations to discuss donations and expand the center's board to 13 -- its largest ever.

"When the new board comes on, a legitimate role they will have is to develop a fund-raising strategy that will go to the private sector for ongoing support," as the city's other major arts organizations do, Mr. Hutchinson said.

Mr. Goldstein said the center plans to hire a development director within the next few weeks.

"If we can bring the finances to more responsible levels, then a . . . sustaining fund of $500,000 ought to make it work," Mr. Lipitz said.

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