Outlook for arts is a bit brighter

The long recession forces Triangle arts groups to balance the joy of creating against financial reality.

Staff WriterSeptember 12, 2010 

As the 2010-11 performing arts season begins, artists otherwise obsessed with reaching creative nirvana are keeping an eye on the down-to-earth but crucial issue of ticket sales.

Now is the season of season subscriptions, a vital source of revenue for performing arts organizations - dance, music and theater. Given that the recession hit some arts groups hard, sales are especially critical this year.

"We're keenly aware that we're not in the business of making money, we're in the business of making art," said Joseph Haj, producing artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. "But if we don't take care of the finances appropriately, that means the art is smaller and smaller and less and less significant."

With the economic picture slowly improving, many arts groups are experiencing - or projecting - a mild resurgence in ticket sales.

"As we talk to our season ticket holders, there seems to be less anxiety out there about the economy," said David Chambless Worters, the departing CEO of the N.C. Symphony. The recession prompted austerity measures at the symphony that included a substantial pay cut for musicians.

The arts are a major contributor to the local economy.

Out-of-town visitors who made the trek to a single venue last season - the Durham Performing Arts Center - spent $27.3 million on tickets, restaurants, lodging and the like, said Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wake County's nonprofit arts and cultural groups generated $106 million in 2006, the last year it was measured. That includes $44 million in direct spending by those organizations and $62 million by their audiences, according to a study sponsored by several organizations, including the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Deals boost sales

In a nod to the down economy, some arts groups have changed their season ticket plans to encourage sales.

After two seasons of declining ticket sales, the Carolina Ballet has lowered the price of its least-expensive subscription series to $30 for three ballets - versus $70 for five performances last year - and adopted a liberal exchange policy. A patron who buys a single season ticket for seven shows can, for example, exchange them for seven tickets to a single show at no extra cost. Likewise, season ticket holders can switch among any performances of the world premiere of "Dracula," choreographed by two-time Tony Award nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett.

"I think a family of four or five should be able to attend the ballet at a reasonable price," said Bruce Loving, director of marketing.

The upshot: Subscription sales at the Carolina Ballet are up 10 percent so far this year.

Similarly, Manbites Dog Theater in Durham hopes to broaden its appeal this season by lowering the cost of student tickets. Patrons with a student ID can buy tickets at the door for $5. Last year, it was $8.

Buyers getting choosy

For some consumers, a new season triggers a new analysis of whether a season ticket would be a good value for them.

Jennifer Hammond, 25, a marketing director who lives in Raleigh, is a huge fan of musicals and was a season subscriber to DPAC's Broadway series - along with two friends - the past two seasons. Last season, she went to "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Wicked" twice.

But this season, Hammond and her friends have decided to forgo the season ticket route because they love some of the shows in the lineup, but not all of them.

"It's about value," said Hammond. "I want to go see the shows I really want to see."

So this season, they're buying individual tickets for three shows.

Season subscriptions are both a leading indicator of a season's audience appeal and a source of upfront money that can be used to pay some of the bills. Organizations that also depend on philanthropy and grants from state and local government may rely on ticket sales for as little as 30 percent of their total revenue.

The North Carolina Opera's season-opening production of "Tosca" will cost about $200,000 to produce, but "we don't pass the costs on to our customers," said Eric Mitchko, general director. Individual tickets to "Tosca" range from $26 to $77.

The N.C. Opera is, in a sense, a child of the recession. It was formed last year when the Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera decided that the best way to ride out the economic downturn was to merge.

Sales up already

For some groups, this year is already shaping up better than last year.

DPAC officials report that season ticket sales that include a touring production of the hit musical "Billy Elliot" are up 5 percent this season compared to this time a year ago. Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh had its first sell-out for an opening night performance last week for its production of "To Kill A Mockingbird," said Jerome Davis, artistic director.

At PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, season ticket sales for its main stage productions already are 5 percent ahead of last year, "and we're still selling them, of course," said Haj. Subscriptions for its smaller-scale "second stage" productions, known as PRC2, are 19 percent ahead of last year's final total.

Haj said that, among other things, PlayMakers is benefiting from a loyal audience. "Our subscription renewal rate is 83 percent, which is well above sector-wide averages."

Some arts groups whose ticket sales have hit the skids say other factors, rather than the economy, are to blame.

Season subscribers of Broadway Series South at the city-owned Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh dropped from 5,000 two years ago to 3,000 last year. But Roger Krupa, who runs the entertainment complex as director of the Raleigh Convention Center, fingers DPAC, which opened in late 2008, as the culprit.

DPAC gets first dibs on booking hot touring shows, said Krupa, because it's co-managed by the Nederlander Organization, the nation's leading theatrical presenter.

So Broadway Series South essentially abandoned the Broadway formula this season. It has reinvented itself by cobbling together an eclectic package of performances, many for a single night or short runs, that include musical acts and comedians as well as stage shows. The lineup ranges from a new show by the creators of the rhythmically obsessed "Stomp" called "Pandemonium: The Lost and Found Orchestra" to vintage pop group Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.

"DPAC has cornered the market on classic, touring Broadway shows," said Krupa. "We had no opportunity to buy those shows."

First up, a sellout

Michelle Bernal, director of marketing for Broadway Series South, said it's too early to gauge overall ticket sales, but the first show in the lineup, "American Idol" star Adam Lambert, sold out in his sole performance Aug. 28.

"The one-nights, they do quite well," she said.

Correspondent Roy C. Dicks contributed to this report.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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