Nonprofit arts institutions in Seattle and many other cities are in big financial trouble. Here’s a good summary of the factors for theater companies from Michael Paulson of the New York Times: “Costs are up, the government assistance that kept many theaters afloat at the height of the pandemic has mostly been spent, and audiences are smaller than they were before the pandemic, a byproduct of shifting lifestyles (less commuting, more streaming), some concern about the downtown neighborhoods in which many large nonprofit theaters are situated (worries about public safety), and broken habits (many former patrons, particularly older people, have not returned).”
To which maladies, also outlined on Post Alley recently by Kurt Beattie, I would add: shifting priorities for corporate and foundation donors; less interest in the arts by the tech wealth; declining reviews in daily newspapers; much higher costs (driven by staff inequities) to produce shows; competition from traveling musicals with broader appeal and marketing clout; and competition from suburban venues (cheaper and easier to get to).
I expect Seattle arts groups will try to weather these downturns, mostly by scaling back the run of productions (as ACT has done), the number of yearly productions (Seattle Opera), by rationing the risky/preachy shows that traditional audiences resist, and by cutting administrative overhead. Others will wait for the government bailout that normally comes in a highly visible emergency.
Andy Horvitz, writing about the long-standing trends driving down theater attendance, cautions about the risks in just waiting out these trends, since they are endemic and have bedeviled the arts well before the pandemic:
“It’s easy to blame the pandemic but these downward trends are long-standing, decades in the making really, and speak to a larger, mostly unexamined question of relevance, meaning and impact. The performing arts generally, and theater specifically — despite gobs of foundation money injected into the system to support ‘innovation,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘digital transformation’ — remains woefully out of touch. It is not serving its legacy audiences and it is not attracting new audiences in any meaningful way.”
Here, then, are some more fundamental fixes to consider, drawn from conversations with arts leaders, from standard business practices, and from other cities.
First, a big caveat: I doubt there is settled leadership to guide such disruptive changes, at least yet. Consider all the vacancies in key leadership jobs: ACT (seeking a new managing director), the Rep (which has just selected its new artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez from LA and Portland stages), the Symphony (still missing a music director), the Opera (whose general director Christina Scheppelmann is moving to a prestigious Brussels job), 5th Avenue Theatre (which just announced a new managing director, Katie Maltais from a similar job in Houston), and most jarringly the sudden resignation of Amada Cruz of the Seattle Art Museum.
Merge or Purge. Ever since the World’s Fair of 1962, Seattle has witnessed an ambitious birth rate for arts groups (and relatively little death rate). So now might be a good time to consider cost-efficient mergers. Some examples: Seattle Symphony and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras; Seattle Repertory Theatre and Children’s Theatre; ACT and 5th Avenue Theatre; the two dueling efforts to create performance venues in Bellevue, the 2,000-seat PACE and the 1,000-seat EastHUB; the Opera and the Ballet.
To create incentives to merge (which will be strongly resisted by boards and artistic staff), it might require ArtsFund or a revived PONCHO to create a fund to underwrite such smart mergers for several years. A really big fix would be to combine major musical operations (Ballet, Opera, Symphony) with an “intendant” in charge as in some German cities, where the government funding is way more generous than in America.
Arts Bonds. Another ploy from the private sector is to borrow the money and fund growth in a way that the loan can be repaid. Possibly a consortium of lenders (private folks and banks) could make available loans that would be interest-only for the first years. To get such loans, arts groups would be forced to produce plans for financial sustainability, which relatively few arts organizations now have.
A Hollywood Bowl. Outdoor, large-audience venues help support some symphonies (Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago), and Seattle has the mild, sunny summers to support a local Bowl. (Ah, but where?)
Developer Synergy. As is being tried in Bellevue, work deals with real estate developers to build raw performance space into new commercial buildings (in exchange for greater heights), with the nonprofit group raising funds to finish the facility and run the operations. SAM tried this arrangement with Washington Mutual, and the scheme ran into problems when the bank failed. It may be a way to interest arts-averse companies such as Amazon and Microsoft by solving their needs for more offices and more amenities for employees. Such an approach also fits with a strategy to save downtown by making it more desirable for residents and visitors.
Saved by the Suburbs. Seattle, like many other cities, has built its arts facilities as a way to “save” downtown. But now, many cities such as Los Angeles are realizing that congestion, costs, and public safety are combining to create rival performance venues in such places as Orange County, Pasadena, Northridge, and San Diego. Might this be a formula for Seattle, which already has performance venues in Edmonds, Auburn, Mount Vernon, Kirkland, Issaquah, Langley, and Bremerton. There are risks, such as losing audiences and donors, but also gains in growing audiences and more run-out work for artists.
Capital Campaigns. The secondary benefits of these brick-and-mortar campaigns are: building a crack fundraising team, enhancing endowments, and appealing to donors who like tangible results. However, most of the capital campaigns are done for local arts, the surplus funding for endowments is elusive, and fundraising consultants soak up a lot of the money.
Think Small. Ever since the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle has pursued major-league arts, and perhaps over-generated the number of its performance groups and erected optimistically-sized venues. By contrast, Portland has built a formula for the arts that is more intimate, lower-overhead, more experimental, more resilient, and with affordable tickets. Seattle is now heading that way, so why not make a virtue of this necessity?