Arts Advocacy Update XCI: What’s Opera, Doc?

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The content below is from Americans for the Arts’ Cultural Policy Listserv email blast of July 1, 2009:

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Rhode Island: Providence Mayor Unveils Arts and Culture Plan
Providence Business News, 6/26/2009
“Mayor David N. Cicilline unveiled a new arts and culture plan for the city entitled Creative Providence: A Cultural Plan for the Creative Sector, the outcome of a nearly two-year, $70,000 community-wide planning process designed to strengthen and promote the arts in the capital city. The plan ‘honors the voices of a variety of stakeholders who generously shared their time, expertise and experience to develop strategies to maximize resources while strengthening one of the Creative Capital’s most important economic drivers,’ Cicilline said in a statement.”
The completeness and thoroughness of this document is astonishing. Not that there haven’t been great planning processes before, but for the mayor of Providence to attach himself so firmly and so proudly to an endeavor of this magnitude is deeply reassuring.

Survey: Art Museum Field Trips Down Six Percent in the Last Decade
Philanthropy News Digest, 6/20/2009
“Based on a survey of nearly four thousand eighth grade students, ‘Arts 2008’ found that the number of students who reported they visited an art museum or gallery with their classes dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2008. Published by the National Center for Education Statistics, the report was generated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which releases reports periodically on different sectors of achievement and engagement. This year the assessment examined visual arts and music.”
Money, money, money, the problem always harkens right back to the Almighty Buck. It’s amusing to me — though dispiriting — that as the nonprofit sector learns better and better how to speak to the elected officials who determine its funding, possibly ensuring it for a new generation, the current generation as well as the new generation is more and more disenfranchised by a lack of access to the national cultural menu. Put another way, we’re fighting for funding for fewer folks.

Florida: County Board Approves Tourism Development Stimulus Package
RedOrbit.com, 6/23/2009
“The Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a $3 million stimulus package that Tourism Development Council (TDC) agencies will use to help attract tourists and raise the short-term bed tax receipts. In an innovative step to help fuel the tourism industry, the board of county commissioners approved using the funds from a bed-tax reserve account. Of the $3 million, $2 million will go to the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and $1 million will be divided among four TDC agencies: the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, Sports Commission, Environmental Resource Management, and Film and Television Commission. The Cultural Council and CVB will use the funds for campaigns that highlight the county’s year-long centennial celebration.”
What’s key here, of course, is that the impact of the spending be measured and publicized widely. I find it interesting that the term “stimulus” is being used in this context. Pretty smart for politically divided Florida.

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North Carolina: Raleigh City Council Rejects Proposed Arts Cuts
The News & Observer, 6/20/2009
“The [Raleigh] City Council voted to keep funding for the arts at $4.50 per resident, or about $1.71 million annually, in the next fiscal year’s budget. City Manager Russell Allen had proposed cutting arts funding to four dollars per resident, which would have saved the city $190,000. Philip Isley, the lone council member to vote against the budget, said he would have supported the budget if it had included a cut to arts funding. Isley argued that the city’s arts funding would have been generous at four dollars per resident. Given the bad economy, that money could have been better spent on other things, Isley said. Council member Nancy McFarlane, Mayor Charles Meeker, and others argued that the arts community is an integral part of the city’s economy.”
Curiously, the story doesn’t actually include a quote from Isley, so perhaps we’ll never know how he would define “better spent.” If Raleigh is experiencing a battle, for instance, funding its police or fire departments, I would agree with him. His lack of specificity — at least the lack of specificity implied by the story — suggests either Isley’s ignorance about the importance of the arts or the writer’s lack of balanced journalism. (If Isley didn’t want to be quoted, the writer could state as much. Then Isley can incriminate himself and the reporter looks terrific.)

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North Carolina: Today Show Brings Supplies, Instruments to Charlotte Nonprofit
The Charlotte Observer, 6/27/2009
“By the time Al Roker’s trucks were empty, violins, keyboards, paints, crayons, and guitars were stacked shoulder-high in the lobby of the Community School of the Arts. Volunteers used boxes of Crayola supplies as doorstops as hundreds struggled to fit donated equipment into the uptown office. The popular weatherman brought $369,000 in supplies to the nonprofit, which offers visual and performing arts classes…The Today Show was profiling the school’s outreach program, which provides free arts instruction to Charlotte children who can’t afford it.”
Next week — Oprah!

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Nearly Half of Nonprofits Experiencing Severe Fiscal Stress
CharityNavigator.org, 6/30/2009
“Eighty percent of nonprofit organizations are experiencing fiscal stress according to a survey released [June 30] by Johns Hopkins University, and close to 40 percent of them reported that this stress was ‘severe’ or ‘very severe.’ Theaters and orchestras were particularly hard hit, with nearly 75 percent of the former and half of the latter reporting ‘severe’ or ‘very severe’ stress. Contributing to this stress has been a perfect storm of impacts including declining revenues (51 percent of organizations); increased costs, particularly for health benefits; declining endowments; and decreased cash flow as a result of restricted credit and government payment delays.”
The idea that three-quarters of the theaters in this survey reported being under “severe” or “very severe” stress is upsetting, as it should be. But it also leaves me asking why theaters were especially vulnerable to an economic downturn in the first place. After all, there was the shock to the economy right after Sept. 11 — it took time and great pain to dig out of that hole, and I thought every company was to be an acolyte of best fiscal practices going forward. Not to fault service organizations such as Theatre Communications Group, which nobody can question in terms of its heart being in the right place, but one has to wonder whether the leaders of the theater sector, including TCG, were asleep at the switch to some degree. I mean, three-quarters of theaters? That suggests something isn’t right in Denmark. Or here at home.

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Florida: Arts Fund Offers $200,000 to Help Opera Company
The Orlando Sentinel, 6/25/2009
“In an annual meeting marked by more than 30 minutes of uncharacteristic debate, United Arts of Central Florida board members voted to allocate $200,000 of its $5.8 million budget to fund two staged concert operas by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Carol Conner, president of the orchestra’s board of directors, described the idea as ‘a bridge’ to future opera in Central Florida after the bankruptcy of the Orlando Opera Company.”
There is more here, it turns out, than meets the eye. These paragraphs are pretty illuminating:

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…A portion of the money would be used to appease disgruntled Orlando Opera subscribers who already have paid thousands of dollars for tickets to the upcoming season. That money was spent by the defunct company to complete performances in the previous season. Subscribers also would receive free admission to the Enzian Theater‘s ongoing “Opera on Film” series.

“We felt very strongly it was important to preserve the opera art form in the community,” Conner said. Previously, the Philharmonic played annually during each of the opera’s three main stage productions.

Others, however, questioned whether it was wise to invest in a plan that would squeeze funds available for other arts groups coping with the tough economy.

Representatives of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Bach Festival Society weighed in against it…