Low overhead helps community arts groups weather recession

Nick Nickl, board chair of the Lexington Singers, at a rehearsal of the group Dec. 8, 2008. Photo by Rich Copley | LexGo.

Nick Nickl, board chair of the Lexington Singers, at a rehearsal of the group Dec. 8, 2008. Photo by Rich Copley | LexGo.

It’s been a good season for Studio Players.

Martha Campbell as Mary Todd Lincoln in the Studio Players hit, "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln." LexGo photo by Pablo Alcala.

Martha Campbell as Mary Todd Lincoln in the Studio Players hit, "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln." Photo by Pablo Alcala | LexGo.

The first three shows at the Carriage House ­Theatre on Bell Court – Don’t Dress for Dinner, A Tuna ­Christmas and The Last of Mrs. Lincoln – were hits for the community ­theater troupe, selling out most performances. Bob Singleton, president of the company’s board of directors, says that if about 80 percent of the seats for a production are sold, the costs have been covered. And so far, Studio Players has not seen a decline in donations.

If only every arts group could tell that tale.

As the nation plunges deeper into a recession, good news in the arts has been hard to find. Just last week, word came of layoffs at the Philadelphia Orchestra and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the latest in a steady stream of bad news for arts groups that also must deal with the economic downturn’s effect on ticket sales and fund-raising.

But community arts ­organizations generally don’t have the overhead costs of a staff or space to maintain, and sometimes are able to thrive in challenging times.

“This is a season ­everyone wants to write down in red letters in their diaries,” Lexington Singers board president, Nick Nickl, says.

Last fall’s the Singers’ 50th ­anniversary concert far ­exceeded box-office ­expectations, and the chorus had the ego boost of traveling to ­Washington to sing at the ­Kennedy Center for the ­Performing Arts in the production of Our Lincoln.

The only ­disappointment of the season, Nickl says, has been ­raising money for its annual Festival of Choirs.
“Usually people are eager to contribute to that,” Nickl says of the event, which brings the Singers together with choirs from ­traditionally black churches. “But we had to give it a little extra push this year.”

That said, “if you look at the list of organizations close to the edge, we’re not one of them,” Nickl says.
Neither is the Lexington ­Community ­Orchestra.

“We have been able to continue with a minimum of difficulty or ­challenge,” says violinist Pam ­Hammonds, ­president of the community orchestra board. “We’re very small. A lot of our budget is from dues we pay by semester to play, and we’re tax-exempt, which allows us to apply for grants on occasion.

“But really, our biggest expense is music.”

Even there, the orchestra has developed during its 17-year history a music library from which it can draw.

Orchestra members pay $35 a semester to play, and the fee has not driven ­anyone away. In fact, the orchestra has grown this year, Hammonds says, and audiences for its two concerts have been good.

Members of the Central Kentucky Concert Band also pay to play: $30 a season or $50 a year.

Board president Lee Patrick says the main hit the band has taken is in the few mutual funds that served as cash reserves; with the situation in the stock market, ­dipping into the funds is not an option now. Still, Patrick has no ­worries.

“A few years ago, we were running out of money,” Patrick recalls. “So one night, I got up and gave a little speech about it, and by the end of the night, we were $800 richer.

“Obviously, playing in the band is important to members of the band, and if they need to, they’re not afraid to reach into their pockets to help out.”

Neither the orchestra nor the concert band charges ­admission to concerts. ­Patrick says the concert band usually puts out a ­donations box at post-­concert ­receptions that generates a few hundred bucks.

Jim Clark. Photo courtesy of LexArts.

Jim Clark. Photo courtesy of LexArts.

Jim Clark, president and CEO of LexArts, says, “These are all very thrifty ­organizations that can stretch a ­dollar farther than ­anyone.” Of Studio Players, he says, “If they only had $50 to do a show, they could pull it off.”

Because of the way the groups are structured, Clark says, they are somewhat ­immune to economic travails.
“We’re fortunate in that we are not worrying about losing a $20,000 season sponsorship,” Studio ­Players’ Singleton says, touching on a ­common problem of professional groups across the country. “If someone gave us $1,000, they’d be at the top of our donor list.”

None of the ­community-based groups I talked to were ­dependent enough on ­donations to be particularly worried about them, though Singleton and the Lexington Singers’ Nickl didn’t want to paint too rosy a picture.

“We are aware of the economic situation out there,” Nickl says.
Singleton says, “We don’t want people who do contribute to us to suddenly say, ‘Oh, they’re fine. They don’t need our help.'”

In addition to having a low ­dependence on ­contributed income, the community groups that charge admission think they’re at a good ­value, even when times aren’t so good.

Studio ­Players, which opens a production of Six ­Degrees of ­Separation on ­Thursday, charges $15 for adults. Nickl says the top price for a concert ­presented by the Singers is $18.

“We’re looking at the best value when you divide quality by price,” Nickl says of the well-traveled choir, which has toured Europe and South America in recent years.

So, while ­professional groups nervously eye the bottom line, the community ­organizations are confident they’ll be around to sing Happy Days Are Here Again, when they are.

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