Recession Adds to Challenges for Suburban Arts

By: JIM FITZGERALD
By: JIM FITZGERALD

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) - When he hired Itzhak Perlman as
artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic in 2007, Joshua
Worby thought he'd hit a grand slam.

He figured that Perlman, a popular, world-famous violinist,
would attract new subscribers, raise the reputation of a suburban
orchestra just outside New York City and spur fundraising by 40
percent.
"That's the way we projected it," said Worby, the
Philharmonic's executive director, "and most of it came true."

Sure enough, attendance doubled. Perlman said he was "extremely
happy." Even one category of fundraising, donations from
individuals, went up 25 percent.

Then the economy tanked, corporate giving dried up and the
orchestra ended the 2008-09 season with a deficit instead of a
surplus.

Orchestras, theaters, museums and other arts organizations in
the nation's suburbs face the challenge to attract customers - and
donors - from the same population going to the Chicago Symphony,
the Smithsonian or Broadway plays.

With the recession cutting into corporate and government funding
and making Americans cautious about their spending, the groups are
working harder to promote their small-town advantages - especially
an easier commute and cheaper ticket prices.

"You can see a show at our theater for what you would pay for
parking downtown," says Terry James, executive director of the
Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Ill., 35 miles outside Chicago.
"Our average price is $30, our top ticket is $45. Our parking is
free." And attendance is booming.

Producers warn, however, that convenience and low prices in the
suburbs won't be a draw unless quality at least approaches what's
available in the city.

"The appeal of the Westchester Philharmonic - and this is
probably true of suburban orchestras throughout the country -
includes the ease with which you can get to us, afford the tickets,
park, get in and out," Worby said. "But it's a slippery slope
because you can't fool audiences if your product is substandard.
Manhattan is just 20 miles down the road."

Perlman agrees. "Convenience is just icing on the cake," he
said. "Nobody is going to say, `I don't care what I listen to as
long as it's close."

Outside San Francisco, the Berkeley Symphony also stresses
convenience.

"We do play that up, that you don't have to drive across the
Bay Bridge and pay your $4 toll or whatever or take a BART train,"
says spokesman Kevin Shuck. "But part of our message to the
Berkeley audience is that you don't have to go to the San Francisco
Symphony to get high quality."

The Berkeley has also built a reputation as a champion of 20th
century music under Kent Nagano, who has just stepped down after 30
years as music director. Shuck said attendance was up 6 percent in
Nagano's final season and the orchestra is hoping that excitement
over new music director Joana Carneiro will keep attendance,
corporate support and donations from dropping.

In Chicago's suburbs, musical theater is a major enterprise,
with full-time professional theaters north, south and west of the
city, all selling convenience unashamedly and all heavily
subscribed and apparently recession-proof.

The 900-seat Marriott Theater, which is part of a resort and
turns a profit, has almost 40,000 subscribers who see five musicals
a year.

"We have not seen a dip in recent years, even after 9/11,"
James says. "But we know it's discretionary income and we know we
can't just throw junk out there for people to see. I think our
reputation stands up to downtown."

He says there's plenty of room for the suburban theaters, even
when city theater is flourishing.

"If `Wicked' is playing downtown, that's going to be
competition," he says. But a show like that would also draw
thousands of new theater customers, "and a lot of these new
customers live in the suburbs," he said.

Kyle DeSantis, who runs the for-profit Drury Lane theater in
Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., says convenience plays a role in the
theater's success, where he says attendance is up.

"People like the idea of not hassling with the driving and
paying for the parking," he says. "But I'd like to hope the
quality of the productions also brings people in."

He said it's possible the lower-priced suburban theaters could
even benefit from the recession, but added: "If there's a hit, a
show people want to see, people tend to pay whatever it costs."

At the nonprofit Theater at the Center, 35 minutes from downtown
Chicago in Munster, Ind., artistic director William Pullinsi says
sales have been going up for three years.

The theater's only bow to the recession is to lower prices for
next season, Pullinsi said.

"We haven't been as dependent as most nonprofits are on
contributions," he said. "I've been hearing from other people in
the nonprofit sector that that money has taken a hit."

That was certainly true for the White Plains Performing Arts
Center, which established a nonprofit musical theater 22 miles from
Manhattan in 2007 and nearly got through two seasons before it had
to cancel "Hello, Dolly!" this spring.

The theater had 1,100 subscribers and seven productions "and
then the economic sky seemed to fall in all around us," board
Chairman John Ioris said. "We lost a lot of our corporate and
municipal support."

He has retrenched, however, and expects to announce a new season
shortly, confident that musicals can sell in the New York suburbs.

"Our tickets are less expensive than Broadway and we're
attached to a building with a parking garage in it," he said. "I
think parking is $3. A big part of our audience has said they'd
rather come to us than go to New York if they have a valid reason
to do that."


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