Future uncertain for Chattanooga arts groups as ways of funding change

Future uncertain for Chattanooga arts groups as ways of funding change

September 29th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Local Regional News

Cellist Eric Reed (right) looks on as Suzanne Sims annotates their sheet music during a Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at the Tivoli Theater on Wednesday in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Violinist Rachael McFarlane plays during a Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at the Tivoli Theater on Wednesday in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Arts money

Photo by Sara Jackson

POLL: Should the arts get more government funding?

This goes online only with Barry Courter's story called Arts Money, which will publish on Sunday.

A NEW FOCUS

ArtsBuild has altered its vision for its role in the arts community. Namely, it believes its role should be promoting all arts in the community and not just raising operating capital for a few. Following are examples of single-project focus activities and expenditures that are consistent with the funding philosophy for Arts Build Communities Grants:

• Projects that involve and promote Tennessee artists.

• Visiting artists conducting master classes.

• Workshops, festivals and conferences.

• Public performances, productions and exhibitions produced by the applicant.

• Exhibitions of art by Tennessee artists and artists from outside Tennessee.

• Promotion, publicity and newsletters.

• Administrative and artistic staff support.

• Research and documentation as part of a project or program development.

• Consultancies and residencies for administrative and artistic activities.

• The development of long-range planning documents.

• Touring projects that bring professional performers to communities across the state.

• Improved program accessibility for underserved constituencies, such as at-risk youth, economically disadvantaged individuals, people living in rural communities or isolated settings, people with disabilities, people of color and senior citizens.

• Art in public places (in accordance with specific regulations available from the Tennessee Arts Commission's director of visual arts).

• Extensions of literary projects, journals with continuing publication or juried anthologies.

• Apprenticeship programs.

• Computer software/training.

• Technical/production support.

• Technical assistance projects.

Source: ArtsBuild

When Chattanooga Theatre Centre producing director George Quick turned to social media this month to say the CTC could close if $90,000 wasn't raised this fall, it sent shock waves through the community.

Could a 90-year-old iconic fixture in the arts community really go away, some wondered. Was the threat real, and do other arts organizations face a similar fate?

The answer, it appears, is yes to all three, though Quick emphasized there is no hard deadline when the CTC might have to close. Since the announcement the CTC has raised $45,000, including $25,000 from an anonymous donor, spokeswoman Jan Belk said.

The solution can be summed up in one word: Money. However, the answers to how we got to this place, how we get out of it and how we conduct business in the future are not nearly as simple.

Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Executive Director Molly Sasse said her organization is in a similar, though less immediate, situation as the one facing the CTC. She said a similar letter was mailed two weeks ago to CSO donors.

"[Quick's letter] mirrors almost exactly what we are putting in our donor letters," she said. "[The CTC] can see their end, and we can see our end. We have more money in the savings account [than the CTC], so we are looking at probably three years if nothing changes. The two biggest performing arts groups are in serious trouble."

Daniel Stetson, executive director at the Hunter Museum of American Art, said the museum is "fine financially, but we are stressed."

For years, Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga, now ArtsBuild, was the central advocate and fundraiser for the CSO, CTC, Hunter and 11 other cultural partners that relied on the organization for a large part of their operating funds.

ArtsBuild in the past five years has changed its mission, and as part of that retooling has drastically reduced the funding it provides. Hardest hit are the CSO, the CTC and the Hunter.

Funding for the Hunter has been cut by 60 percent over the past five years. ArtsBuild grants to the CTC have been cut by 47 percent in that time. The CSO has seen its funding drop from $540,000 in 2009 to $244,000 this year, and it will be capped at $200,000 next year.

Meanwhile, expenses for a number of such organizations have risen or remained the same. The CTC, which owns the North Shore building it calls home, recently had to replace its roof and air conditioner, for example.

The Hunter went from a budget of $1.4 million in 2007, before its 28,000-square-foot expansion, to $2.6 million this year. Conversely, it saw its ArtsBuild funding drop from $355,000 in 2007 to $215,000 in 2013, Stetson said.

Part of the reason for the reduction is that ArtsBuild, which gets its money from the city ($250,000 in 2012-2013), the Tennessee Arts Commission and through its annual fundraising campaign, has seen its own operating budget reduced. Hamilton County stopped giving $150,000 in 2011 after a 45-year-old sales tax agreement with the city expired.

Since 2008, ArtsBuild's operating budget has gone from nearly $2.19 million to $1.9 million, according to President Dan Bowers.

"That's the total budget. Not just the money we have to allocate but everything," he said.

The other reason for the reductions is that ArtsBuild has altered its vision for its role in the arts community. It believes its role should be promoting all arts in the community and not just raising operating capital for a few.

This shift has come as a shock to some, especially the heads of the CSO, CTC and the Hunter, who also wish they had been more involved in the discussion.

