SPAC officials look hopefully to future
By STEVE BARNES, Senior writer
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First published: Sunday, August 2, 2009
Although the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is one of the Capital Region's largest arts institutions, its relative smallness, in terms of staff and budget, has helped it better survive and more quickly adapt to an economy that has done grievous damage to cultural behemoths, according to company leaders.
Now, as the opening of another Philadelphia Orchestra residency this week signals that the end of the fifth season under the current leaders is just a month away, SPAC officials are cautiously optimistic. They also are contemplating several major decisions, including whether the New York City Ballet's season should be restored to three weeks and if the orchestra's might need to be cut to two. And they're mindful of hard facts and harder choices faced by major institutions:
The City Ballet, SPAC's producing partner in the dance troupe's annual July residency, now has an endowment of approximately $138 million, down from a recent high of $187 million, and its annual deficit for the 2008-09 season was estimated at $5.5 million, according to company management and financial filings. The straits resulted in 11 dancers being let go this year and were the prime reason City Ballet officials asked SPAC in late 2008 to reduce the upstate season from three weeks to two; both SPAC and City Ballet had been losing about $1 million apiece on the residency each summer.
The New York City Opera, which performed at SPAC each June from 1986 to 1997, over six years has seen its endowment plummet by more than 70 percent, to $16 million, as a result of market losses and withdrawals to offset deficits. Some experts predict it could fold entirely.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, starting its 44th summer at SPAC on Wednesday with Alec Baldwin narrating Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," announced plans to battle multimillion-dollar current and predicted budget deficits with $4 million in cuts over the next two years, including a 5 percent salary reduction for musicians.
"We've joked that SPAC's actually in a good situation -- when you're poor, it's hard to get poorer," said Bill Dake, the humorously blunt chairman of SPAC's board of directors since 2005 and chairman of his family's Stewart's Shops chain.
SPAC's endowment stands at about $3.5 million, less than half what it was in 2004. But since Dake, a fresh board and a new executive director, Marcia White, took over in 2005 after a scandal involving the former management, about $3 million in lingering debt has been paid off. Millions have been spent on improving the facility, and SPAC has finished each of the past four seasons with a budget surplus, in contrast to 15 prior years of significant annual deficits.
"Although it was a trauma to go through, the reduction from three weeks to two (of the ballet season) has worked out better than we'd thought," said Dake. "It was the right thing to do."
The numbers seem to bear out his contention: Although total attendance for City Ballet's 2009 season was less than last year's, as a result of there being 14 performances instead of 21, average attendance per performance was up 24 percent. And although ticket revenue was down by an estimated quarter-million dollars, that will be more than offset by an estimated $335,000 savings in production and support costs for the season, according to White. Finally, the amount SPAC lost per ticket sold for the ballet this summer dropped by 15 percent, to $22, or about $57,000 per performance.
In contrast, the orchestra is notably more expensive to produce: SPAC lost $39 per ticket sold in 2008, or about $96,000 for each of the 12 performances of its three-week residency last August.
"We have not talked with (orchestra officials)" about shortening the residency, Dake said. But, he said, alluding to the orchestra's financial problems and a shake-up in its senior management and board staffing, "Sometimes when there is a dramatic change because of a tough situation, it gets even tougher in the short run. But any decision about (shortening the residency) would have to come from them."
White said it is too early to begin considering whether City Ballet could return to a three-week season in 2010. (Dake believes it will take a few more seasons before that happens.) White said, "We know our economy is still not strong, so we have to be very cautious about every decision, even things we've always done."
It is a central irony of the White-Dake administration that it has been lauded for stabilizing SPAC, but among the main options it pursued in doing so -- shortening the City Ballet season and offering modern dance programs -- were the very alternatives that got former longtime President Herb Chesbrough and his board thrown out. The difference is that the Chesbrough regime voted in secret in 2004 to cancel City Ballet entirely, a quickly reversed decision that created such a firestorm of criticism all were eventually sent packing.
In contrast, White and the Dake-led board have been exceptionally open with the public about SPAC's challenges and their efforts to meet them.
"It's important for people to know what the reality of the situation is," White said during an interview last month, on the closing night of the ballet season. "And that reality is the programs are expensive to produce and audiences are not as large as we would like them to be."
The reality is also starkly visible in the swaths of empty seats on slower nights at the ballet, orchestra and, especially, during performances by the two modern-dance companies that SPAC booked this summer, Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. The Taylor shows, in June, attracted about 1,300 people to each of two performances; Morris's company, about 750 to three -- and that's inside the 5,000-seat theater as well as on the lawn.
White is philosophically opposed to "papering the house," the industry term for giving away free tickets to make a venue look full, or to offering sharp discounts.
"When we first reorganized (in 2005), you could get a 50-percent-off ticket starting at 7 p.m. If that's available, what's the incentive to buy a subscription or even get just a few tickets in advance? There isn't any. It just isn't a good business model," White said.
Referring to programs, underwritten by sponsors, that include free lawn admission for children, $10 student tickets and a variety of other discounts, White said, "There are special promotions and special nights, but to try to pack the house by basically giving tickets away, just for the sake of packing the house -- I don't think it's realistic."
SPAC is looking to the future in other areas as well: It already has announced a five-year extension of its initial, 10-year contract with the promoter Live Nation, which produces rock concerts at SPAC and pays about $1 million per year to do so. And White, Dake and the rest of the board are looking for deep-pocketed donors to replace a $2.5 million gift, paid over five years and ending in 2009, from five donors, Dake included, that was announced in 2005.
White has already gotten a promise of $250,000 from an anonymous arts patron in New York City, and the SPAC development staff continues to create more and varied sponsorship opportunities for underwriters, including promotions like Times Union Date Night, Family Night with free Stewart's ice cream, Girls' Night Out and Emma Willard American Girl Night, all of which brought in extra audiences.
Citing his background in convenience stores, Dake said, "I'm always willing to try (eclectic) marketing ideas, and I think we've learned things from Live Nation, things that maybe in the past someone would have said, 'Oh, we don't do that.' Well, maybe we should."
Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Visit his blog at http://blogs.timesunion.com/tablehopping.
By the numbers
Decrease in ballet attendance between 2008 and 2009
Decrease in ticket income
Decrease in costs because of shorter season
Average attendance per performance
up 24 percent from 2008
Numbers have been rounded.
2,500, up 24 percent from 2008