Charlotte arts groups beat down recession

Fearing the worst as the recession hit, Charlotte's cultural groups took drastic steps. They laid off staffers. Cut salaries. Scaled back performances.

The strategy seems to have worked. Almost all of the city's leading arts groups think they've come through the season with their budgets balanced or better.

And while challenges remain, the picture looks much different from last year, when the groups were bracing for their most difficult season ever. The Arts & Science Council, which helps support many of them, had suffered a plunge of more than 30 percent in its fundraising. The individual groups had felt their own dropoffs in donations or ticket sales.

The Charlotte Symphony faced extra challenges. It had struggled against deficits for years. Then the ASC, judging it not financially viable, cut its support for 2009-2010 by $1 million.

With the help of an emergency fund drive, the orchestra survived even that - though it ends the season with another deficit.

Because the groups' fiscal year ended June 30, the final bookkeeping won't be ready for weeks. But the groups' leaders spoke about the results they expect.

Caution helps

In the last year, Opera Carolina, the Arts & Science Council and others laid off staff members. The Mint Museum and Discovery Place shortened their hours. Theater groups put on plays that needed fewer hours or limited sets.

Being careful paid off best for the newest member of the cultural scene: the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which opened in January. Its leaders had "no idea what to expect" for how a modern-art collection would go over in Charlotte, president John Boyer said. So the museum was conservative with both predictions and spending.

The result: a $140,000 surplus.

"I hate to say it," Boyer said. "There wasn't a single revenue goal we didn't break."

Other bright spots:

The Broadway Lights series set a new high for sales of full-season packages, said Tom Gabbard, president of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Theater lovers bought nearly 10,000 full packages.

Theatre Charlotte's "Biloxi Blues" suffered at the box office because of winter storms, executive director Ron Law said, but donations through the season made up for that. Adding a full-time fundraiser a couple of years ago, Law said, was a good investment.

Saving the symphony

The Charlotte Symphony's predicament could've been even worse. The ASC threatened a deeper cut than $1 million. But the orchestra delivered a five-year restructuring plan the ASC approved. One component: a bridge fund to help cover the orchestra's expenses as it works to bring in new ticket buyers and donors.

The $5.7 million campaign drew donors ranging from two philanthropic families - the Spanglers and McColls, who pledged $1 million apiece - to Summer Pops concertgoers. The drive raised $4.3 million, executive director Jonathan Martin said. He summed up the orchestra's situation this way: "Enormous progress made. Enormous work ahead."

That's because the budget still isn't balanced. In mid-June, Martin predicted a season deficit of $200,000. The orchestra, he said, still has to strive for more ticket buyers and donors.

Discovery Place also expects red ink.

It began the year predicting expenses of $7.5 million and a deficit of $1.5 million, said vice president Julia Allen. It expected to be hit by the economy and by the fact it was partly closed for renovation. But the actual deficit is likely to be smaller - about $750,000. Holding back on spending helped, Allen said, as did better-than-expected donations.

Promising signs

Because some groups see signs that ticket sales or contributions are picking up a little, they look toward further improvement.

"We're not back to where we were two years ago (before the recession)," said Bruce LaRowe, executive director of Children's Theatre of Charlotte. "But we're optimistic. We think we've turned a corner."

Even if the overall situation has stabilized, the Mint Museum, N.C. Dance Theatre and Discovery Place still have their work cut out: The coming year will bring higher expenses. NCDT recently moved into a new, larger home, and the Mint is about to do the same. Discovery Place will open a Huntersville branch, Discovery Place Kids, in October.

Money from the ASC's recently completed endowment campaign will cover part of the Mint's increased expenses, outgoing executive director Phil Kline said. But the museum still will need more in admissions, donations and gift-shop sales.