Maintaining Patronage of Delaware’s Art Institutions

Getting “butts in seats” when many are still feeling the economy’s grip on their wallets.

The Reichhold Chemical Co. closed a site in Florida about 20 years ago. With one unit of the company headquartered in Kent County, the Dover area looked like a natural choice for a combined operation.

“Reichhold’s assessment revealed that Dover was the clear bottom line favorite, but the company went elsewhere because Dover did not have universities with graduate programs for its chemists, or cultural amenities for its families,” says Frank Fantini, the owner of Fantini Research. Fantini Research is a Doverbased consulting and newsletter publishing business that covers the gaming and hotel industries.

Years, later, the division departed for the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Afterward, Fantini continued to see the link between the arts and economic development. 

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“I ran into these kinds of stories repeatedly when I was in charge of developing the Schwartz Center for the Arts, whether it was Bayhealth recruiting doctors or ILC (a spacesuit and protective equipment company) recruiting engineers,” Fantini says.

The Schwartz Center and other initiatives improved cultural and educational offerings in central Delaware, but when it came to employment, the need for a vibrant arts community remained key. The battle to make up for the estimated 6,000 Delaware jobs lost in the recession is at play.

The real problem, though, involves the butts-in-seats conundrum. If the arts are so valuable—and voluminous research proves they are, in terms of improving our quality of life, not to mention the revenue that the arts generate in our communities—then why aren’t more people patronizing our formidable arts venues?


The Stats

Last year, the Arts & Economic Prosperity report was released in Delaware by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance arts awareness. The study estimates the arts, as of 2010, generated $142.3 million annually in economic activity.

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Annual spending by arts organizations totals $103 million, with an additional $39 million generated from event-related spending by audiences. Arts spending, in turn, supports 3,900 full-time jobs, generates $112.3 million in household income, and adds nearly $10 million in revenue for government, according to the report. While the report and similar studies increase awareness, arts organizations continue to face a sluggish environment— a far cry from the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s.

Arts administrators report slight increases in attendance since the 2008 downturn. Budgets and staff have been slashed, and organizations have gained some financial breathing room. But the biggest challenge could be an enthusiasm gap, despite the widespread belief that the arts are essential, in terms of our social and economic well-being.

The reasons why vary, but the gap may be fueled by tighter household budgets, hundreds of cable channels, video on demand, aging audiences, competition in nearby cities and family scheduling issues.

Brendan Cooke, general director of OperaDelaware, says getting more people to attend performances is essential, even if ticket revenues don’t meet expenses. Without new patrons, organizations have less hope of attracting the people Cooke calls “the passionate few.”

“Delaware is a small place,” says Diana Milburn, the new executive director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. The sheer variety of cultural offerings strains donor resources, particularly donors who support myriad organizations.

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Aging patrons are also a factor. This donor base is less inclined to venture out as often. Arts groups have taken this into consideration. The Delaware Theatre Company, for example, now offers earlier curtain times.

Bud Martin, the new executive director of the DTC, simplifies this a bit. It’s about our time, and our energy— meaning, we don’t have much of either to spare. After an exhausting week, Martin says, “it’s all too easy to skip the Friday night show.”

Danielle Rice, executive director of the Delaware Art Museum, acknowledges that making the case for arts support beyond attending exhibitions or concerts is not easy.

“We love visitors,” says Rice, adding that admissions are not a major source of revenue. The generosity of donors is what keeps doors open and curators curating.

Rice became museum director in 2005, after a long career at the Philadelphia Art Museum. In Delaware she was immediately confronted with an ambitious expansion program that doubled the size of the museum, but left it with a heavy debt load and an additional $1 million in annual expenses. At the same time, corporate support was declining.

The museum responded by cutting its staff in half and adding programs. Museum staffers have since been working to enhance revenues by convincing mid-sized companies with stable or higher employment that their donations are of great value. As a regional attraction known for its Howard Pyle and Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite art collections, the museum is also reaching out to potential donors outside the state. The approach has shown modest results to date, Rice says.

