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After years of theater expansion across the state, the momentum has slowed as institutions now face a new power-base reality: a new governor, a new legislature and a new state commission for culture and tourism.

No longer are there tens of millions in bonding money that in the past decade was doled out by Gov. John G. Rowland and legislators for capital arts projects, mainly to enhance urban downtowns across the state.

Meanwhile, several museums are expanding, with a mix of public and private money.

But what will the new financial template be for arts funding?

The forecast is mixed.

Certainly there have been success stories, with three theater projects completed, nearly completed or moving along before the fiscal curtain came down last year with Rowland's exit and the increasing state deficit.

Theater

The Palace Theater in Waterbury opened in November with great fanfare and was embraced by the community. But can a city that lacks solid tenants for the facility come up with alternative programming that will bring the crowds to Main Street and make it a viable business? What is undeniable is that the first-class, $30 million renovation has restored what was a lost gem. Now, about the programming ...

The Westport Country Playhouse is on track to open its expanded and renovated barn-like theater, thanks to a $30.5 million drive that included $18 million to build the new facility. (The state kicked in $5 million for the project.)

Despite the year-round capability of the new theater, The Playhouse's leadership will be taking it slow for the first year, producing four, instead of its usual five, shows for its 75th summer season. The Playhouse will also produce its own holiday show, as well as two other events during the year.

Just as significant is the news that Joanne Woodward is stepping down this year and that a new artistic director will be leading the theater starting next January. Woodward led a forceful team that saved the theater from developers in the '90s, gave it some financial stability and then reshaped and upgraded the artistic programming.

Long Wharf Theater got its $30 million in state funding just weeks before Rowland resigned last year. Planning is underway to relocate the 40-year-old Tony Award-winning theater from its location off I-95 to become part of the ever-growing New Haven downtown.

Long Wharf will be part of a larger developmental project that includes a hotel, conference center, housing, retail and a college campus. But at the moment, the process is a slow one because the demolition of the New Haven Coliseum must still be completed before the project really moves forward. The demolition of the coliseum is expected later this year.

Synergy seemed to be the reason why the Goodspeed Opera House decided to say goodbye to East Haddam and take Middletown's offer to build a new $40 million theater downtown. The old Goodspeed Opera House, on the banks of the Connecticut River, would have opened for just the summer.

But Goodspeed didn't figure in the ire of a politician scorned, namely powerful state Sen. Eileen Dailey, whose district includes East Haddam. She became angered that Goodspeed didn't stay in town. She has used her considerable clout as chairwoman of the bonding committee to block funding for the new theater, thereby killing the move - or at least dimming hopes for it.

Goodspeed is now in talks with East Haddam to get approval from local agencies for building a new theater there. But that's the least of the problems for Goodspeed if the new theater ends up in East Haddam, as many now believe. The new problem will be raising the money for the new theater. Place this project in the wait-and-see category for 2005.

In other theaters in the state, conditions languish. There's a legal struggle between the attorneys general in Connecticut and New York and the executors of the Lucille Lortel Foundation over the fate of the historic White Barn Theater in Norwalk, which has been closed for several years. The executors want to see the facility and its 18-acre estate and property sold to developers of residential housing, with the money being used for other theater arts projects. That's not what Lortel's will says, the attorneys general say. The legal wrangling continues - for now.

The less-than-robust economy in Connecticut continues to present financial challenges for theaters throughout the state.

But both Hartford Stage and Long Wharf have an improved financial picture. Hartford Stage ended its last fiscal year in the black for the first time in years. Hartford Stage is placing its energies on its main stage subscription series, the summer stage programming, special events such as the play-reading series and maximizing the profits from its holiday show.

The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford and the Shubert Theater in New Haven continue to face programming and financial challenges. The Bushnell took a big blow last year when it lost $250,000 with no corporate supporter coming forward to sponsor the "Broadway" series. Poor sales for some shows also point to a six-figure - or more - deficit looming for its 75th anniversary.

