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Arts institutions want to avoid a bust after building boom

Minneapolis Arts Commission
MinnPost photo by Michael Metzger
Thursday’s participants on future of arts panel, from left: Robyne Robinson, Fox 9 news anchor and moderator; Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Philippe Vergne, Walker Art Center; Jocelyn Hale, Loft Literary Center; Lilly Schwartz, Minnesota Orchestra; John Miller-Stephany, Guthrie Theater, and Vickie Benson, McKnight Foundation.

After a remarkable building boom in the first part of the decade, Twin Cities arts organizations are rethinking their business models to avoid busts in the second half of the decade, representatives of several major institutions told a Minneapolis Arts Commission forum Thursday night.

As the organizations remake the way they do business inside their big, beautiful and new buildings, they’re mindful of the danger of losing their artistic souls in a scramble for paying customers who are themselves dealing with dwindling financial resources.

Representatives from the institutions agreed in a panel discussion held at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that the local arts scene is still alive and well, though facing increasing costs and the uncertainty of shifting revenue streams. The discussion came as the National Endowment for the Arts released this week its report titled “Artists in the Workforce 1990-2005,” which shows Minnesota ranks in the top 10 states in employment of actors, designers and musicians per 10,000 population. [See rankings and pie chart below.]

That’s entertainment
Philippe Vergne, the Walker Art Center’s deputy director and chief curator, said the institution that completed a $135 million expansion in 2005 strives to keep its “spirit of experimentation.”

“Can you sustain that without selling your soul to the economy?” he wondered. “I don’t think we’re selling out, but we’re using a corporate word when we call what we do ‘entertainment.’ “

” ‘Entertainment’ is a dirty word,” he said to laughter in the audience of about 50. “Entertainment sounds like Steven Spielberg; to overtly flirt with ‘entertainment’ is going to come back and bite us in the neck.”

“What’s wrong with entertainment?” said Lilly Schwartz, director of pops and special projects for the Minnesota Orchestra.

She said the orchestra is trying to broaden its mass appeal with programming including popular artists such as Elvis Costello and mainstream jazz musicians.

Those kinds of “blockbuster” events, she said, bring in audiences that might otherwise avoid the orchestra. After attending such an event, she said, audience members often come back for more, including performances of classical music.

“I do believe you have to educate your audience and gain their trust,” she said. “I think it’s snobby of us to say we’re on the edge and so cool.”

Falling numbers
Schwartz acknowledged that season subscriptions to the orchestra are beginning to lag. Consumers are changing the way they buy tickets, often now preferring single-performance tickets rather than long-term financial commitments.

John Miller-Stephany, associate artistic director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (its new 285,000-square-foot three-theater building opened in 2006), said subscriptions there are still strong but that nationally season ticket sales are dropping. “People aren’t willing to pony up for eight shows a year in advance. It’s a readjustment.”

He said the Guthrie staff, along with management at other arts organizations, is changing its decision-making process as the U.S. economy continues its slide.

“People aren’t necessarily planning as far in advance,” he said.

Miller-Stephany repeatedly said things are good at the Guthrie, however, and that no one there feels the $125 million riverfront home in downtown Minneapolis was a mistake in any way.

“In terms of the Guthrie’s new building, I think it’s important to note that the program existed before the building,” he said. “It wasn’t that we built the building and then are trying to decide what to put in it.”

He said the Guthrie is doing what it has always done, but in a new location and improved facility. “I think Twin Cities arts organizations, in building their facilities, had a clear idea of why that was necessary.”

Jennifer Komar Olivarez, associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, said her organization has changed from creating and sticking to 10-year strategic plans to 3-year plans in order to be more flexible and able to respond to changes in the economy.

Vergne said he misses the economic good times of the 1990s.

“We grew. We got a bit fatter. Now we have to go on Weight Watchers and we have to get smarter,” he said.

The Loft Literary Center’s executive director, Jocelyn Hale, said her organization recently laid off a staff member to cut costs.

“We’re not an organization in crisis,” she said, “but we have to get leaner.”

A plea for the people who create the art
Vickie Benson, the McKnight Foundation’s program director for the arts, agreed that Minnesota arts organizations are healthy despite a foundering economy, but she worries about artists themselves.

“This is not a profound statement, but sometimes people forget that we can’t have the arts without the artists,” she said. “We are a healthy community, in the Twin Cities and state, but we can’t forget that many artists still live in the poverty range and don’t have health insurance.

“[We should] not forget about the artists that bring all this vibrancy to our communities.”

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