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August 1, 2015

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DAILY MEMO: arts:

How to ward off a cultural recession

Generosity could save groups on the ropes

Arts groups in Southern Nevada live paycheck to paycheck, so busy trying to build their institutions in the shadow of the Strip that there is no time to raise funds for a rainy day. They have no nest eggs to carry them through lean years. When the money runs out, it’s gone.

There’s no telling exactly how our organizations will survive in the dismal economy. Groups across the country are cutting budgets and salaries or canceling programs and exhibits because of declining ticket sales and donations.

The Las Vegas Philharmonic was $200,000 in debt and struggling to find money earlier this month. It considered canceling its youth series, since saved. The financial problems exposed internal conflicts.

The Las Vegas Art Museum is faced with a reduced budget of $1 million for next year. Rather than lay off staff, Libby Lumpkin abruptly resigned as executive director. After she left, two employees were laid off and some were cut to part time.

On one hand, our situation seems particularly precarious in comparison to cities with old institutions and generations of donors. On the other hand, we don’t have the high expectations associated with more established groups. We’ve made due through lean years — our ballet performs to canned music, our art museum hangs exhibits in a library extension and our Philharmonic plays in the campus concert hall. We don’t have an opera company offering seasons of full-length productions. Dreams of a gallery-and-restaurant-filled Arts District have yet to come to fruition.

It’s a shame the economic problems happened just as local arts groups were gaining ground. The Philharmonic hired a new music director, David Itkin, who has raised the orchestra’s performance level a few notches. Lumpkin, who came back to Las Vegas more than three years ago to take over the Las Vegas Art Museum, elevated its status and its programming. And groups see a savior in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the ambitious, $475 million project due to break ground next year.

So how do the institutions expect to save themselves? Same as always, by chugging along. The same patrons and the same advocates will do what they can.

Alex Codlin, interim executive director for the Las Vegas Art Museum, said the institution will need to get creative with its exhibits. Musicians for the Las Vegas Philharmonic say they refuse to let the orchestra die.

Now what?

Randy Cohen, vice president of policy and research for Americans for the Arts, says groups often reach out to the community more in times like these. Some retrench, he said. “A season might look a little more traditional. People tend to do less edgy programming. Programming might be tilting to smaller casts. We’ll see some companies merge.”

Some groups get creative. Facing a declining budget, Chicago’s Cultural Affairs Department raised more than $240,000 for arts and culture with an eBay auction of items and experiences, such as a chance to dye the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Perhaps we could avoid such an auction and come together as a community to ensure the survival of the arts. After all, the arts are for our benefit.

Americans for the Arts has endless data on the benefits of the arts in the community, particularly in terms of education and economic boosts. As Cohen says, nonprofits have a mandate to make their cultural product accessible to the community, and that means affordable, which means funded. But it’s the community that ensures their survival.

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