D.C. arts groups cautiously emerging from recession

Shakespeare Theatre Company
money in the bank: Helen Mirren helped keep the wolf from the door at the Shakespeare Theatre Company with her sold-out run in "Ph├Ędre," also starring Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Sunday, March 28, 2010

About two years ago, noting the signs of a crippling recession on the horizon, the Studio Theatre launched an unusual drive just for housekeeping items. They set a goal of $2.5 million for "Upgrading Connections," and they got it.

"Take the telephones -- every few years they need to be upgraded. In one theater, where the basic structure was done in 1987, the wooden risers were wearing out and creaking. We tore out the risers and replaced them, and while that was being done, we went back and rewired," said Morey B. Epstein, Studio's executive director of institutional development

Whether in good times or bad, the hardest money for any arts organization to raise is for upkeep -- leaking roofs, outdated heating and air-conditioning systems, more efficient lightning.

But Studio's success is emblematic of the way Washington's arts groups are cautiously coming out of the recession. A year ago, widespread fear of going under was an unspoken feeling, yet not many closed their doors. Accelerated fundraising and novel approaches to getting donors, members and money made the difference.

All over town, development offices are the nerve centers of the region's arts economy. They can be depressing or jubilant places, one-person shops or a full-fledged staff. But in the last 18 months, most of them have experienced moments of deep anxiety.

"We are still in it," says Mariana Nork, senior vice president for institutional advancement at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She means the downturn in the economy. She echoes the view that recovery for the arts takes longer than in many other industries. "In Washington we have a leg up because we haven't had the widespread unemployment other places have had. But we are still feeling it."

Eliot Pfanstiehl, president of the Strathmore Hall Foundation, thought he had seen it all. But last year was a challenge. "We had a budget of $8.1 million in 2008. In 2009, it dropped to $7.6 million. Ticket sales, rentals and contributions were all off. This is the first time in my experience I had ever gone backwards," Pfanstiehl said.

To cope with all this uncertainty, the development folks have had to dig deep. "Fundraising is more intense now than ever in my experience in Washington," said Michael Hill, director of external relations at the Washington Ballet. He's a veteran of campaigns at Arena Stage and the National Cathedral, albeit in better times. "The weekly donor report is much more important than any other document I see. I go over it line by line. Who's in, who's out."

Gradually, some arts groups are seeing signs of a turnaround.

Ilene Gutman, development director for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, said the museum's endowment has bounced back to $41 million, just $2 million shy of where it was when the stock market tumbled , and that rentals by corporations and party-givers for its luxurious space are steady, at around $800,000 a year.

But when the economy begins to enjoy a resurgence, the arts institutions usually see a lag in their donations. The major donors, who suffered from their Wall Street portfolios taking a deep dive, are evaluating where to begin giving again. Traditionally the arts have to compete with health, education and political causes, and then the emergencies, such as the earthquakes and hurricanes. So getting back on the radar screen takes time.

"About a year ago the outlook was dismal. And the recession was the death knell for a number of organizations. The recovery is happening, but it will be much slower for arts organizations in cities that were heavily hit, like Detroit," says Terrence Jones, president of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

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