The bright note is that the Bushnell has undertaken producing works, such as "The Overcoat," and could reap significant rewards: in financial gain, in audience development and in programming. Also, the Bushnell finally has "The Lion King" coming next season, which should rally audiences. The Bushnell isn't likely to make the theater a fortune because of the expensive deals that Disney makes with presenting houses. Still, the buzz will keep the staff singing "Hakuna Matata" - for a while.

Museums

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the nation's oldest public museum, has settled on its expansion plan, but it hasn't yet worked out all the details. Two years ago, the Wadsworth was about to begin a major renovation that would have closed the museum for two to three years while the work took place. That $120 million plan ($80 million for the building and the rest for the expenses of temporary relocation and the like) was shelved after George David, the head of the board, resigned in December 2002 and several board members followed.

The new board decided to rethink the expansion. After failed efforts to buy The Hartford Club and the Elks Building - their neighbors across Prospect Street - the Wadsworth's board looked farther down the street and announced plans to acquire the old Hartford Times building from the state.

The museum is still in talks with the state. If the deal happens, the museum would relocate offices, two restaurants, the museum store and other non-art related functions to the Times building, opening up about 20 percent more exhibit space in the main set of buildings.

The year 2004 was tough financially. Wadsworth Director Willard Holmes announced at the museum's annual meeting in November that returns on investments saved it from an otherwise bleak financial year. Membership was down, as was attendance, and the museum responded by limiting the increase in its operating budget to 1.3 percent and by closing its doors to the public on Tuesdays. (It already has been closed on Mondays.)

Holmes also said that the museum will not be putting on blockbuster shows, as it has in the past, but will take advantage of the collections it already has. Some of its best works are on tour. When the museum was planning to shut down, it made plans to put its collections on the road. When the building plans changed, it was too late to bring the collections back. The first of those traveling shows returns in September, and the last at the end of 2006.

Major shows coming up this year are: "African Art, African Voices" (Feb. 12 - June 19) and "In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny" (June 4 - Sept. 4).

The New Britain Museum of American Art began construction on a major, $26 million renovation and expansion last summer. The "new" museum is scheduled to open in late spring of 2006, but the existing museum remains open during construction. The museum has raised $22.3 million for the work, which will more than double its size. Fund-raising efforts in the past year were bolstered by a $850,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation. To receive that money, the museum must complete fund-raising for the entire new building by March of 2006. In early February, The Stanley Works contributed $1 million.

New Britain continues its strong run of shows. On view through March 13 is "Contemporary Photography in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." "American Folk Art: Traditional and Spontaneous," an exhibition of traditional and outsider folk art from private and public collections, follows.

In 2004, the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs opened its new Evelyn Simon Gilman Gallery, a two-story addition of exhibition space, atrium, café and museum store. It is named for its benefactor and 1947 alumna, whose $800,000 gift, combined with state bond money and federal grants, funded the $3 million project.

On Feb. 1, the Benton dedicated an existing space as its Human Rights Gallery for visual art exhibitions, public outreach and education programs addressing human rights issues throughout the world. A study assessing the need for a new 12,000-square-foot human rights wing has been written. Predicted cost for the project is $11 million, which includes $7.1 million for the building and the rest for a curator, office staff and acquisition budget.

The first exhibition in the Human Rights Gallery is Nancy Burson's Human Race Machine, a one-of-a-kind machine that uses a highly interactive technology that challenges one's perception of race by making it possible to view one's face with the characteristics of six different races - white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Indian.

The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme begins a 14-month restoration in May that will restore the house to its appearance circa 1910, the height of the boarding-house period. In the early 1900s, the house was a mecca for artists and became known as the Home of American Impressionism. The $2.5 million project received $750,000 from the state of Connecticut as well as federal and private support. The Krieble Gallery, historic gardens, and Chadwick studio will be open during restoration with a full schedule of special events and programming.

