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.

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.”
 

 

Tamburri and other leaders acknowledge, however, that culture vultures have flocked to new living spaces downtown expressly because of their access to the arts. The Trust’s numbers bear that out: Among the 651 households in the district, the ticket penetration was a whopping 161 percent.

Although Pittsburgh arts patrons are loyal, they’re not passive. Response to recent experiments to prompt feedback at art events shows that contemporary audiences are eager to question artists and share their opinions. Opportunities to watch the ballet rehearse, to question opera soloists at a brown-bag lunch or to discuss a composer with symphony musicians foster a bond with both the art form and the institution.

“There’s a feeling that cultural institutions have to be more relevant than ever before,” says Janet Sarbaugh, senior program director for the Heinz Endowments. The Endowments recently funded the Arts Experience Initiative to test new ways to enhance audience interaction. “They must demonstrate the way they connect to a multicultural audience of all ages.”

Sarbaugh also points out that the arts are influenced by consumer behavior, and that consumption patterns have changed. Gen X-ers, those born between 1965 and 1980, and Millennials, born in the 1980s and ’90s, seek a chance to socialize with like-minded peers; they’ve responded eagerly to invitations for cocktails and conversation before Pittsburgh Public Theater performances or after shows at Pittsburgh Opera. And, to the dismay of arts groups, they resist making commitments to standard season subscriptions, the most reliable segment of a company’s support. Instead, they’ll go online to buy a single ticket on the day of a performance (and take advantage of student rush and under-26 discounts whenever possible).

Attempts to make programs more casual and more convenient have increased audiences. The Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret series has yielded a 50 percent increase in new single-ticket buyers of any CLO production. “We wanted to introduce light entertainment, shows we couldn’t do on an enormous Benedum Center stage,” says Van Kaplan, the CLO’s executive producer. “It’s an informal atmosphere, an easy access point for people who are new to the District. And we’ve been successful in turning them into CLO subscribers.”

Carnegie Museum of Art’s decision to change the dates of the 2008-’09 Carnegie International from a traditional fall opening to spring and the decision to extend the length of the exhibit were factors in record high attendance rates at the Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. From May 3 through the end of December (at press time), attendance at both museums was 266,442.

Charlie Humphrey observes an even deeper willingness to engage among volunteers on local arts boards. “There’s an eagerness to mix labor with infrastructure,” he says. “It’s not about balance sheets—they love the access, the chance to look under the hood.”

That support is important because it allows arts groups to undertake new risks. In the case of the Public Theater and Pittsburgh CLO, pressures on national producers have shifted the role of smaller city presenters. “Broadway can’t take the risks on new plays,” notes Ted Pappas, PPT’s producing artistic director. “Now, the regional theaters are labs.” He proudly cites PPT’s 2007 world premiere of The Glorious Ones, a musical by Lynn Ahrens and Dormont native Stephen Flaherty, which traveled from Pittsburgh to New York’s Lincoln Center. Van Kaplan agrees: “Rights to revival titles—our classics, like South Pacific—are being snapped up on Broadway,” he says. “It could be 15 or 20 years before those productions are available to us [to purchase].” New productions and co-productions are therefore a necessity.

Steering between the favorite and the fresh is a perennial artistic and financial challenge. “It’s dangerous to make assumptions about Pittsburgh audiences,” says Pittsburgh Opera’s Christopher Hahn, who assumed the company’s role of general director last June after serving as artistic director for eight years. “When I came here, the company had had a period of concentrating on traditional, popular pieces, and audiences had begun to drift away. What does that tell you? People want to be challenged and engaged. Audiences surprised me by responding vehemently in favor of [2004’s] Dead Man Walking and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene [in 2002]. This year [2008], we had a tremendous response to Grapes of Wrath. It’s all about balance.”

For Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the balancing act has been both financial and artistic. This season, the company, as it has done for the past three seasons, performed its Nutcracker to a taped musical accompaniment, an acknowledgement of the budget woes that have squeezed the company in the past few years. PBT executive director Harris Ferris says a reduction in production costs was a factor in righting the organization’s balance sheet.
(Financial woes aren’t unique to Pittsburgh’s ballet; nationally, dance audiences have declined in the past five years. Cleveland recently saw its ballet company decamp for San Jose in a move more common among professional sports than professional dance troupes; though in December, another San Jose institution, the American Musical Theatre, filed for bankruptcy.)