ArtsBuild is the largest donor for the CTC, CSO and the Hunter, and Quick, Sasse and Stetson all emphasized they are thankful and appreciative of what ArtsBuild provides for them. They do, however, worry about the long-term effect of the cuts on their organizations and on the arts community in general.

"If you don't have the major tent poles or the foundations, the other arts will not survive," Stetson said.

Sasse says if the CSO were to go away, the community would lose more than a few concerts.

"These musicians are the ones who teach your kids in private lessons, in schools, at the universities, and they are the ones who perform during Easter service at your church," she said. "They will move away if they don't have work here."

Bowers said the situation has come to this point for several reasons: the economy, a shifting donor base, a growing number of local arts organizations, and ArtsBuild's evolving mission and role in the art.

"It's a perfect storm," he said.

More money would obviously help, he added, and likely would keep organizations from closing, but where that money comes from, who raises it and how it is distributed likely will never go back to the way it was before the economy took a dive starting in 2008. The collapse was also not the only cause of the current shift, he said.

"It hastened the inevitable," Bowers said. "The face of philanthropy has changed."

THE NEW REALITY

So what has changed?

"There is an urgency in the arts," said CTC board chairwoman Linda Harwell. "We need money, no question about that. We've made all the changes that we can think of. We are trying to think of more to keep the quality up, but our avenues are getting slimmer and slimmer."

Obviously, the weakened economy has affected not just arts organizations, but everyone. Individuals, corporations, governments, foundations -- everyone, it seems, has less to give. Couple that with the fact that Chattanooga has many more organizations looking for funding, and an already shrinking pie now has to feed more people.

"It's not just one or two things that have changed," Bowers said.

One of those changes -- and it's a big one, most everyone agrees -- is the way ArtsBuild has chosen to operate. Its new motto is "The Arts are for All." Bowers insists that is more than simple words. Once the board understood and bought into the idea, some major changes had to take place, he said. Among those was the conclusion that it could no longer give so much of its money to just a few organizations.

"We were out of balance," he said. "We are saying the arts are for all, and yet we were putting heavy amounts of funding into a small group."

ArtsBuild is now looking at ways to expand its footprint and have a greater impact on more people in the community. Last year, for example, it provided $60,000 in grant money to 23 cultural partners throughout Hamilton County as part of its Community Cultural Connections program.

"Candidly, in the past, the Allied Arts had a much stronger emphasis on what the community could and should do for the arts," Bowers said. "Today we believe it is more important to shine a bright light on the critical role the arts play in economic development, education, making Chattanooga and Hamilton County a great place to live and visit."

He believes the result is that more people will see the value in the arts under this new plan and will give back financially.

Bowers said much of the rethinking was the result of a yearlong cultural planning effort called Imagine Chattanooga 20/20, which was completed in 2012. But the changes had started before that.

Three years ago, the ArtsBuild board initiated a new funding policy, which created a ceiling for its cultural partners. An organization with a budget of under $1 million could get up to 15 percent of its annual budget, and an organization with a budget of more than $1 million would be given 10 percent of its annual budget to help with operating expenses. ArtsBuild also capped the amount that any organization could get at $200,000.

"The Hunter and the CSO were significantly above these thresholds, so we are in the process of easing them down to these levels over a four-year period," Bowers said.

Another change is that each organization is being asked to raise money on its own. Bowers said that doesn't mean ArtsBuild should or will stop raising money. He believes fundraising efforts should complement one another. This shift makes sense, he said, because each group knows its base far better than ArtsBuild could. For example, he said, the Boys Choir, which has been in existence for almost 60 years, would have a database of past members that it could reach out to.

Some argue, however, that this shift means each agency will either have to take on the added expense of hiring development staff or shift those duties to a staff member now doing something else.

"It also means if ArtsBuild is doing cultural planning, it's not raising money," Sasse said.

Another concern for some is that each of the organizations will be knocking on the same doors asking for money, something the original Allied Arts was designed to prevent.

James McKissic, director of multicultural affairs for the city of Chattanooga and an ArtsBuild board member, said he doesn't believe that either will be the case.

"ArtsBuild is starting to expand," he said. "They will continue to support the larger groups and be able to reach more communities.

"There is money out there, and we need to encourage arts groups to broaden and expand their reach. The only way to survive is to build the next generation of funders and supporters."

THE OLD DAYS

Back in the good old days, a couple of decades or more ago, when Chattanooga was home to privately owned companies like JTL (John T. Lupton), American National Bank, Combustion Engineering, Provident and numerous others, raising money was as easy as asking.

Sonia Young has been active in the local arts community for decades as a board member on several organizations, and she continues to be an active fundraiser for several nonprofits, including the CSO and the CTC. She echoes what people in Chattanooga have said for years about how charitable donations were obtained in the past.

