The Show Must Go On

Creativity counts as arts organizations face tough times


From art exhibitions to opera, symphony, and theatrical productions, many of the area’s arts organizations feel the economic pinch.

|According to Ken Berger, president and CEO of, donations to arts organizations dropped more steeply in the past year than at any point in the 53 years the charity evaluator has tracked those numbers. The 10 percent decline means all the more, because arts organizations typically receive only about 4 percent of all money given to charities.

“We’ve seen some arts organizations close while others are laying off staff and others are doing plays as much smaller productions,” Berger says.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently cited studies confirming Berger’s thoughts. Ninety-two percent of nearly 100 respondents in one survey said they strongly felt the effects of the last 14 months. In a separate study, 80 percent of charity officials reported their organizations were experiencing financial stress. In another study, nearly 40 percent of 363 respondents described the stress as “severe.” An increasing percentage of charity leaders reported tapping reserve funds and creating contingency plans.

In the Coachella Valley, it’s evident that arts organizations are facing challenging times. Gary Walker, executive producer of the weekly Time Warner show Desert Entertainment, has realistic expectations for this season’s arts offerings. “Overall season length is being cut back, and the shows chosen are less expensive to produce. Technical aspects, which can run up the tab in theatrical productions, are being cut back, as well as event promotion,” Walker says.

Walker thinks arts organizations should look to local television stations for pro bono publicity. He predicts cutbacks in performing arts outreach programs that local schoolchildren have enjoyed. Coachella Valley Symphony, a longtime sponsor of music programs in the schools, is trying to avoid cuts.

Dorothy Hamilton, the symphony’s president and supporter of music programs through her company, Maple Leaf Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning, remains positive. “We must continue to thrive to serve the children. You have to deal with reality and cut out all the fluff.” The symphony gives scholarships, pays for lessons, and conducts programs in nine local schools. Sixty percent of its income comes from ticket sales, the remainder from donations. Belt tightening includes moving the holiday concert traditionally held at Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells to the Sierra Ballroom at Sun City Palm Desert.

The Palm Springs Art Museum is moving forward by offering vibrant programs that engage all generations. The museum has enjoyed a “surprisingly good year despite the economy, with increases in membership and attendance,” spokesman Bob Bogard says.

La Quinta Arts Foundation has “run a tight ship” for the past five years, keeping operating expenses down, says Haddon Libby, secretary and former chairman. “As far as administering programs, we don’t use as many man-hours as before,” he adds. This has helped the organization stay in the black.

Another bright spot is the City of Indian Wells’ cultural and promotional grant program. Among the $440,500 requested from various organizations, Indian Wells awarded $415,000 in grants — the same amount as last year. Mayor Larry Spicer cites a recent resident survey with 79 percent supporting the city’s philanthropic choices.

Ted Giatas, president and CEO of McCallum Theatre, notes that in the theater’s fiscal year ending July 31, attendance was off between 5 and 7 percent. “I am happy with these results, and we also have a balanced budget,” he says. Giatas concedes that fundraising presented a greater challenge last season due to patrons’ insecurity. “That appears to be stabilizing,” he says. There have been no cutbacks to staff or educational programs.

Arts organizations can hope that optimism and an improving economy will keep the lights on.

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