Movies

The film industry had a respectable but slightly worrying year in 2004. According to Hollywood Reporter, "marginal gains at the national box office, which reached a record high ... were offset by the fact that for a second year in a row there were slightly fewer admissions. And admissions were down even though there were slightly more wide releases."

The two highest-grossing films of 2004 were both sequels: DreamWorks' big green ogre story, "Shrek 2," and Sony Pictures' high-flying comic book caper, "Spider-Man 2." But the film that raised the most eyebrows and the largest unexpected profits was Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a bloody Biblical tale that became last year's third-highest-grossing film with more than $370 million in domestic receipts. More important to trend-watchers in the film industry, the response to "The Passion" signaled the presence of a conservative, faith-based audience that can be mobilized to spend money at the box office.

"The Passion" was not the only evidence of the culture war that later played itself out in the 2004 presidential election. Films such as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "Team America" and George Butler's documentary "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" insistently combined the worlds of politics and entertainment. Partisan salvos also bubbled up in more unexpected places, including Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" comedy.

Elsewhere, disappointments with some of the most anticipated films of the year surely affected grosses. "Troy," "Alexander" and "Catwoman" were among the year's highly touted films that opened and flopped.

Slightly higher ticket prices helped plump up the national box office total, which reached a record high of $9.53 billion, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "That new high amounted to just $40 million more than the $9.49 billion posted in 2003," according to The Reporter, "and it marked a slim $10 million increase over the golden days of 2002, which hit $9.52 billion."

In the local film market, the competition among art house cinemas is getting steeper, with more offerings for local filmgoers. Criterion Cinemas opened a five-screen art house theater in New Haven. In Hartford, the Crown Theatres chain purchased the lease on Cinema City, rechristened the property Art @ Cinema City, and continues to show art house titles. In West Hartford, plans for the development of Blue Back Square proceed apace (litigation attempts by Westfarms mall notwithstanding), and included in the plan is a four-screen art house theater.

The state's festival scene continues to thrive, with events including the New Haven Film Festival, the Greater Hartford Jewish Film Festival, Hartford's Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, the Director's View Film Festival in Stamford, the Real Art Ways International Family Fest in Hartford and the April in Paris mini-fest of French films at Cinestudio in Hartford.

Rock

Last year was a tough one for the live music business, and Connecticut was no exception.

Although concert industry ticket-sales revenue jumped 12 percent in 2004 to $2.8 billion, ever-higher ticket prices - and not higher attendance - accounted for much of the increase, according to the trade publication Pollstar.

In fact, attendance was down substantially at the ctnow.com Meadows Music Theater, which hosted 204,933 people at 17 concerts last year, including stops by the Dave Matthews Band, blink-182 and Fleetwood Mac. The Hartford amphitheater drew more than 259,000 people to 16 events in 2003.

The Meadows is owned by Jim Koplik Presents, the Connecticut arm of entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel Entertainment, which also owns the careerbuilder.com Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. The Oakdale last year drew 282,145 people to 42 concerts, including shows by Norah Jones and The Roots, and 80 family and theater events. That's less than the Oakdale's 2003 total of 331,000 at 122 events, but more than the 260,000 people who attended productions there in 2002.

The Hartford Civic Center hosted eight concerts last year, including shows by Van Halen and Prince. The number of shows was the same as in 2003, but attendance last year fell to 75,000 from more than 93,600 the previous year.

Mohegan Sun casino didn't provide figures for 2003, but the arena there hosted 121 events in 2004 - not all of which were concerts - with attendance of 605,000. Shows there, which are booked by Jim Koplik Presents, included Kid Rock, Dolly Parton, R.E.M. and three performances by Tim McGraw.

It's tough to predict what 2005 will bring - tour itineraries for the summer haven't been finalized. There are big acts planning tours, including U2, but which, if any, of those bands will stop in Connecticut is up in the air.

