Coping with Hard Times

Any discussion of our economic recession inevitably turns to talk of the stock market and banks, of manufacturing and retail sales, of transportation and high unemployment. Often missing is mention of the impact that hard times have on the performing arts.

Buried in a newspaper you might find notice of the demise of Milwaukee Shakespeare or the critical condition with the Madison Repertory Theater. You may even learn of orchestras shortening their seasons or dance companies canceling performances.

The forgotten fact is that performing arts groups are not only purveyors of culture, but they are also businesses. One recent study found that nationally the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year.

In northern Door County the performing arts are an important part of a tourism economy. Each year American Folklore Theatre, Birch Creek Music Performance Center, Door Shakespeare, Midsummer’s Music Festival, Peninsula Music Festival, and Peninsula Players attract visitors during the summer and increasingly for off-season performances.

Those tourists who attend concerts and plays also rent lodging, buy meals, and shop. And the musicians and actors who perform in Door County rent lodging, buy meals, and shop as well. In addition, performing arts organizations provide administrative work for local people.

In a sense these groups are the canary in the coalmine; as they fare, so does our local economy. Are they singing or are they languishing?

American Folklore Theatre (AFT) began life in 1970 as the Heritage Ensemble. Managing Director Kay Christman characterizes AFT as family friendly, “original musical theater for all ages at affordable prices” in Peninsula State Park’s amphitheater. A new show this coming season, Sunsets & S’Mores, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the park.

“It’s hard to know how the economy will affect us,” Christman said. AFT is always fiscally conservative, she added, but because of concern about the economy is budgeting accordingly. However she does not plan to downsize the staff because the productions are labor intensive.

“AFT has enjoyed wonderful support from the community,” Christman said, including 5,000 volunteer hours for presenting 80-some shows each season.

Like Christman, Executive Director of Birch Creek Music Performance Center Kaye Wagner is cautiously optimistic as she anticipates their 35th season. The music school in a farm setting experienced an increase in donations during 2008, and at present is on schedule with last year.

“I think people value what we do and want to support us,” she said.

As a school, Birch Creek focuses on youth and education, she said, and offers high quality live music performances.

Because the economy affects endowments, Birch Creek has revisited its budget for the year, tightened its belt, established priorities, and “tried to stay on the front side of things.”

Door Shakespeare, which performs classical theater in a garden at Bjِrklunden, has indirectly fallen victim to the economy, Executive Director Suzanne Graff explained. Her husband Artistic Director Jerry Gomis was laid off from his financial services position. Because their work with the theater company is pro bono, she continued, they are doing one show for three weeks this summer, but plan to return to two shows with a six-week run in 2010.

Ironically, Door Shakespeare “had a great funding raising effort last year,” Graff said, but their fiscal year ended before the economy worsened. “However we feel confident we can weather the storm,” she continued. “We’ll watch pennies, cut the budget, but still make a noise!” She is grateful for the support they have received from Bjِrklunden and from the community in general.

Executive Director Kathleen Pearson is optimistic as Midsummer’s Music Festival begins their 19th season. Last year the organization lowered ticket prices and saw an increase in concert attendance. While the economy has affected their endowment, at the same time their donations have remained generally steady.

“We basically go to the people,” Pearson said, as the group performs in a variety of venues, including private homes. The organization is also cost effective as volunteers help with clerical duties.

The 57-year history of the Peninsula Music Festival (PMF) is one of its strengths during a difficult economy, Executive Director Sharon Grutzmacher said.

“The PMF has been through bad economic times before, and has a base of donors, volunteers, and ticket buyers who are not going to let the festival die,” she said.

At the same time she has seen a slowdown in donations, and their endowment, like those of other nonprofit groups, has been affected by the economy. The effects, she knows, will be felt more in subsequent seasons than this coming summer.

The PMF operates with “probably the leanest nonprofit administrative staff in Door County,” she said. And to build an audience they provide a number of $30 seats for each show in the Door Community Auditorium and this year are offering half-price season tickets for new subscribers.

“In the midst of everything,” Grutzmacher said, “you still see amazing generosity.” A PMF board member introduced her to someone who might be interested in sponsoring the James Ehnes Trio fundraising concert. He was indeed.

Like PMF, Peninsula Players benefits from a long history in the county.

“We are ingrained in the Door County experience,” said Managing Director Brian Kelsey. The Players are in their 74th season of summer theater production on the shore of Green Bay.

“We remain cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We were told we’d have a bad season in 2008 because of high gas prices, but in reality had better attendance than any other year.” The organization is unique in that ticket prices cover most operational expenses, allowing fundraising revenues to be used for capital and technical improvements.

“We aren’t cutting production expenses,” Kelsey said. “That’s who we are. We are trying to be more efficient, have a balanced budget,” preparing for a continued downturn in the economy.

Kelsey is optimistic about the health of arts groups in Door County because of their diversity and their “symbiotic relationship.” The organizations all belong to the Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance and meet to share concerns and consider cooperative marketing. And they are one another’s advocates with tourists, promoting each other’s concerts and plays in addition to their own.

That spirit of cooperation existing among the performing arts groups can also be found in the community support of these organizations, because the arts contribute not only to the economic health of the community, but they also add to the quality of life on the peninsula.

“I can’t imagine Door County without the arts,” said Pearson, expressing a sentiment shared by many people who make the peninsula their home or tourist destination.

The canary seems to be singing, despite the difficult economic times our nation is facing.