State of the Arts

Guess what: Pittsburghers may love their arts as much as their sports( maybe even more). But can our much-touted cultural crown jewels survive? Are we positioned for the future? Despite the challenges, the 21st century looks optimistic.

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Make room for the kid in the creatively ripped jeans and big hair. Grab the CD on your way out of the concert (or download the podcast when you get home). That’s today’s arts experience, infused with the technology and tastes of the 21st century.

In their quest for younger, less-reverent ticket-buyers, our oldest arts institutions are acting younger, replacing decorum with debate, subbing new works for old standards and mixing up cocktails and conversation to build the audience. And many observers think that’s the way they’ll survive the economic crunch—by scoring more face time with the Facebook crowd.

By many measures, 2008 was a marquee year for the Pittsburgh region’s largest arts institutions, with record attendance for downtown seasons, sell-outs for the International Festival of Firsts and crowds exceeding 1.12 million for the Carnegie Museums, which also soared past its fund-raising goal of $150 million in the “Building the Future” campaign that ended in December 2007.

Over the past decade, city arts organizations have invested in new exhibits, productions and venues; waged sophisticated campaigns to lure new patrons, and walked the tightrope between crowd-pleasing blockbusters and avant-garde adventure. New data show the effort has paid off. When Pittsburgh Today, the regional benchmarking project based at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, recently measured 2002 arts attendance versus sports attendance, the arts won the match-up hands down. It was reported that more than 53 percent of Southwestern Pennsylvania residents attended an arts event that year versus 36.2 percent who attended sporting events. In the same year, the percentage of folks participating in the arts totaled 67.8 percent versus 39.4 percent for sports. In 2006, the region exceeded the U.S. average for attendance at classical-music performances, musicals and nonmusical plays.
Pittsburgh’s above-average arts-participation numbers don’t surprise Richard Armstrong, former director of Carnegie Museum of Art and current director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum in New York City. “One of the indicators of a truly civilized city is that it is robust in multidimensional ways,” he notes. “Millions of people go to all sorts of Pittsburgh events—arts, sports, churches, et cetera. It’s an active, big-city environment.”

That’s because the region’s major arts institutions—the Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh CLO and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust—have earned rock-solid support over decades. “People grow up and stay in Pittsburgh, so almost everyone has an important ‘aha!’ moment they remember,” says David Hillenbrand, president of the Carnegie Museums. “So the cab driver is enthusiastic about recommending the museums. Parents and grandparents bring the kids.”

Other cities envy Pittsburgh’s track record. “One of our biggest success stories is that we have achieved substantial growth in a market that’s stable,” says Pittsburgh Cultural Trust president Kevin McMahon. This nonprofit, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, manages 14 theaters, galleries, public plazas, and new and proposed commercial development. In 2007, more than 1.5 million patrons attended events in downtown’s Cultural District. More than 32,000 were first-time ticket buyers—and they bought a total of 116,000 seats to Trust events, such as the Australia Festival, a month-long showcase of art from Down Under, to the Joffrey Ballet to a tour of Broadway’s Avenue Q.

But as 2009 begins, those highlights are a memory. As public-arts funding dwindles and endowments dip, arts leaders must again confront the central challenges: finding the money for quality programming and expanding the number of people who pay to see it.

“We’ve already gotten notice that our grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts are cut,” says Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Glass Center. He’s also anticipating that “there will be less RAD money and less state money.” He’s referring to traditional public-funding sources as the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which funnels half of the 1 percent sales tax to civic and cultural institutions within Allegheny County, and the commonwealth. “I see a slowdown coming in arts support—but I’d love to be wrong,” admits Humphrey.

Bringing the Audience

Sociologist Robert Putnam called the loss of community experience “bowling alone,” and other writers have lamented how suburban sprawl and cyber-entertainment isolate us. But it’s the shared intimacy of the arts that still turns us on. It’s what lures us back to the institutions we love and encourages us to trust them when they offer the unfamiliar. (A case in point was the magical debut of Teatro de los Sentidos, a Barcelona-based troupe whose sensory theatrical performance highlighted last October’s Cultural Trust-sponsored Festival of Firsts.)

The growth of the Cultural District over the past three decades coincided with the growth of far-flung suburbs, leading to fears that those potential patrons would reject a long commute to arts events. But the Trust’s careful analysis of downtown ticket-buyers proves otherwise. More than 22 percent of households in the 16046 ZIP code area of Mars, which covers sections of Butler and Allegheny counties, bought downtown tickets between January 2007 and June 2008; 20 percent of those in Cranberry Township (16066) in Butler County did the same. In that same time period in Washington County, more than 25 percent of households ventured downtown from both the Lawrence (15055) and Venetia (15367) ZIP code areas.

While these figures might not be as strong as those in traditional cultural neighborhoods such as Squirrel Hill, Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel, with rankings in the low 30s, the numbers show strong regional interest in downtown offerings.
Pittsburgh Symphony president and CEO Larry Tamburri discounts the argument that distance prevents patrons from flocking to the city. “People don’t say that about hockey games or football games,” he observes bluntly. “People go to what they want to attend.”
 

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