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Austin arts groups feel strains of growth

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Austin's fine arts scene has rocked and rolled this year, but not in expected ways.

The general director of the Austin Lyric Opera departed in May, leaving nearly $2 million of debt.

The Long Center for the Performing Arts went the entire season without a permanent director before announcing a hire this month.

Directors at the Blanton Museum of Art and the Austin Museum of Art left their posts. And AMOA abandoned plans for a downtown building and then announced it was discussing a possible merger with Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary arts center.

Board and staff leaders at Arthouse faced national art world scrutiny after renting out an artist's installation during the South By Southwest Music Festival to a corporate entity without seeking the artist's permission.

The reason for all the tumult?

Largely, it's growing pains. But it's also the result of the general economic downturn and the city's philanthropic profile, which favors one-time giving rather than regular support, city arts leaders said in numerous interviews with the American-Statesman.

The numbers reveal the story.

Since 2000, the annual price tag on the arts has mushroomed, challenging arts leaders to find more money each year to keep the cultural offerings in step with Austin's growing population.

Operational budgets for 11 major Austin arts organizations, when totaled, jumped 63 percent in the past 10 years, according to figures obtained by the American-Statesman. And in some organizations' cases, growth has more than tripled in terms of budget size and blossomed by any artistic measure.

Choral group Conspirare, for example, went from having a part-time artistic director and an annual budget of $372,000 to being a five-time Grammy-nominated choir with numerous CD releases, national touring and a budget of nearly $1.26 million.

In the same period, though the city's population has grown 20 percent, the median household income has not increased, limiting families' disposable income for the arts.

A City of Austin demographic profile shows that while Austin's population jumped from 656,562 to 790,390 between 2000 and 2009, median household income dropped from $54,450 to $50,132, or 8 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

Austin donors did step up to pay for several major new arts facilities in the past decade, including the $77 million Long Center, the $10.3 million Butler Dance Education Center for Ballet Austin and the $6.6 million newly renovated Arthouse on Congress Avenue.

But two of the city's biggest cultural building projects — the $83.5 million Blanton Museum of Art and $14.5 million in renovations to the Bass Concert Hall — were paid for largely by non-Austin donors who rallied behind the University of Texas venues. For the Blanton, Austinites anted up $16 million, or 19 percent, of the overall capital campaign, and less than 2 percent of the money for the Bass Concert Hall came from Austin donors.

At the opera, leaders say the economic downturn caught them off-guard. Publicly available tax records show that the organization had a $644,000 deficit on its 2008-09 budget of $4.5 million.

Jo Anne Christian, chairwoman of the opera board , said that in April 2008, a parking fiasco at the newly opened Long Center resulted in hundreds of opera-goers being caught in a major traffic snarl — and shut out of the performance — as attendees of a music festival on Auditorium Shores clogged streets and occupied most of the parking spots in the center's garage. The debacle cost the opera $200,000 in refunded tickets and other lost income, Christian said.

"That put us behind the eight ball before the downturn" in the fall of 2008, Christian said. The organization has had to borrow on a line of credit to fund the loss from that year.

Concurrently, a decline in ticket sales and a drop in annual giving left the organization facing more debt at the end of this fiscal year.

Christian said that accelerated fundraising on the board has recently netted $1 million to make up for that debt as the organization heads into a new season. But to economize, the opera has scaled back performances from four to three for each of its productions and has not ruled out selling its headquarters on Barton Springs Road, a facility it built in 2000 for $4.5 million. It is also considering a spin-off of its Austin Community Music School into an independent entity.

As with the opera, sustained annual support remains a big concern for all arts groups.

Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin, noted that it's still a challenge to persuade one-time donors who buy bricks with their names on them in a new building to be regular givers.

"Our job is still to convert those donors and help them see that if they've invested in our building in 2007, why not now invest regularly in our artistic mission?" Ruiz said.

Elisabeth Challener, managing director of Zach Theatre, echoed the same concerns, adding that while Austin loves a glittering artsy party, the trick is to turn that into regular support.

"What I would wish going forward is that (Austin donors) would have more of a focus on investing in an annual gift," Challener said.

Austin's youthful profile , with a median age of 31 and a n economy still dominated by state government and education, translates into an average donor more likely to give smaller amounts to one-time fundraising efforts, noted leaders such as Ruiz and Challener.

Questions of artistic and civic credibility have dogged some groups as they have amped up artistic efforts.

