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High Price of Arts in S.D. Shuts Out Many Devotees

Is San Diego on the verge of a crisis of elitism in the arts? Several arts leaders have privately voiced concerns that the arts in San Diego may be outpacing the community in sophistication. And high prices prevent many from participating.

Arts managers say that the subject matter in shows like the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Lulu” and the San Diego Rep’s “Red Noses,” while embraced by many audiences, alienate some would-be theatergoers. And theatergoers represent a depressingly small fraction of the adult population--10% would be exceptional.

Certainly a whopping credibility gap exists between contemporary visual arts professionals and most of the community. The San Diego Unified Port District’s inability to successfully commission even one new work of contemporary public art in three years speaks volumes.

But even the city’s strongest arts realm, the professional theater, is becoming economically elitist. High- priced tickets are simply out of the reach of many people.

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At a time when videocassettes can be rented for $1, it costs $17-$24 to see Neil Simon’s “Rumors” at the Old Globe (and only if tickets to the sold-out show are returned). Admission to the San Diego Museum of Art is $5 per adult for the museum’s current Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit.

San Diego Symphony tickets start at $15, with most seats above $20. By comparison, the San Diego Opera’s low-end tickets are a bargain at $10, but opera seats go up to $52.50, the most expensive of any local arts institution.

The situation is even grimmer when viewed from the perspective of arts managers. Because there is no tradition of private and business support for the arts, and there is a lack of national corporate headquarters here, arts officials say that generating increased donations will be like squeezing blood from a turnip.

Meanwhile, ticket prices are inching upward to make up the difference between donations and costs.

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“We are earning more than is reasonable to expect” from ticket sales, acknowledged Old Globe Managing Director Thomas Hall. Hall said the Globe streamlines operating costs by doubling roles, using 30 actors instead of the 60 called for by Shakespeare for a play, and by rehearsing Shakespearean plays, which would receive eight weeks rehearsal in countries where governments fund 50% of the arts budgets, for only 3 1/2 weeks.

Top actors are “horribly underpaid,” according to Hall. Wage scales in regional theaters such as the Globe range from $450 to $600 a week, he said. “That translates into a salary, on average, of $24,000 a year,” he said. “Who do you know in the peak of their industry that would be making $24,000 a year? Nobody.”

Hall foresees a financial crisis for the arts of “significant proportions” in San Diego within the next five years. Costs continue to rise, but there are no new money sources on the horizon. Last year the arts here cost about $45 million, according to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Less than half that was covered by donations.

If the arts are to grow and prosper, and become less elitist, annual donations must grow substantially so that ticket prices can drop.

As long as ticket prices make up a substantial part of arts-budget revenues, fewer and fewer San Diegans will experience the arts.

One potential source of arts donations is the Voluntary Fund for the Arts. For six years, the county tax collector has mailed arts donation coupons to property owners along with the annual property-tax bills. There are about 595,000 property owners in San Diego County.

An optimist would point out that, if each property owner contributed $100 a year--amounting to less than 30 cents a day--the arts would receive $59.5 million.

But the flyers are not mailed to 225,000 owners, who pay taxes through impound accounts or are commercial developers with 15 or more properties.

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More sobering still, last year fewer than 800 property owners responded to the arts pitch, contributing less than $20,000.

But, this year, an eye-catching, two-color flyer is being mailed with tax bills. The county’s Public Arts Advisory Committee commissioned the flyer-coupons from Design Group West/Crouch & Associates, which donated the design, replete with classical images of the arts, including a lute player, the Mona Lisa and a fig-leafed classical sculpture.

The funds generated will be distributed to individual artists and groups using a new process. Applications will be judged by panels of arts professionals.

The program’s objective this year is realistically modest, according to the advisory council’s executive director, Carol Hobson. Don’t even think about $59.5 million.

“Our goal is to break $20,000,” she said.


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