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The NEA's report on Nonprofit Theatre: Baltimore affects?

By John Barry | Posted 12/17/2008

When the money gets tight, operas, with huge production costs, and relatively brief runs, can be the canaries in the coal mine for the performing arts. Last week, the Baltimore Opera, $1.2 million in debt, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and cancelled the last two productions of its 2008-2009 season. After 50 years, Baltimore could be a city without an opera. Does that mean that the dominos are going to start toppling for nonprofit arts in Baltimore?

Producers and artistic directors around the city were parsing the National Endowment for the Arts' latest report on nonprofit theatres, entitled All America's a Stage: Growth and Challenges in Nonprofit Theater." (Click to download a pdf copy. ) Despite the cheerful name, the news was decidedly mixed.

First, the good news: In the last two decades, the nonprofit theater model has been proliferating at a faster pace than before, and the number of nonprofit theaters has almost doubled since 1990. The mixed news is that even if theater is proliferating, attendance has been on the decline. According to the NEA report, audience size for spoken-word theater has dwindled by approximately 16 percent between 1992 and 2008. This mixed message was strikingly similar to that of NEA's 2004 Reading in Decline, which noted that even as writing programs were proliferating, literary reading was dramatically declining.

The nonprofit theater report's bad news may expose a serious crack in the nonprofit business model. Nonprofit theaters are making less than ever off of ticket sales. Since 1990, the percentage of income from ticket sales has reduced about 13 percent on average--which means that many nonprofit theaters are increasingly dependant on donations and endowments.

Vince Lancisi, artistic director of the Everyman Theatre, who started the company in 1990, notes that in Baltimore, this report has a few caveats. First, there's significantly less competition for audience members in Baltimore's nonprofit community. The three companies that would be included in the survey--which does not include community theaters or theaters with annual operating budgets of less than $75,000--include the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, Center Stage, and Everyman.

Lancisi says that Everyman has recently enjoyed "banner growth" and is in the process of expanding, although her feels that nonprofits becoming increasingly dependent on contributions and endowments is "discouraging." Everyman itself is less affected by that because it wasn't able to get any endowments in 2008, and ticket sales currently provides roughly 70 percent of its budget. "It's the first time in the history of the theater that I'm glad there's no endowment," Lancisi laughs.

He also believes Everyman should make it through the recession because of its relatively low production costs, which were central to its mission of affordable theater. And although the state of Maryland has cut Everyman's endowments by 12.5 percent, he says that it shouldn't have a major effect on Everyman's budget. "But there's more coming," he says of state arts funding cuts. "The state of Maryland has already warned that the cuts could double by the end of the year. That will make a difference."

A few blocks away, J. Buck Jabaily, artistic director of Single Carrot Theatre, says he's read the NEA report as well, even though Single Carrot, which came to Baltimore two years ago from Colorado, has an operating budget that is too small to be included in the NEA study. Single Carrot is small and its audiences are significantly younger. One trend in the report interests him: the fact that while theater audiences are shrinking, the number of nonprofits has doubled over the last two decades. "That's because people have found that it's such a flexible business model," he says. Is it going to be flexible enough for the larger nonprofits to make it through significantly reduced endowments? "Well," he says, "We're going to find out."

Meanwhile, Center Stage, which depends heavily on endowments, and has the highest production costs in the city, is also bracing for the next round of cutbacks. Calls for comments on the NEA report, however, were not returned.

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