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March 9, 2009 9:00 PM

Local arts hit by recession, pockets drained but soul intact

Posted by Kristi Heim

The current recession is hitting Puget Sound arts and cultural organizations hard, calling for bold steps to manage through the crisis, a study of more than two dozen local arts groups found.

Endowments and contributions are down anywhere from 5 to 50 percent. Corporate contributions have fallen 20 to 50 percent overall, and in several cases dropped completely. But foundations and individuals are continuing to give, so those contributions have declined less -- 10 to 25 percent.


Malgorzata Walewska (Judith) and John Relyea (Bluebeard) in Seattle Opera's "Bluebeard's Castle."

The 24-page report, commissioned by the Seattle Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Seattle Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and 4Culture, was done by Helicon Collaborative, based on confidential interviews with representatives of 28 cultural organization leaders in January. The report cost $20,000, shared among the four sponsors.

While some organizations are actively addressing the crisis, others are responding cautiously and still others "seem to be in denial," the report said. Most are reducing programming schedules over the next 18 months and shifting to more "popular" and less experimental material.

The report identified ways donors could collaborate to help the arts sector, such as setting up a revolving loan fund and collectively investing in technology.

Funders could also help support the arts without spending any money, by cutting application paperwork or extending current grants another year; offering loan guarantees or lines of credit; and encouraging arts groups to share resources and to work with nonprofits outside the arts.

Arts groups could do a better job of communicating and collaborating on both programs and resources, according to the report. "Most are too busy managing their own institutions to think about how they might work with others" in a strategic response.

The groups surveyed include Intiman Theater, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony, SIFF, On the Boards and Town Hall Association,

"This study provides valuable insight for both cultural groups and funders about how we can work together to emerge stronger, be more nimble and be better equipped to address these economic challenges moving forward," said Susan M. Coliton, vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Many arts organizations are still evaluating the findings. At the Seattle Opera, corporations contribute 2 to 3 percent of the budget, and those contributions have fallen. It takes 10 to 15 individual donors to make up for just one corporate gift, said Kelly Tweedale, the non-profit's executive director.

Still attendance is holding up. And the story isn't all about money and efficiency.

"The arts are unique in giving hope and perspective to the human condition," Tweedale said. "The report wasn't hopeful and didn't talk about that unique aspect of what we do that could be leveraged."

In a dismal economy, that suggests the arts are a good investment in sustaining public spirit.

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