"You picked up the phone and called Scotty Probasco [American National Bank] or Jack Lupton and asked, or you bumped into them [business owners or wealthy donors] in the parking lot after church and asked."

Many of the companies people called upon for donations no longer exist or they have been bought by out-of-towners. Also, many of the city's great philanthropists have died, are aging or are in poor health. Their wealth has been passed on to any number of descendants who may have moved or who have their own ideas about which nonprofit to support.

And some of the organizations say the newer businesses, including those that said publicly that the arts community was a big reason for moving here, haven't replaced those old dollars. Volkswagen, for example, gave $10,000 to ArtsBuild this year. However, in the past two years VW hasn't given anything to the Hunter, the place where six years ago it announced it was opening a Chattanooga factory.

It has also sponsored one MasterWorks concert each of the past two years. This year its $10,000 in sponsorship money is going toward the Volkswagen Series, five Sunday matinee concerts presented at the VW Conference Center.

"Volkswagen Chattanooga is proud to support charitable and not-for-profit organizations that address public education, well-being of the body, well-being of the environment and diversity in the community," said Guenther Scherelis, communications manager for Volkswagen Group of America. "We have prioritized these areas, and feel that our funding focus reflects the needs of the community and has the most impact on the areas in which our employees live."

Everyone interviewed for this story said that businesses, especially those that have moved here recently, need to support the arts, which many mention as a reason they wanted to locate here.

"It's a hip city, and the arts are a part of that, and these companies need to support the arts," Quick said. "If they go away, those employees that came here in part because of them go away."

TICKETS DON'T PAY THE BILLS

While getting money might have been easier in the past, not everyone was happy with where it went. Almost since it was created in 1969, the knock on ArtsBuild (then Allied Arts) was that though it was created by a group of local community boosters to raise operating money for several arts agencies, it gave most of what it raised to essentially two organizations, the CSO and the Hunter, and later the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

And, people complained, few people attended either. Especially the Hunter, which before it was remodeled and the 21st Century Riverfront was completed in 2007, sat isolated at Bluff View, well-funded and full of fine art but devoid of people.

Today, all are vibrant parts of the community that attract plenty of patrons, but more money is needed.

"I've heard that complaint about museums in other places," Stetson said. "They are dusty places where people put on black-tie events and go to once or twice a year. We hold one black-tie event, and it is a major fundraiser. We are a vibrant part of the community, doing programs all over the community today."

Sasse pointed out that the symphony performs all over town in schools, churches and parks, in addition to hosting numerous students at various events.

"We feel like we have two stories to tell," Quick said. "We want to tell everyone about these wonderful productions we have, so come see them, and the other story is that tickets do not cover everything."

Sasse said in her letter mailed to patrons, "You might ask if we are losing support from ticket buyers and donors. The answer to that is 'NO!' Subscription sales this summer have already surpassed last year's."

She added that the number of $1,000 donors doubled, and four new $25,000-level givers were added. She also said that patrons came from 336 unique ZIP codes and that 3,000 first-time attendees saw the CSO perform in 2012-13.

Still, it didn't cover expenses. For tickets to cover expenses, Sasse said, the CSO would have to double admission prices, which range from $19 to $81 per show.

Much of the shortfall in revenue versus expenditure in the past was made up by ArtsBuild. The decrease in funding has caused all of the agencies to look long and hard at how they do business, including making cuts to staff, programming and services. Some have gone so far as to overhaul their missions and to even change their names.

It isn't only Chattanooga that is feeling the pinch, of course. Part of the reason Quick sent his letter was that he read a news report that the Atlanta's Theater of the Stars would close and the New York City Opera likely would, as well.

Rachel Dellinger, director of communication for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, said that organization "is in the black but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears."

Back here, the directors of the Association for Visual Arts and the Southern Lit Alliance, which was known as the Arts & Education Council two years ago, say the exercise has made them stronger organizations with a clearer sense of purpose and more tightly run ships.

"The nonprofit climate has changed just like in every other business," said AVA Executive Director Anne Willson.

"We've become more entrepreneurial. AVA has gone through a huge change."

She said it eliminated its popular media center to save money, for example, and is looking at ways that people who actually benefit from AVA services can help fund it.

Southern Lit Alliance Executive Director Susan Robinson said the reality of the changing economy was "like a dark cloud that forced us to walk through fire" but ultimately made her group better. In addition to changing its name, the group has identified a new mission and goal, which is to be the premier literature organization in the South.

"I truly believe this has been good for us," she said. "We have a lot that will be coming out of this organization with a lot of opportunity. This is good for the Southern Lit Alliance."

Sasse, of the CSO, said that with the help of her board, her organization has made every cut it can think of, including cutting staff and marketing expenses. Further cuts, she said, would affect the product, which is a symphony playing live music.

"I can't ask the trombone section to stay home one night because of lack of funding," she said.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.