Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Economy: Large vs. Small Arts Organizations Having Different Experiences

Since November, Arts Orange County has been "taking the temperature" of the local arts community in a variety of ways: online surveys of arts leaders, arts marketers and arts fund raisers; gatherings of those same groups; informal conversations with artists and gallery owners.

Interestingly, the most resilient among these seem to be the small arts organizations. That shouldn't be surprising, though, since few have the resources to pay any staff--almost entirely reliant upon volunteer artists and management, live off earned revenues from admissions or other service fees--almost entirely lacking a philanthropic base, and whether they are organizations of longstanding or "emerging" groups, are quite used to living hand-to-mouth. Few have aspirations to grow beyond their "comfort" level, though all would like more people to experience their work.

More than a dozen small theatre organizations were represented at the meeting we held last Saturday, including Rude Guerilla, which announced last week it will split into two companies after this season. Lest you fear that it's a death-knell for that organization, we were reassured to learn that it's grown too large to serve different artistic visions within a single production company, and this will actually allow both new theatres to spread their wings.

The announcement of layoffs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, our community's largest arts institution, should also not be surprising. It's a multi-million dollar budget organization that relies heavily on philanthropic support to make up the gap that earned income cannot fill in professional arts organizations. Many of the job reductions will be accomplished by not filling vacant positions, and their dedicated staff will pick up the slack--the same approach that sizable organizations and businesses all over the country must take in these times.

Ultimately, it's worth remembering that it's a lot easier to quickly maneuver a surf board than it is to turn the Queen Mary.

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