By Karen anderson
BALTIMORE – Baltimore’s art institutions have had to cut their budgets, but they’re hoping their audiences won’t notice.
“You don’t want to jeopardize the visitor experience,” said Nancy Hinds, vice president of public affairs at the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association, “because the ramifications of that will be felt for years.”
So to position themselves for long-term survival, arts institutions throughout the city are cutting pay for staffers and artists without taking from their product.
Randall Vega, cultural affairs director at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, described today’s economic climate as a “triple whammy” for art institutions because it’s weakened the three major sectors that donate — foundations, businesses, and state and local government.
“That’s kind of new,” Vega said. “But we’ll still cope and we’ll still be there.”
Hardest hit in the Baltimore arts scene was the Baltimore Opera Company. It filed for bankruptcy and then closed in March. But few saw that as an indicator that the arts cannot survive during a recession.
“The cultural community is very resilient and very dedicated to the work they do,” Vega said. Institutions such as the Baltimore Opera Company had been under stress for a while. “This financial downturn made moving on impossible,” Vega said.
Baltimore’s art scene mirrors what’s happening in cities across the country.
Like the Baltimore Opera Company, the Orlando (Fla.) Opera Company also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy this spring. The American Musical Theatre and the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul have closed.
Others are making drastic cuts to survive. The St. Louis Art Museum has offered its staff buyouts. Musicians at the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra have not been paid in about three months, according to the Honolulu Advertiser, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra canceled its upcoming season.
In downtown Baltimore, the endowment of the Walters Art Museum lost 27 percent of its value since last summer. Still, the museum is committed to maintaining services and offering free admission to its permanent exhibit.
So like other art institutions in the city, the Walters must search for other ways to compensate for budget shortfalls.
It’s turning inward. The organization is making internal sacrifices to maintain quality for its guests.
“We had to cut some things inside the museum without people realizing that anything different was going on,” said Mindy Riesenberg, director of marketing at the Walters Art Museum in downtown Baltimore. “We had to make changes behind the scenes.”
The museum cut salaries and 16 full-time positions, imposed unpaid staff furloughs and closed the Hackerman House, home to the museum’s Asian art, on weekdays, Riesenberg said.
The museum also canceled an exhibition featuring the work of Jean Louis Gerome that it had planned with its partners at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“We’ve backed out because we cannot afford it,” Riesenberg said. “We’ve shifted around exhibitions that we were already planning to do and we’ve done some rescheduling.”
Riesenberg said that as a city-owned nonprofit, the Walters obviously has been affected by the state and city budget cuts. But visitors are unlikely to notice.
“Everything we’re presenting is the same,” Riesenberg said. “We didn’t have to cut any programming.”
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is also making cuts in a way it hopes won’t affect their audience.
Knowing that the BSO’s budget was headed for a deficit this fiscal year, all 93 musicians offered to take pay cuts. Every musician took an 8 percent cut in pay and benefits packages for the 2009-10 season.
Additionally, its staff will be taking two-week unpaid furloughs.
Together, these efforts have helped raise $1 million in savings throughout the organization.
Now the BSO is launching a campaign to raise $2 million, in a drive called “Music Matters: Play Your Part.”
By the end of April, they’d raised $675,000.
“(The musicians) knew that the need for more revenues was not the fault of the management, but the economy,” said Laura Farmer, member of the BSO’s communication department. “But the economy has slowed and more was needed to balance the budget.”
The BSO has laid-off five employees and transferred one position to part-time, Farmer said.
“Earlier this season, we took preemptive and responsible steps toward reducing our expenses, but it’s clear that in this economy we need to do more,” President and CEO Paul Meecham said in a statement released by the BSO on April 29. “When Laurie (Sokoloff, BSO Players’ Committee Chairwoman) approached me about musicians volunteering these financial sacrifices, I was truly moved.”
Farmer said the average ticket price is “holding fairly steady” at a little over $25.
“There’s no chance we’re closing,” Farmer said. “We’re approaching this recession from a period of strength.”
The Baltimore Museum of Art cut its operating budget by $300,000 after its endowment dropped 31 percent from 2007 and the museum saw significant losses in both donations and earned income.
The city’s Office of Promotion and the Arts has lost four to five full-time positions, cut its grants to arts groups by 22 percent, and canceled its summer Arts in the Parks program, while downsizing others.
This year Vega said the office gave grants totaling $700,000, down 22 percent from 2008, and is setting aside funds to ensure that they can at least match this amount again in 2010.
Vega’s office has sponsored 40 artist residencies in area public schools this year, down 20 percent from what they initially budgeted.
Still, despite short-term cut-backs, Vega reaffirmed her faith in the resilience of the city’s cultural community.
“You can’t kill the arts. The arts are within us and they’re going to come out,” Vega said. “There will never be a point where there is no art, where the museums close, where the theatres close, where the music venues close.
“Yes, it’s a difficult period that we’re going through,” she said, “but we’ll come out of it and we’ll have learned some important lessons about our budget and how we do things on a shoestring budget.”