The Money Game 

Local arts groups struggle for funds—and survival

Local arts groups struggle for funds—and survival

Over the years, Nashville’s major performing-arts groups have become as interlocked as Siamese quintuplets. If one of them coughs, the others develop pneumonia.

Which is why the recent decision by members of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission (MNAC) to shift grant money around—beefing up the amounts to Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Ballet while reducing funds anticipated by TPAC and the Nashville Symphony—has created such an uproar. Along with Nashville Opera, all of these not-for-profit groups operate from season to season by the skin of their respective teeth; an off year in ticket sales can throw any one of them into debt.

At some point in their history, all five groups have been saddled with dangerously large deficits that have left their future existence hanging in the balance. The MNAC’s generous allocations to The Rep and the Ballet won’t eliminate those groups’ current budgetary woes, nor will its reductions bankrupt TPAC or the Symphony. But the funding shift has exposed a glitch in the intimate structure of Nashville’s performing-arts family: Etiquette be damned, money matters.

The relationship between MNAC grant money and the five major arts groups can be likened to the O-ring on the space shuttle—small but vital. When Mayor Phil Bredesen first took office, he determined that the Nashville arts community needed a stable source of annual funding and convinced the Metro Council to establish the local arts commission. As the National Endowment for the Arts has been clobbered over the years, and as swings in state funding have become wildly erratic, the mayor and Council have pumped funds into the commission to defray the pinch felt by local organizations.

While all recipients concur that they appreciate the mayor’s and the Council’s continued support of the commission—and while they say they don’t begrudge the groups who received higher grants—the whole experience exemplifies how sleepy little Tune Town has suddenly reached a day of reckoning in the arts. Some organizations are adapting nicely to the city’s evolution into an entertainment mecca. Others are grappling to find their niche among the competition.

“This is a real shakedown kind of period,” says Tennessee Arts Commission executive director Bennett Tarleton. “We’re into a scary marketplace at the moment for several arts groups, and it probably won’t settle out for several years.”

This year, MNAC allocated $1.4 million through 51 grants to 39 different groups, with 75 percent of the money awarded in the Basic I operating grants category—under which fall the aforementioned quintuplets. MNAC executive director Tom Turk says that the commission had the same budget as last year, but that these organizations were asking for $250,000 more in grants. Somebody was bound to be disappointed.

And so they were. Based on an intricate ranking system, the Symphony received $83,000 less than last year, TPAC $55,000 less, and the Nashville Institute for the Arts (NIA) $40,000 less. All of these groups have been financially healthy over the past several years. On the other hand, The Rep and Nashville Ballet, both of which have suffered from severe budgetary problems, were awarded increases of about $60,000 and $30,000, respectively.

Turk admits that the commission and panel members, who reviewed the grants and made site visits, did factor in each group’s fiscal health. Along with the fact that some groups took the grant-making criteria more seriously than others, this meant a sudden, and arguably warranted, change in the rules. The problem was, nobody saw it coming.

“When we were preparing for the grant, I called up Tom [Turk] and said, ‘We’re budgeting status quo, is that a reasonable budgeting assumption?’ And he said it was,” fumes Tennessee Performing Arts Center CEO Steven Greil, who has been the most vocal opponent of the application process. “I wouldn’t like it if they [gave weight to financially needy groups], but I would understand that. But they’ve denied they did that.”

TPAC ranked 10th of 11 applicants in the Basic I operating grants category. (The Leonard Bernstein Center ranked 11th and didn’t receive a dime of this year’s MNAC money.) While people might not object to a reduction in local funds for an extended run of Show Boat, TPAC’s grant money has never gone toward its Broadway Series. In the past, Greil has dedicated the bulk of the money to Humanities Outreach in Tennessee (HOT), an arts-education program providing subsidies for children across the state; a smaller portion has gone to TPAC’s New Directions Series, which brings alternative performance groups to the center.

“I accept responsibility that we unimpressed them on the site visit. But I also challenge them that a program as good as HOT could be considered so poorly by the Metro Arts group of panelists,” Greil says. “We fulfill our mission, our budget is in the black, and we serve 83,000 children a year.”

In fact, because its fund-raising hasn’t kept pace with its growth, HOT has already cut back its programming over the last few years. Two seasons ago, HOT served 101,000 children through events at TPAC and by taking shows such as The Belle of Amherst and Macbeth across the state to schools that couldn’t afford field trips to Nashville. Last year, however, the program served 16,000 fewer children.

Even before the MNAC brouhaha, HOT programs for the coming year had already been cut back and the statewide tour eliminated. HOT will serve about 74,000 students this season. “It’s hard for me to take any more hits,” says HOT executive director Nancy Shumate. “It costs us about $10 for every child we bring here. That $55,000 [reduction] represents between 5,000 and 6,000 children.” Many of this season’s presentations are already filled, and Shumate may be faced with informing teachers that they could be shut out if they haven’t already signed up.

