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Sunday, 12 October 2014 22:00

Striking a Balance: Arts/cultural nonprofits seek sustainability while meeting constituent needs

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Thanks to improvements to DeVos Performance Hall, Broadway Grand Rapids will have a better chance to bring in large-scale shows such as The Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King, in addition to popular shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, shown here, which played in Grand Rapids earlier this month. Thanks to improvements to DeVos Performance Hall, Broadway Grand Rapids will have a better chance to bring in large-scale shows such as The Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King, in addition to popular shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, shown here, which played in Grand Rapids earlier this month. PHOTO: DANIEL BRODIE (COURTESY OF BROADWAY GR)

Ahead of its current season, the West Michigan Symphony decided to try something new.

Instead of doing symphonic concerts on Fridays and Saturdays, the symphony pared down its performances to just Friday nights.

“We never really achieved the critical mass of people that made sense to have doubles,” said WMS President and CEO Carla Hill. “It was really a decision based on the return on investment.”

For nonprofit arts organizations like WMS, achieving long-term financial stability is a major goal. Last month, the New York City-based Nonprofit Finance Fund released its 2014 State of the Arts and Culture Sector report, which surveyed 919 arts organizations nationwide. Of the respondents, 47 percent named achieving long-term financial sustainability as a top challenge.

At WMS, the leadership carefully considered the move to holding symphonic concerts on only one night. Hill first tested the waters with a couple of Friday-only performances to make sure it was the right choice.

“It’s been what we’ve expected,” she said of the recent change. “We haven’t had any huge surprises. … We’re very careful with how we’ve managed communication with the subscribers, how we’ve managed tickets and seating and made sure everyone got treated fairly. It was tricky, but we got it done.”

Smart nonprofit arts and cultural organizations around West Michigan have had to walk that balance between meeting funders’ and patrons’ needs and what’s financially sustainable for the operations. That sustainability is important because strong nonprofits also contribute to the strength of the regional economy, sources said.

“We need to understand that the arts are a mainstream contributor to the state’s economy and a key area for growth,” said Belinda Tate, executive director for the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

On Sept. 8, Tate succeeded Jim Bridenstine, who served for nearly 25 years as KIA’s executive director. The arts organization is also celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2014.

“The nonprofit creative sector is a vital organ here in Kalamazoo and within the nation’s economy,” Tate said. “Even if we could survive without it, our quality of life would be greatly diminished.”

For Broadway Grand Rapids, part of its financial sustainability means investing in the community.

“If the community does not support you and understand the value you bring, that’s not the community’s fault,” said Mike Lloyd, executive director of Broadway Grand Rapids.

Recently, the Kent County Convention/Arena Authority approved nearly $300,000 worth of upgrades to DeVos Performance Hall, a project that Lloyd pitched to the authority. The additions mean the venue will have the technical capabilities for larger shows like The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera, which is coming to Grand Rapids in 2016.

“There are several (shows) that require this extra stage and we now have a contract to bring in Phantom of the Opera,” Lloyd said. “That never has happened here before. It’s played in Kalamazoo, it’s played in Lansing, but not in Grand Rapids. Now it will.”

The community, however, is just half of the audience these arts groups have to please. They also have to make sure the people funding them have an incentive to continue donating to the organization.

“Donors will support you for a while if they think you are building an audience,” Lloyd said. “If there is no growth, they will see your operation as not effective or relevant. … So the one and only barometer of success in the performing arts is building an audience.”

For WMS, that growth is going into its education programming. New this year is its Click Clack Moosic program, which is a music education concert series. The first event took place Sept. 27, with the next one happening Oct. 18. The program is based on the book series by Doreen Cronin and is aimed at children ages 3-7 and their families.

“None of the programs that we do are done without the support of the community,” Hill said. “There’s generally a great interest from people when they see you are working hard to educate children in music.”

Another successful aspect for WMS is The Block, an intimate venue that opened in June 2013 and that also serves as the organization’s office space. The Block provides a different listening experience for audiences compared to a typical symphony show at the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts, as it has a different environment and a smaller seating capacity.

“It’s a wonderful space,” Hill said. “It doesn’t feel like anything in Michigan. It has big, soaring ceilings and is two-stories-tall inside and has big windows and a rooftop deck.”

With the addition of The Block, WMS is able to diversify its programming with more music genres, lower ticket prices — around $20 — and a cash bar. In comparison to reducing symphonic concerts to Friday performances, Hill said WMS has been able to add programming to The Block in the year and a half it has been open. The group has roughly 15 concerts booked at The Block for the current season.

“(Audiences) like the informality of it, they like the intimacy of it because we can only seat about 130 to 140 people or so on the floor and then we can put another couple dozen up in the balcony,” Hill said. “It’s a different product that we’re doing because it’s recital work or ensemble chamber music and some things that are so far away from what we do. … It’s just fun. It’s not a big commitment of money.”

The Block also allows WMS to dip into new audiences with supplements to its core symphonic programming.

That’s a key to sustainability for any nonprofit arts groups, said Lloyd of Broadway Grand Rapids.

“You pay attention to your costs, you pay attention to efficiencies, but more important than anything, you pay attention to your audience and you make sure you are providing a product they want,” he said.

Read 2807 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 October 2014 22:57

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