Ways to Weather the Storm : Strategy: Attracting an increasingly selective audience and raising money will be key to survival, arts officials say.


For the second year in a row, the New Year has found Orange County arts leaders struggling with the effects of an economic recession, with little evidence of an immediate end in sight.

The twin challenges, particularly for performing-arts organizations, are holding on to cash-strapped audiences and mounting successful fund-raising campaigns in an atmosphere of fiscal hardship and intense competition for donors.

While situations differ and levels of optimism among arts leaders surveyed vary, Orange County arts audiences appear to be growing more selective, but they can still be drawn out in force for the right attraction.

The Orange County Philharmonic Society, for instance, saw a slight downturn in subscription sales for its 1991-92 orchestral series, but after a disappointing box-office opening (with the Cleveland Orchestra) finished 1991 strongly with the help of solid single-ticket sales.

The Prague Symphony recorded a sellout, and Irish traditionalists the Chieftains drew a turn-away crowd. But for the 1992-93 season, which has yet to be announced, Philharmonic Society executive director Erich A. Vollmer anticipates a "difficult" subscription campaign.

"People aren't making commitments that far in advance," Vollmer said.

Other groups also find that audiences are being more fickle.

"I think people are just being more selective about what they go to," said John Alexander, music director of the Pacific Chorale.

"I think people might be more sensitive to reviews than they would when they had a greater amount of discretionary income and greater confidence in the security of their jobs," Laguna Playhouse executive director Richard A. Stein said. "They were then more likely to take chances on a program a critic disliked. The public is opting for surer things."

While single-ticket sales can help an organization ride out rough times, subscription levels are the biggest determinant of long-term health, several arts leaders warned.

"The key (to riding out the recession) will be whether subscription levels can be maintained," said Thomas R. Kendrick, president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

On the fund-raising front, most organizations surveyed predicted that corporate donations would be harder to come by in a lingering recession. Prognoses on the availability of individual gifts were mixed, although leaders of several organizations said they would be more reliant on stepped-up board campaigns in the year ahead.

"We're not anticipating that we'll be able to look to the business community for significant increases" in donations, said Louis G. Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony. This year "is not going to be a year for any dramatic expansion of support."

The outlook for foundation support seems cheerier, especially with the late-December announcement of nearly $1 million in grants to a number of county groups from the Leo Freedman Foundation, with the big winners this year being the Grove Shakespeare Festival and the Orange County Performing Arts Center ($250,000 each).

Trust officials say the foundation, created by developer Leo Freedman before he died in 1989, will hand out at least $500,000 in grants each year to Orange County arts groups. The December grants were its first.

Even with the late burst of good news, however, this remains a time of consolidation for county arts groups, in the wake of a decade in which many organizations--especially those affiliated with the Performing Arts Center--experienced rapid growth that was accompanied by equally rapid increases in expenses. Several groups, such as the Pacific Symphony, must not only pay for year-to-year operations, but also are trying to get out from under deficits accumulated during the growth years.

Some capital campaigns and expansion plans remain on hold throughout the county:

NEWPORT HARBOR ART MUSEUM A museum spokeswoman would say only that the museum's long-stalled, multimillion-dollar campaign will be a "major" item on the institution's board meeting later this month, but director Michael Botwinick left nothing ambiguous about the effects of a protracted recession.

"If there's a prolonged recession, it will keep us in a deep freeze. You can't do a major capital campaign without capital. There's no question in my mind it will affect the timing of our campaign."

LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE The recession could even further delay long-stalled plans to establish a second stage at another site. A capital campaign for the project has long been dormant, but the economy has forced the organization to think about downsizing its idea of second-stage programming as well.

The recession wouldn't scuttle such plans, Stein insisted, but a new site may be "smaller or cheaper" than previously envisioned, or "we'll find other ways (of doing alternative programming) even if we do it on the main stage by offering some level of second-stage programming there."

OPERA PACIFIC Officials of the group have discussed launching a summer festival of chamber operas (possibly at the Irvine Barclay Theatre), but plans have been put on hold by the continuing economic crunch.

"We've just put that . . . on a back burner," Opera Pacific general director David DiChiera said. "This is not a time for us to be creating new initiatives."

PACIFIC SYMPHONY For Orange County's largest orchestra, this was already planned as a time of limited growth--a time to maintain and develop a stable base of support and to retire a daunting accumulated deficit of more than $800,000.

But if the recession lingers, it could push back expansion plans, such as recording and touring, until later this decade. The deficit makes it "doubly important" to move carefully, Spisto said. "We are looking very cautiously at the next three years."

ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER A capital campaign for long-promised additional theaters at the Center remains a distant prospect.

Requests of arts officials for predictions regarding economic recovery and the long-term effects of the recession on the local arts scene drew varied responses.

"Nothing lasts forever; even the Communists did not last forever," offered the ever-cheerful Yaakov Dvir-Djerassi, manager of the Orange County Symphony of Garden Grove. "I do believe that with the election year, you will see a change (in the economy). It happens every time, and this political year will be a strong one because we are talking about an incumbent who wants to get back in office."

Newport Harbor Art Museum director Michael Botwinick sounded a cautionary note, however: "I suspect that . . . the economy is never going to be what it was even when we climb out of this. The rules are fundamentally different, and we are asking ourselves really what are the real responsibilities of the museum in the '90s.

"They may be different than what they were in the '80s. I think the whole issue on growth, exhibitions, outreach and education and what peoples' expectations of this museum are will have subtly shifted, I think for better or worse, by this whole experience we've been going through."

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