Nashville Symphony’s new executive director, Alan Valentine, had hardly unpacked his suitcase when the news hit. He received word of the MNAC reduction two days before he had to take the orchestra’s $5.7 million budget to the finance committee and board of directors. “That resulted in a difficult and arduous scramble to find cuts that would offset cuts in funding,” he says. “The Symphony has a high percentage of fixed budget items.”

Free services to the community will probably be the first items to go. The Symphony may perform fewer summer concerts, and rather than having the chamber orchestra visit schools so often, Valentine may require that students see programs at TPAC. These details have yet to be fleshed out with area teachers, who will also feel the broadside.

The reductions in community services are particularly irksome to Valentine since they go against his personal quest to integrate the Symphony into the community—“to be there when Nashville celebrates its victories and to be there when Nashville mourns its losses.

“Our goal,” he says, “is to work with the Metro Arts Commission toward the application process for next season so that the process is clear to everybody about where we stand, how organizations will be evaluated, and how funding will take place. The Symphony is in stable enough financial condition to weather this. But the Symphony, like everybody else, hangs by a thread.”

With about the same granting budget, MNAC ranked the Symphony sixth both last year and this year, but it still found an $83,000 discrepancy. It seems the commission used as the starting point for its formula the amount any group requested. “The Symphony could have asked for $600,000, since you’re allowed to ask for 10 percent of your annual budget,” Valentine says, adding ironically, “We didn’t do that because we didn’t want to skew the process.”

Turk, however, insists that “what the panels recommended and what the commission awarded were fair.” Greil and Valentine requested and were denied an appeal of the allocations. Mayor Bredesen has threatened to quell the squabbling by turning the whole messy process over to the Metro Council.

As is usually the case, the guys at the bottom of the food chain are probably going to get nailed in the hubbub. Local musicians, actors, and dancers, whose livelihoods depend upon a stable, viable arts community, have become increasingly nervous that Nashville may run out of employment opportunities.

Smaller groups, meanwhile, worry that they’ll suffer the fallout if corporate sponsors become irritated by the imbroglio. “I think it’s important for all of us to do what we can to help each other through a difficult time,” says actor David Alford, founder of Mockingbird Public Theatre. “If major arts organizations struggle here—or if they, God forbid, fold—it becomes difficult for all of us to appeal to corporate funders to give us money. There’s a stigma out there that artists can’t handle monetary affairs, and this doesn’t help any.”

Without question, TPAC’s Broadway Series, Nashville Symphony, and Nashville Opera are meeting demands of area residents both in programming and marketing—and their healthy bottom lines prove it. Nashville Opera, in particular, is capitalizing on a surge in popularity. With a $1.3 million budget, it is now the largest opera company in the state, eclipsing the revered Opera Memphis.

Executive director Carol Penterman and artistic director John Hoomes crafted the change by literally taking opera to the people—personally speaking at every garden, rotary, and social-service club that would have them. In these sessions, they share music, laughs, and information without belittling those uneducated in the art form. In fact, Hoomes is so tuned in to opera’s snooty reputation that he delivers a talk called, “What’s All the Screaming About?”

“We did a program at the Rotary Club and had several people sign up for season subscriptions right after the program,” Penterman says. “Do I think they give us a try because they think John and I are nice people? Yes. But that’s OK. Nashville is a very social town. They need personal attention. They need to put a face with the opera.”

Using this one-on-one strategy, the duo reached an amazing 30,000 people last year. Their payoff is that 1998-99 subscription sales are already 25 percent over target levels before the first advertisement has even hit the press. To date, the orchestra section is almost sold out for opening nights of both Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier, and only eight seats remain in the orchestra for the opening nights of H.M.S. Pinafore and Cosi fan tutte. Pretty impressive for a company that was in such dire straits, only a few years ago, there was talk of closing it down.

While Penterman’s and Hoomes’ yeoman efforts might be difficult to duplicate, the Nashville Ballet and The Rep would be wise to take notice. The Ballet has obviously been through a soul-searching catharsis. Now, at the top of the 1998-99 season—after a disastrous year that included weak sales for The Nutcracker, the departure of the company’s artistic director, and the cancellation of Swan Lake due to a freak tornado—the Ballet actually seems to be regaining control.

These days, the mood at the studios is truly upbeat. The community has responded to Nashville Ballet’s plight, and the administration has taken some hard but necessary steps to get in fiscal shape. They’ve reduced the size of the company, promoted Paul Vasterling to artistic director, lined up with HOT and NIA for performances of Robin Hood, and scheduled several tour dates for The Nutcracker. In addition, they’ve booked a killer spring rep program that includes a dance by sizzling choreographer Trey McIntyre and a world premiere by Vasterling, featuring the vocal chops of local singer Jonell Mosser.