The museum paid off $4 million of its debt in 2011. But the stock market continues to gyrate. And that roller coaster affects donations, as well as the museum’s ability to maintain its collections.


Economic Drivers

There are similarities between the Delaware Art Museum and the Rehoboth Art League. The league, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, was founded by artists and patrons whose influences include Pyle and the Wyeths.

The league is artist-driven, with much of its revenue coming from the sales of works displayed in the gallery in a quiet residential area of the beach community. Like other organizations, the league and its members have not recovered fully from the 2008 downturn.

The gallery offers artwork in the $250 to $500 range, below the prices fetched before the downturn, says executive director Sheila Bravo. Artists have responded by cutting prices and reducing the size of their works. Bravo says that her staff also cut costs. Programs and fundraisers that were no longer effective were dropped. The horticulturist’s position became part-time.

Educational efforts at area schools, however, have increased. The RAL and other organizations were helped by a decision to keep state arts funding at current levels. Other states have been less fortunate, Bravo says.

The multiple buildings owned by the league are in need of repairs and upgrades, but the Sussex organization is making progress. “We can’t do everything at once,” says Bravo.

Attendance is increasing, although Bravo sees room for more improvement in the rapidly growing county. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. Census figures indicate the population of Sussex County rose by 26 percent 

There are hopeful signs, given the recovery of a residential real estate market that has struggled for years with the downturn in the second home and primary home markets. More homes are being sold, which means more walls are in need of original art.


Music to our Ears?

Financial problems escalated to the crisis stage at the Delaware Symphony last year. Its season was briefly canceled, but then emerged with a shorter schedule and a short-term agreement with The American Federation of Musicians union. While pay reductions were imposed, the overall goal was to arrange a long-term pact that assisted the symphony in stabilizing its finances.

“We wear many hats,” says Milburn. She’s one of a full-time staff of three‚ and that includes music director David Amado.

Milburn, previously the manager of audience development and sales at the DuPont Theatre, came armed. Her background in social media marketing, in addition to her experience as an opera singer, made her a great hire for the symphony, particularly as it struggles to regain financial footing.

For example, Milburn employed an opt-in email marketing tool to sell out the DSO’s revived 2012 chamber concert series. Opt-in refers to patrons signing up on their own at the symphony’s website, rather than responding to unsolicited mailings. The symphony also simplified its website, making it user-friendly. It also makes it easy to purchase tickets online.

With resources at a bare-bones level, Milburn and Amado are using Facebook and Twitter to engage their audience and gain fans. Each has a personal Facebook page that bubbles with enthusiasm about the performing arts. “You never know who you will reach,” says Milburn.

Social media is not a cure-all. Bravo says that snail mail remains a necessary expense because many of the symphony’s older members don’t use computers or smartphones. Expenses have been cut in that area by enlisting the services of more volunteers in the now in-house mail room.

Cooke, who joined OperaDelaware in July as its general director, agrees that social media is a good way to engage audiences, but it requires a thoughtful strategy and staff time.

Cooke has a background in new technology, and understands the fragile nature of art finances. He founded the Baltimore Concert Opera as the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company headed toward bankruptcy.

OperaDelaware participated in a referral fundraising program developed by Cash-Split, a Delaware-based start-up. Participants referred friends to the program via Facebook, email, or Twitter, then earned rewards based on contributions. The program brought in a fraction of its $10,000 goal, but it did raise awareness.

Cooke concedes that he has “big shoes to fill” after succeeding Lee Kimball, a passionate leader of OperaDelaware who had served for three decades. Cooke plans to maintain the company’s education programs, which, in theory, encourage future generations of opera lovers. Ticket sales are critical, but they can’t support a $1 million annual budget alone.

