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7 healthy signs for the metro Phoenix arts scene

[Source: Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic] — There’s no point in soft-pedaling it: The great financial panic of 2008-09 sent Valley arts organizations into a tailspin.  Cautious consumers sat on their wallets instead of opening them up at the box office, and big corporations had less cash to send trickling down to the non-profits.  So performing companies canceled shows, slashed production budgets and cut staff.  MyArtsCommunity.org, a high-profile campaign to raise donations, fell flat.  The latest bad news comes from the West Valley, where the Heard Museum plans to shutter its satellite gallery and the West Valley Art Museum has closed its doors while scrambling to raise $150,000 to keep it afloat.

With the 2009-10 season revving up this month, anxiety about ticket sales and charitable giving remains high.  But the show must go on, and there are hundreds of dedicated individuals, in the spotlight and behind the scenes, who are working to make sure that the crisis doesn’t spin into an arts apocalypse.  To counter the gloom and doom, here are seven reasons to be optimistic about the state of the arts:

  1. Up-and-coming companies: Arizona Opera and Ballet Arizona remain strong, but they are no longer the only game in town.  The upstart Phoenix Opera has brought in top-notch singers for two years of traditionalist stagings, while Novaballet, entering its second season, is committed to cutting-edge choreography that brings dance into the 21st century.
  2. New works: For theaters, the temptation might be to rely on familiar titles to fill seats.  Yes, there’s a bit of that in the coming season.  But in addition to the return of “The Phantom of the Opera,” ASU Gammage is bringing in-the-now Broadway hits “In the Heights” and “August: Osage County” (last year’s Tony winners for best musical and best play, respectively).  Actors Theatre has four Arizona premieres on the bill, while Arizona Theatre Company will be staging a new adaptation of “The Kite Runner” and commissioning a world-premiere comedy, “The Second City Does Arizona.”
  3. Investments in venues: The building boom that gave us new performing-arts venues in Mesa, Tempe and Peoria isn’t over.  The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and the Herberger Theater Center are undergoing extensive renovations, while future projects, including an expansion at Phoenix Theatre, are in the works.  The economic downturn is sure to slow the pace of big capital projects, but the momentum hasn’t been lost.
  4. Fresh blood: The Scottsdale center’s rebuilt theater comes with a new artistic director, Jeffrey Babcock, who promises to reach out to a broader audience with splashy events, such as its first Festival of Latin Jazz & Culture.  New leadership always presents an opportunity to rethink ways of doing things, which means we could soon be seeing innovative programming at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, ASU Art Museum and Heard Museum: All are on the lookout to fill director positions this year.
  5. Experienced leaders: Shaking things up can be good, but there’s also something to be said for a steady hand on the tiller.  That’s what many major companies have: savvy executives with track records for success.  At the Phoenix Art Museum, Jim Ballinger has been in charge since 1972, growing it into a multimillion-dollar company that attracts well over 200,000 visitors a year and overseeing two major expansions.  On the artistic side are such leaders as Ballet Arizona’s Ib Andersen, a Balanchine protege who in 10 years has elevated the company to one of the most respected ballets in the country.
  6. International networking: The arts community forms a web that crosses all borders, and some of the greatest performers in the world are Arizona-bound this season.  There’s the incomparable cellist Yo-Yo Ma, of course, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, which also will host top dance troupes, including the pioneering Paul Taylor and Martha Graham companies.  Then there’s the conducting world’s biggest superstar, the charismatic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who will bring the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Phoenix’s Symphony Hall for a performance that’s sure to be a highlight of the season.
  7. Grass roots: Even if the unthinkable happened and every major company in the Valley were forced to close, that would not be the end of the arts.  There will always be actors and singers and dancers, and art lovers who want to see them.  In good times and in bad, every generation breeds a crop of optimistic entrepreneurs who aren’t satisfied with how everybody else does things.  Just one example is Chyro Arts Venue, which opened last year in south Scottsdale and offers provocative, independent-minded theater without the benefit of a six-figure budget.  Many such companies come and go, but some will thrive and move to the next level, becoming the Nearly Naked Theatres and Center Dance Ensembles of tomorrow. The future is always unwritten.  [Note: Read the full article at 7 healthy signs for the metro Phoenix arts scene.]

Phoenix arts advocates scramble to protect at-risk groups

[Source: Arizona Citizens for the Arts] — Phoenix arts advocates, like supporters of numerous other programs facing the spectre of significant budget cuts, have expressed concern for the following programs “on the chopping block:”

Pueblo Grande Museum is facing proposed reductions including elimination of a museum curator, museum assistant, two museum aides, a secretary and a semi-skilled worker.  Special events, summer programs and lectures will be reduced by 50 percent; and school tours will no longer be available, and maintenance of landscaping and surrounding grounds will be reduced.

The Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture grants budget of $890,000 will be cut by 50-75% or more. These grants along with grants from the state arts commission are typically the only source of unrestricted funds these organizations receive and have been the only source of stable funding they could count on for years to help provide affordable programs to the community.  The city’s grants budget over the last 20 years has never been lower than $460,000.  These reductions will take us well below that number — and with the growth of the city population and inflation over these 20 years, the support given to arts organizations will be dismal, at best. (Imagine how long it would take to rebuild to the current level of support.)

The Heard Museum, which relies heavily on sales made at its famous gift shop has seen a significant reduction in sales, forcing huge budget cuts and program reductions mid-year.

The Shemer Arts Center, a community arts center and Phoenix Point of Pride, is facing closure.

The Phoenix Center for the Arts, an affordable arts education facility, serving local emerging artists and arts organizations and located in the heart of the city is facing budget cut of 70%, essentially shutting down most of its programs serving students and artists.

Many large and small arts organizations have begun staff reductions and layoffs including the Phoenix Art Museum, the Phoenix Symphony, Ballet Arizona, and Free Arts of Arizona which serves young children, among others.

Due to these drastic budget shortfalls, grant guidelines have been rewritten at the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.  These will result in elimination of funding to any organization that is not producing arts or located within the city will be cut.  Organizations who’ll see no further grants from Phoenix include Free Arts of Arizona, Herberger Theater Center, Boys and Girls Clubs, Habilitation Center, Artability, Childsplay, and local arts agencies such as the North Valley Arts Council and the West Valley Fine Arts Council.  [Note: For more information from the Arizona Citizens for the Arts, click here.  For City of Phoenix budget hearing information, click here.  For related Arizona Republic article, click here.]