Classical

A mix of positive and worrying news faces Hartford Symphony Executive Director Charlie Owens.

At a time when the symphony's endowment has reached $9.1 million and single-ticket sales are the highest they've ever been (helped by the enormous popularity of "The Lord of the Rings" concerts last September), there's news casting a shadow on the symphony's short-term prognosis.

"There's never been a more difficult budget to balance in the last 10 years," Owens says.

Although subscription sales are essentially the same as the year before, the HSO has added to its operating costs this year with an increase in guaranteed services (the number of concerts, educational programs, rehearsals, etc.) and the growth of the size of its "core" orchestra.

Because the HSO is a part-time orchestra and not salaried, Owens explains that players are paid a per-service fee. Those at the "core" level are guaranteed the most services each season. In accordance with the orchestra's contract signed three years ago, the number of services increased from 170 to 195, and the size of the core surged from 23 to 33 players.

To cover the anticipated shortfall, the HSO has taken the step of setting aside $250,000 of the $1 million bequeathed by the estate of Louise Wheelock Willson. The money will eventually be paid back into the symphony's endowment.

Although in recent years the HSO has expanded and been on the road with concerts at the University of Connecticut's Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts and its summer home, Simsbury's Talcott Mountain, Owens likens the effort to build its audience base as an incremental process, measured by slow and steady steps rather than bounding leaps.

For Hartford's other flagship institution, Connecticut Opera, the glass is half full, not half empty.

"[The climate] seems to be healthier this year," says managing director Linda Jackson. "I think people are feeling less panicked about their own personal giving."

Last year's opera gala netted just under $100,000, and Jackson expects the March 5th gala celebrating artistic director Willie Anthony Waters' 25th anniversary with Connecticut Opera to bring in more.

Moreover, a $1 million gift from the Willson estate has given the opera company some "breathing room" to pay down its six-figure deficit.

"The deficit was inherited," says Jackson, who began at Connecticut Opera in 2002. "Before it constantly felt like having this albatross. Now we have the ability to get ahead of ourselves."

Encouraging news came in a nearly sold-out production of "Aida" last October and a subscription renewal rate of 56 percent, five points ahead of where Connecticut Opera was last year.

Books

Sales of electronic books increased by more than 50 percent in 2004, according to year-end figures released by the Association of American Publishers, making that small but rapidly expanding category the strongest in sales growth last year. The group is the principal trade association for the U.S. book publishing industry and tracks sales of books from the major commercial book publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and medium-size houses, nonprofit publishers, university presses and scholarly societies.

Sales of adult hardcover books were up by 6.3 percent in 2004. Adult paperback sales grew by 2.9 percent last year, but the adult mass market book category dropped by 8.9 percent.

Despite a huge 90.5 percent sales gain in December, a good month for gift purchases, hardcover children's and young adult books sales finished the year 16.7 percent lower than in 2003. The comparable paperback category rose by 3.9 percent in 2004.

Audio book sales dropped a fraction of a percent, and religious books had a 5.6 percent sales gain. Books from university presses dropped, by 7.8 percent for hardcover books and 11.4 percent for soft covers.

Locally, the UConn Co-Op on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs did well in book sales in 2004, says Suzy Staubach, manager of its general books division.

Holiday sales were good, Staubach says, and buyers were interested in the many books published on politics and the Iraq war.

Sarah Bedell, the owner of Bookworm in West Hartford Center, says that 2004 was "a great year despite the lack of a new Harry Potter." She says that her independent bookstore is seeing "better and better" sales of books for children, especially the picture book "Danielle At the Wadsworth" by Alma Jones Collins of West Hartford, which focuses on the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

She is feeling upbeat about 2005, Bedell says, and is expecting the release of a new Harry Potter novel in July to continue the strong sales of books for young audiences.

Courant arts writers Frank Rizzo, Deborah Hornblow, Matthew Erikson, Eric R. Danton, Carole Goldberg and Donna Larcen wrote this story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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