To keep PBT afloat, Ferris faced hard choices. Among other moves, he reduced the number of performances in each production and eliminated some matinees. A special effort to pamper subscribers to those matinees mitigated the loss in ticket sales. Overall, the strategy reduces “shows, but not sales,” he observes. “That makes the company look and feel healthier.” With two successive years of budget surpluses, PBT has invested in new productions that pull new audiences. Last year’s collaboration with the English National Ballet on Derek Deane’s production of Alice in Wonderland filled seats with “an exuberant new audience,” says Ferris, noting that 48 percent of Alice single-ticket buyers were new to PBT.
Big wins are important to Pittsburgh arts—and business. “Almost everything we do loses money,” notes the Cultural Trust’s Kevin McMahon. “Here as elsewhere, blockbusters are an important economic driver for the [Cultural] District, the Trust and the city.” When tickets for the six-week January 2008 run of Lion King hit the box office in October 2007, first-day sales raked in $1 million. The overall impact of the production—in jobs, restaurant and other downtown revenues—flooded Penn and Liberty with $20 million. More important, McMahon adds, is the introduction that Broadway imports provide for new patrons to the District. Forty percent of Lion King’s audience comprised District newcomers, and more than half returned for other District events. The Trust’s decision to program the Three Rivers Arts Festival may have a similar effect.

For the PSO, the combination of well-known guest artists and a familiar program, such as last season’s pairing of violinist Sarah Chang with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, yields sell-outs. Ditto Joshua Bell’s visit to perform a Tchaikovsky repertoire. “January is not usually a good month,” notes Larry Tamburri, “so selling out a subscription weekend [with Bell] was a wonderful response.”

The Audience of the Future As Americans go online to search for every kind of entertainment, their laptops extend their live cultural experience. According to a 2007 national survey conducted by cultural-arts marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen, arts patrons under 30 are more likely to download music (48 percent), view programming on Web sites (25 percent) and choose podcasts (19 percent). Pittsburgh arts groups have taken heed, beefing up multimedia content on their own sites and joining Facebook, Flickr and other social media.

But efforts to forge stronger ties to new audiences must go further as the economy slows, says the Heinz Endowments’ Sarbaugh. “What we’re seeing now is similar to what happened after 9/11,” she notes. “Consumption patterns change, and the arts are certainly influenced by consumer behavior. Now, the issue is how to help the whole sector grow its audience.” To that end, local foundations are encouraging arts groups to use ever-more-sophisticated technologies to mine for patrons.

For the same reason, efforts to engage students stretch beyond herding them on matinee field trips. Strong new programs pull them into producing and performing. Since the 1995-’96 season, the Symphony’s Audience of the Future program has asked high school students to plan and implement a PSO performance. The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest, launched a year earlier, attracts 1,200 students a year, and the CLO’s Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater, which have been replicated in 30 other U.S. cities since their founding in 1991, will go national this June in the form of The National High School Musical Theater Awards.

But arts-education efforts are often “hidden,” says Sarbaugh. “Arts outreach addresses the organization’s agenda—but what about the school-district’s view or that of the kids themselves?” she asks. She believes arts education can enrich the classroom curriculum when there is real cooperation between teachers and arts institutions. The effort should be “getting the arts to more people and supporting other institutions to take advantage of the arts.”

On cooperative projects and in ongoing operating support, foundations say they stand ready to provide help as the economy falters. Noting the disproportionate support that Pittsburgh philanthropies provide to the arts compared with individual donors—a phenomenon that Charlie Humphrey says turns arts groups into “trust-fund babies”—Sarbaugh sees a simple solution for surviving the current downturn. “Institutions will look to the people who love and support them,” she says. Translation: Expect more personalized e-mails, direct-mail pitches and special offers. While they squeeze more support from individuals, administrators say they’ll somehow squeeze expenses while keeping artistic standards high.
“We play to enormous audiences, some 200,000 people,” says the CLO’s Kaplan. “We’ll reach out to our family and try to seek broader support. But most of all, we won’t jeopardize the quality of our productions. We’ll be around for years and years to come, and the audience will react to any loss of quality.”

“Most museums are already leanly operated,” observes Richard Armstrong. “You have to trim the sails before the storm and be careful not to over-react. Stay steady, stay optimistic, revel in the reality that we [the Carnegie Museums] have a healthy endowment, then hope for the best.”

To Ted Pappas of the Public Theater, tough times for the arts sounds like an old refrain. “Theater is always on the verge of disappearing. But it will never disappear,” he declares. “The point of connection is the live, simultaneous experience.”


Since childhood lessons in piano and ballet somehow failed to launch her stage career, Christine H. O’Toole became a freelance writer. While she awaits her big break, she hones her artistic performances before a skeptical local audience: her husband, Jim, and sons, James and Bill.

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