Performing Arts Center Holding Its Own


Despite signs of a flagging economy, the budgetary house remained in order at the Orange County Performing Arts Center during the just concluded 2000-01 season.

Center officials reported Thursday that annual spending topped $30 million for the first time at the county's biggest arts organization. The center finished with a slight surplus while presenting a record 339 performances.

But there are signs that economic slowing is beginning to have an impact. Fund-raising for the center's annual operations and its long-range endowment fund remained level, matching last year's $7.6 million. The center's earnings on its conservatively invested $22.8-million endowment dropped from $2 million last year and $1.5 million two years ago to $475,000. And progress toward the center's grail, a $200-million expansion that would double its venues from two to four, has been affected though not sidetracked, President Jerry E. Mandel said in an interview.

With the announcement Thursday of a $5-million gift from Betty Steele and $1 million from the Muth family, the expansion kitty stands at $85.4 million. But only $20.4 million has come in during the 11 months since real estate mogul Henry T. Segerstrom, the county's leading arts patron, jump-started a stalled campaign last August with a cornerstone gift of $40 million. Center officials also anticipated Thursday that another $5-million donation would soon be made. "Certainly I would like it to have moved a little faster," Mandel said, "but when you consider the economy we're in ..."

Still, Mandel affirmed that he is "not concerned" that the drive could bog down to add a 2,000-seat symphony hall and a 500-seat all-purpose theater to the existing 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall and the 300-seat Founders Hall.. The amount raised to date is "right on target" to achieve the planned 2005 opening, Mandel said. "I'm very confident. Enough [potential donors] are considering gifts, are excited about the project and have the resources" to build the new halls across the street from the existing center in Costa Mesa. Like the current center, which opened in 1986, the expansion would be built strictly with private money.

So far the campaign has focused on donors who have track records of supporting the center and its regular tenants--the Pacific Symphony, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Opera Pacific, the Pacific Chorale and the William Hall Master Chorale. Mandel said a wider net will be cast after October, when center officials plan to give their drive a higher public profile, beginning with the unveiling of more detailed models and drawings by the project's architect, Cesar Pelli & Associates.

While Broadway road shows continue to be the center's biggest draw, Mandel said, the highlight of the past season for him was the success of its dance offerings. The center has built a reputation as one of the nation's leading dance presenters, and with the Bolshoi Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet leading the way, Mandel said, attendance for the dance season exceeded projections.

"Dance has clearly recovered from a few years ago when we questioned its viability" due to sagging attendance, Mandel said.

Overall attendance at the center was 497,500--up a tick from last year's 495,600. Segerstrom Hall hosted 250 performances, down from 253 last year, while Founders Hall was busier than the year before, with 89 shows, up from 76. Center officials consider Segerstrom Hall to be fully booked--a leading argument for the expansion.

The center earned $23.5 million from ticket sales and rental fees, an 8.3% increase over the previous year's $21.7 million. Ticket revenue for events produced by the center itself--as opposed to presentations by the tenant organizations--was up 11%, from $14.7 million the previous year to $16.3 million. Operating expenses rose 6.7%, from $28.5 million to $30.4 million. As is standard for nonprofit arts organizations, the center relied on donations to fill the gap between earnings and expenses. The deficit came to $6.9 million. Donations of more than $7 million to the annual operating fund covered the deficit and left a $165,000 surplus.

Mandel said that efficient staffing has been a key to the center's fiscal stability. The employee roster of 85 to 95 full-time and 70 to 75 part-time employees has grown very little in recent years, he said.

The center enters its 2001-02 season with extra money budgeted for possible electricity rate increases, Mandel said. But since most of its events take place during nights and weekends--the less expensive off-peak hours for power consumption--he does not think the impact will be severe.

Also budgeted is an expansion of educational offerings for children.

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