“Nashville Ballet is amazing to me,” says Tarleton. “If you look on paper at what they’ve been through in the last six or seven years, you’d think they couldn’t possibly be alive. And they are absolutely alive.”

The Rep—the only Tennessee theater company with production values that compete against touring Broadway shows—seems to be having the most difficult time adjusting to the changing cultural landscape. Ten years ago, many would have predicted that of all the arts groups, The Rep would be leading the charge into the 21st century. Instead it’s way back in the pack.

Part of the problem is that many regional theaters across the nation have a strong enough base to support an eclectic mix of musicals and contemporary plays fresh off the Great White Way. But The Rep’s artistic director, Mac Pirkle, maintains that such programming is riskier for his company, given the need to fill 1,100 seats in TPAC’s Polk Theater. As a result, Circle Players, an amateur community theater that operates out of TPAC’s 288-seat Johnson Theater, has been the first in town to produce such hot-off-the-press shows as Sylvia, Sisters Rosensweig, and Dancing at Lughnasa. Says Circle’s Chase Jeffords, “Right now, we’re looking at The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Floyd Collins, Sideshow, and How I Learned to Drive. Those are cutting-edge plays, and it’s exciting for us to explore new titles.”

Meanwhile, most of The Rep’s biggest sellers have been warm and fuzzy war-horses like Annie, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music. Interim development director Claire Bisceglia says Rep staffers are constantly asking themselves, “Are we relevant? What is our place in this community?”

By the end of last season, The Rep found itself $300,000 in the hole, largely due to the high costs and poor attendance for such original musicals as A House Divided, The Perfect 36, Dream, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The board and staff are taking systemic strides, however, which obviously impressed the MNAC reviewers. According to former executive director Brian Laczko—who has left The Rep to become managing director at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.—plans are in place to retire the debt. The company is limiting its season to only four productions, plus an HOT-only play, Diggin’ Edgar. Also, an anonymous donor has pledged a $100,000, dollar-for-dollar matching donation, which when met will be followed by an additional $100,000. “We’re going to be in better fiscal shape than we’ve ever been in,” Laczko says.

Some view the $252,000 MNAC grant as a vote of confidence that The Rep will recover. Others have their fingers crossed. “If The Rep goes under, it will be devastating for all of us,” says one arts insider. “The last thing we need is for them to piss away their grant money.”

As of late August, Bisceglia was also filling the vacated positions of executive and marketing directors. She says that a national search will soon be under way to find her replacement(s). Mac Pirkle and company manager Jennifer Orth remain with the company, and the firm of McGee, Best, Frank, and Ingram is helping the troupe focus its message.

Bisceglia says she’s entering the 1998-99 season feeling “cautiously optimistic” about an early turnaround. As it stands now, the Rep’s upcoming schedule includes a local premiere of Idols of the King, a Christmas production of Cinderella, the premiere of the new musical Jane Eyre, and, um, something else. The Rep announced that comic Tim Conway would star in Plaza Suite, but Conway instead jumped ship for a potential new television series, leaving the company with a gaping hole in its season lineup.

As the company enters the new season, this void is significant: How can The Rep expect season-ticket subscribers to buy a season ticket when they don’t even know what the last show will be? “To say it’s not a problem would be folly,” Bisceglia admits, “but the good news is, the reputation of The Rep and its long-standing position in the community lead people to believe we’re worthy of them seeing [our shows].”

Competition from professional hockey and football aside, The Rep is searching to define its theatrical presence, after playing David to TPAC’s Broadway Series’ Goliath. And right now, Goliath is winning. If that weren’t enough, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Nashville Children’s Theatre, and Mockingbird Public Theatre—three small, lean dynamos that have recently signed Equity contracts—are attracting attention once exclusively showered upon The Rep.

But Mockingbird’s Alford sounds a note of hopefulness that rings true for the city’s arts community as a whole. “I’m a subscriber to the fast-food theory,” he argues. “You never see only one fast-food restaurant at an interchange. You see five or six, because they know that if there are lots of choices, people will pull off the interstate and then decide. The more choices for theater there are here, the more people will be stopping and sampling all of us.”

Right now, Nashville Ballet, The Rep, Nashville Opera, Nashville Symphony, and TPAC are all in a phase of full-blown puberty. For the individual groups, this period is both awesome and terrifying. As a unit, however, they’re settling into a pattern akin to geese flying in formation. It doesn’t matter who the leader is, or even if the leader develops problems and falls back—so long as they all stay in line and flap hard. But if one of them really screws up and suddenly takes a nose-dive, the whole flock runs amok.

And when that happens, none of them gets anywhere.

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