The Austin Museum of Art spent more than $16 million of donor-contributed money in three separate attempts to build downtown before scrapping its plans.

More recently, Arthouse, though it gained considerable buzz for its renovated Congress Avenue venue, drew sharp scrutiny when it was revealed that leaders allowed Warner Music Group to modify British artist Graham Hudson's installation "Rehearsal at the Astoria" for a promotional event during SXSW.

Arthouse officials did not seek Hudson's permission, raising the possibility that the organization violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which grants artists the right to prevent alteration of their work. Several prominent donors and artists subsequently left the Arthouse board.

In many ways, though, the story of the Austin arts scene over the past decade mirrors the national and international landscape.

The arts went on a building spree around the globe with bigger, splashier — and therefore more expensive to maintain — facilities sprouting in seemingly every major, and even minor, city.

But since the economic downturn, institutions everywhere have felt the cash crunch. And that pressure has sometimes produced leadership turnover. In Dallas, the new AT&T Performing Arts Center ended its first season with a $3 million deficit and $40 million short in its $354 million capital campaign. One chief executive stayed just 16 months on the job, leaving only a year after the complex opened.

Both Ballet Austin and Zach Theatre report solid economics with no debts. Ruiz said the ballet's board began planning for an economic downtown before the 2008 stock market crash and made cuts, while adding a $100,000 contingency surplus into the budget. And the company clearly has something Austin wants to buy: The ballet saw it highest-grossing season , with 42,257 paid attendees and nearly $2 million in ticket sales, this past year.

The board at Zach, too, planned for a budget surplus to buffer against uncertain fundraising during the economic downturn.

"Our board will not approve of an annual budget with any deficit," Challener said.

And despite the challenging economy, Zach is on track to complete its Topfer Theatre in the fall of 2012. Challener said that $18 million has been raised for the $22 million facility. (Nearly $11 million is from voter-approved municipal bond money.)

While the Zach construction continues a decade-long arts building boom in Austin, some arts leaders say that it's time to shift away from thinking about bricks-and-mortar ambitions and start focusing on organizational stability.

Though perhaps no other arts organization has suffered quite the ups and down that the Austin Museum of Art has, the sale late last year of its downtown lot adjacent to Republic Square Park to Travis County for $21.75 million has left it arguably the most cash-rich arts group in town.

Still, building a new home downtown isn't in its future. And that's partly because of its merger talks with Arthouse.

"The merger is really about securing ongoing operational strength rather than about taking on the pressure of constructing a new facility," said Lynn Sherman, the president of AMOA's board. "I think what we're seeing now — or should be seeing — is a focus on the ongoing operational stability of our arts institutions."

Buckling down and shoring up appears to be the modus operandi for many arts organizations this year. But a stable — and blossoming — future for the Austin arts scene also depends on leadership and good stewardship, as shown by the Zach and Ballet Austin boards.

"It's going to take really strong and dynamic board leadership to keep Austin arts organizations growing," Challener said.; 445-3699

Operating budgets of top arts organizations

In the past decade, many of Austin's larger arts groups significantly expanded, as evidenced by their annual budgets.

YEAR 2000 2010

Arthouse $490,000 $1.1 million

Austin Lyric Opera $3.5 million $4 million

Austin Museum of Art $3.4 million $3.26 million

Austin Symphony Orchestra $3.9 million $4.3 million

Ballet Austin $3.4 million $5.8 million

Blanton Museum of Art $2.6 million $6.1 million

Conspirare $372,000 $1.26 million

Long Center $0 $6 million*

Paramount/State $4.5 million $5.2 million

UT Texas Performing Arts $10.1 million $10.4 million

Zach Theatre $2.2 million $3.5 million

Total $31.06 million $50.92 million

*The Long Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2008.

Source: Staff research

Major arts building projects

In the past decade, Austin donors anted up for several major arts capital campaigns.

Arthouse: $6.6 million

Ballet Austin's Butler Dance Education Center: $10.3 million

Bass Concert Hall: $14.5 million*

Blanton Museum of Art: $83.5 million**

Long Center for the Performing Arts: $77 million

Topfer Theatre, Zach Theatre: $22 million (under construction; $18 million raised to date)

*Less than 2 percent, or approximately $29,000, came from Austin donors.

**Austinites donated $16 million, or 19 percent, for the new Blanton.