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How Art Performs When Money's Tight

When times are tough people tend to spend less on entertainment. Some cut travel or dining out. Others buy fewer tickets to concerts and plays.

This isn't good news for theaters and music halls in greater Boston. WBUR's Andrea Shea checked in with some performing arts organizations to find out how they're handling these economic hard times.

ANDREA SHEA: The show "Martha Mitchell Calling" opened at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge three weeks ago.

SCENE FROM PLAY: Martha Mitchell: "These things I do and say are the only fun my poor husband has!" (audience laughter)

SHEA: The play is a wry portrait of the socialite who married John Mitchell, President Nixon's Attorney General. The theater's Executive Director Catherine Carr-Kelly is thrilled with the production.

CATHERINE CARR-KELLY: It's received fabulous reviews, thankfully, last weekend we started selling out shows, I honestly think that if we hadn't had this downturn in this economy we probably would've started selling them out sooner, it's a small house.

SHEA: With only 150 seats the new state-of-the-art space is shared by two long-time theater companies. They opened their doors this past July, with an annual budget of $1.6 million, just as the economy started to tank.

CARR-KELLY: And what I'm hearing, anecdotally, is that people are budgeting their entertainment dollars.

JOHN ANDERSON: 2007 I added up what we spent on entertainment, which is mostly theater tickets and things of that sort and it was $4500 for the year.

SHEA: That's John Anderson, a retired computer executive. He and his wife Heather frequent several theaters, including Central Square. They live in Medford and say they're hard-core culture fanatics.

ANDERSON: It used to be the budgeting factor was time, whether you could slide something in that you heard was good. But now we have to stop and think about it and work within a monetary budget.

SHEA: Which isn't to say the Anderson's are going to deprive themselves of plays, dance and concerts, which they see as the life-blood of their existence. Instead, Heather Anderson says they've been looking for deals, buying half-priced tickets whenever they can.

HEATHER ANDERSON: So that we haven't had to cut back on our habit.

SHEA: And they're not alone, according to Catherine Peterson, Executive Director for Arts Boston.

CATHERINE PETERSON: People are looking for value, people are looking to have a good time out, we are seeing ticket sales being very robust.

SHEA: Arts Boston is a non-profit marketing group that runs the BosTix discount ticket booths in Copley Square and Faneuil Hall. Peterson says entertainment seekers are being selective with their purchases, steering away from triple digit ticket prices. But even with the election and the Red Sox playoffs she says audiences are ponying up. Still, Peterson, and many other arts organizations surveyed for this story, say it's too early to measure the slumping economy's impact on the performing arts. The upcoming Holidays shows, she says, are critical.

PETERSON: It's the Nutcrackers, the Messiah's, the Christmas Carols, that really help pay for the rest of the season for so many arts groups.

SHEA: Even the best-endowed performing arts organization in the country: The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mark Volpe is the Managing Director.

MARK VOLPE: Not to be glib there's the old expression, "The future isn't what it used to be." and I think that certainly pertains to us and virtually every other entity whether they're for profit or not for profit.

VOLPE: The BSO's $354 million dollar endowment has taken a hit and Volpe is concerned about how it will impact operations over time. In response the BSO's investment committee is assessing its obligations, including pensions. They've already cut travel and entertainment budgets. If they have to, Volpe says, they'll cut more.

VOLPE: If this was a really really deep recession or beyond, the reality is that we can reduce inventory.

SHEA: Meaning they'll reduce the number of orchestra performances, which range between 260 to 270 a year. To attract audiences the BSO is "adding value" with lecture series and free tickets for kids. Like the BSO, and many other performing arts organizations around town, the Central Square Theater in Cambridge are looking or creative ways to bring people in, with donation only readings, free tea parties for children, and a special series that pair plays about science with post-show talk backs lead by Nobel-prize winning scientists. A no-brainer considering the theater's location near MIT.

CARR-KELLY: So we're making sure we do that and they're selling very well. We're also working with our local restaurants to get a really inexpensive value meal.

SHEA: To reduce her organization's budget Catherine Carr-Kelly is adding a week to the run of each play at the Central Square Theater, hoping to get more bang for the buck it costs to stage a production. She also came up with another way to save money: cutting out the professional cleaning service. Now she, and the rest of the staff at the Central Square Theater are cleaning their gleaming new space themselves.

This program aired on November 7, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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