Expansion Plans in a Recession

Arts organizations and events are adapting to the tough economic climate

“I've had the opportunity to learn patience,” says Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum. He’s talking about a problem that other Cincinnati arts organizations and supporters of planned festivals, theater renovations and other projects have to share — how to raise money as the Great Recession grinds on.

Funding for the Sign Museum to renovate a building in Camp Washington bought four years ago has sometimes faltered, but a recent anonymous grant nearly completes the $2.5 million project and will allow the museum to move from its Walnut Hills location on Essex Avenue location to more commodious quarters at 1330 Monmouth St.

“We were on hold a good two years, with two thirds of the work done,” Swormstedt says, but an opening in spring 2012 is now confidently expected.

Other Cincinnati arts-related projects report that although individual contributions might be smaller, work continues.

“The recession may have influenced size of donation, but we are going to individuals, foundations, sponsorships — we're funding from multiple buckets. We've not felt a need to alter plans,” says Nick Vehr, managing director for the 2012 World Choir Games.

Amateur choirs worldwide gather for these biennial events and will be making their first United States appearance in Cincinnati next July 4-14.

FotoFocus, an ambitious citywide celebration of photographic and lens-based art, will make the first of what are planned to be biennial appearances in October 2012, with a preview event on Fountain Square Oct. 14 of this year. James Crump, Cincinnati Art Museum photography curator/chief curator and co-chair for FotoFocus, said in an email that, “We are very cognizant of the economic uncertainty of these times, but plans for FotoFocus have not changed and, in fact, the scope of the event has broadened with many more participants than we initially projected.”

The project brings together an increasing number of institutions, which will “use their own marketing power,” FotoFocus founder Thomas Schiff previously has said.

“I am not aware of any participating venue scaling back or canceling plans due to the present economic climate,” Crump noted.

Another new venture is the Constella Festival, 13 multi-disciplinary (with an emphasis on Classical) music events, taking place in October and early November of this year. Soviet-born violinist Tatiana Berman, a founding member of the Concert Nova ensemble, conceived the idea for the festival after the recession was a fact of fundraising life.

“We built our budget around the economic situation, allowing leeway for unexpected things,” she says. “We've been extremely fortunate; many people have a strong response to the idea. Fundraising is not as easy as it might have been, but culture and art are important to many people. They might not give as much, but they will give.”

LeAnne Anklan, Constella Festival manager, says that, “We've been budget-minded from the start, creating our budget from the ground up.” The festival opens Oct. 13 with a concert at Memorial Hall by Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn, who will introduce new works written for her as well as playing Bach and Beethoven sonatas. Jazz and dance, along with classical works, are featured in the remaining five concerts, scheduled for Oct. 14, 15, 16, 29 and Nov. 8. Tickets go on sale Sept. 1.

Another variety of festival, the Bunbury Music Festival, will take place on the riverfront next July 13-15, says Bill Donabedian. In his announcement, he stated that, “Bunbury will transform Sawyer Paint and Yeatman's Cove with six stages showcasing national acts, a technology pavilion and eco-marketplace.”

Asked about the impact of the economy on these plans, Donabedian is optimistic: “From September to Thanksgiving is a crucial time for fundraising, so we're still in the process, but my sense is that sponsorships directly interact with potential customers and provide a good way to contact them. You can't blame everything on the economy. If you're not raising money you may be doing something wrong.”

The renovation of Music Hall, a huge undertaking with estimates ranging up to $150 million, is a substantially larger arts project than those previously mention. Dudley Taft, co-chair of the Music Hall Revitalization Campaign, commented on it by email: “Plans for the revitalization of Music Hall have not been scaled back. It's a big endeavor, from both the fundraising and construction points of view, but it's also among the most important projects taking place in Cincinnati. The fundraising will be hard work and there is a long way to go, but we are encouraged by the number of people who have already made generous commitments and have no doubt we will succeed.”

Two well-established arts organizations have put large building projects on hold for the time being. Buzz Ward, Playhouse in the Park executive director, says this about the Playhouse's plans to expand from Eden Park to a downtown location: “With the recession, capital plans are on hold. We need to be fiscally responsible, but the issues-driven capital plan remains and will be addressed later.”

Another Eden Park institution, the Cincinnati Art Museum, has also temporarily put aside building expansion to concentrate on renovation of existing buildings, says Director Aaron Betsky. He expects to gain 13,000 additional square feet of exhibition and public space in the museum itself through a revamping of the former Art Academy building, adjoining the museum, for use as offices and the museum library. That work begins this fall.

The long-talked-of renovation of the Emery Theatre on Walnut Street just north of Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine seems to be gaining a foothold with the establishment of the Emery Center Corporation to handle restoration, and The Requiem Project — under Tina Manchise and Tara Lindsey Gordon — for programming. The project's website, www.therequiemproject.com, is currently under construction, and a public relations representative for The Requiem Project left a phone message saying that no CityBeat questions could be answered now, but that the project is alive and will be making announcements soon.

Another elusive undertaking, a new Tall Stacks, which brought riverboats to the city and also staged Roots-music festivals, might be dead in the water, so to speak. Calls to Music Events Management, Inc., the organizer for the event, were not returned.

Kat Steele, executive director of the Cincinnati Film Festival, is now finalizing its second appearance Sept. 29-Oct. 2. She might speak for many organizations in her response to current economics. She said, via email, that it’s hard to find “a major sponsor and celebrity angel” and that “funding is definitely not on schedule this year — again. We were also struggling last year.” But she added that she’s had an increase in film submissions, and greater success with in-kind/trade relationships. This year programming is consolidated to four days at three venues — including downtown’s Cincinnati Club — but includes a new screenplay competition and a special opening-night event.

She said one optimistic sign for a struggling, new organization like hers is the support it’s getting from local businesses.

“I see it almost becoming an economic system for nonprofits based on bartering, at least for us,” she wrote in her email. “We are all learning we have to work together in lean times to keep the good things happening, which spurs hope and enlightenment, and that is the only way we can all pull through this — together.”