OperaDelaware was able to avoid the fate of Baltimore and other companies, in part because its headquarters and rehearsal hall are both in the Wilmington riverfront area. The Poplar Street building also allows an income stream from rentals. The company also enjoys a broader donor base than many opera companies.


The Heat is On

The economic environment in which arts administrators must operate today is a far cry from the 1980s and ’90s. Then, the financial services and development boom made life a tad easier— though, let’s face it, keeping arts venues vibrant and profitable has been and will likely always be challenging.

In the late 1990s, growing global competition forced long-time cultural mainstays to slash staffs, but Delaware’s arts group had a savior in Charles Cawley, the CEO of credit card giant MBNA. Cawley filled the financial gap. In addition to donations, organizations like MBNA “loaned” executives to various arts organizations and encouraged them to serve as active board members

That ended when Bank of America acquired MBNA in 2000, and nonprofits felt the impact soon after. While Bank of America remains a good corporate citizen, its priorities are different. It also lacks Cawley’s personal touch. The Delaware arts world still has a few saviors, namely Tatiana and Gerret Copeland, two philanthropists who all but rescued the DSO and generously support countless other venues.

The struggle remains, but arts leaders are seeing hopeful signs. Things are looking up at the Delaware Theatre Company, says Martin. Like Milburn and Cooke, Martin took the post in 2012. He comes from both an artistic and a business background, and has experience starting and selling businesses. Martin reports increased revenue ticket sales, as well as a successful opening play. But he acknowledges that the company is “climbing out of a deep hole.”

This year, the Delaware Theatre Company was able to sign noted actors, including Michael Learned and Peter Strauss, who headlined the season opener, “The Outgoing Tide.” Yet Martin also has trimmed costs and negotiated lower pay for actors, a necessity in the current economic environment.


Why Patrons Should Patronize

“Our challenge is finding the next generation of patrons,” says Martin, who says that no local performing arts organization can rely solely on ticket sales. At the same time, a strong box office offers the possibility that future patrons will emerge.

Philip Wescott, a consultant and former executive at Christiana Care, says another factor is the rapid growth of nonprofit organizations of all types that call on potential donors. The proliferation of such groups presents a challenge to companies and foundations.

“I think Delaware is unique in that we’re very used to the corporate support as always being there as the angel that will even out the gaps,” says Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, who works with small arts organizations.

Arts reps can ask businesses to encourage employees to volunteer or become board members of arts organizations, just as Cawley once did. It worked then; it could work now. Such moves can reduce reliance on corporate funds that have all but evaporated, she says.

She makes the case for corporate sponsors to consider supporting smaller arts organizations, which, she says, “Provide more bang for the buck.” Attribute this to lower overhead costs and large volunteer staffs.

Decreasing numbers of large donors also puts pressure on arts organizations to upgrade their boards and develop long-term plans that ensure stability, says Wescott. Board members must make sure that staffers control costs carefully, adds Martin.

With expenses getting under control and attendances inching upward, albeit slowly, arts executives are focused on the future. They are beefing up their education efforts because arts education remains a priority for corporate sponsors. That makes sense. Arts education will fuel that next generation of artists and patrons.

Rice is amazed by what her staff has accomplished with diminished resources. At the same time, she and other arts executives know that inspiring the next generation of supporters remains difficult. And a struggling economy isn’t helping.

Perhaps it would be wise if arts leaders found a way to communicate the need for the arts in society. Gov. Jack Markell put it best when he spoke at a recent arts summit. 

“A vibrant arts environment stimulates and sustains a richer quality of life and economic health,” he said. “In Delaware, where the arts are among our top 10 employers, we see how the arts contribute to the renaissance of downtown areas, enhance our educational system, and attract new businesses and residents to the state.”

Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, concurs. “The arts inspire us, soothe us, provoke us, involve us, and connect us,” he said during a visit to Delaware.

If that’s the case, and given the world situation as it is, shouldn’t there be more butts in seats?

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