London's newest theater, built and funded despite the Recession

Anita Singh, The Telegraph [UK], 5/6/12 [hat tip to ArtsJournal.com]

If these are gloomy times for arts funding, nobody told Jez Bond. Two years ago, Bond took possession of a nondescript office block in Finsbury Park, north London. His plan was almost ludicrously ambitious: to drum up 2.2 million in the middle of an economic downturn and build a theatre from scratch. By the end of this year, the shiny new Park Theatre will open its doors. Not only has Bond secured almost all of the funds - although there is a crucial 400,000 left to raise - but he has received the high-profile backing of Sir Ian McKellen and other theatre luminaries. The Park Theatre will cater to the local community and promises to transform an area that has long lived in the shadow of its chi-chi neighbour, Islington. But Bond also intends to bring in audiences from far and wide, and for this the location is his trump card. The venue is directly outside the Tube station and the journey from Oxford Circus takes just 15 minutes.  Bond believes this rapidly gentrifying area provides exactly the right mix for his venture. Finsbury Park has been without a theatre for nearly half a century -- few residents remember the Empire, which was bulldozed in 1965. The Park Theatre will have two spaces, one seating 200 people [which] will feature plays produced mostly in-house, and a smaller studio seating 90 [which] will be a fringe venue for hire "but very much a curated space". The development is costing 2.2m in total -- [half] from private donors and [half] from the sale of five flats earmarked for the upper floors. But this is where the final 400,000 really matters. If Bond can raise the money, only three of the flats will need to be sold and the space allocated for the other two will be used instead for an education floor.

 

Ballet Memphis is bucking the Recession via untraditional approach

Doug Borwick, ArtsJournal.com blog Engaging Matters, 3/7/12

Ballet Memphis is a medium-sized ballet company in a medium-sized U.S. city in which 24% of the population lives in poverty and women's wages are the lowest in the country. Memphis is not a city in which an arts organization can build a sustainable future via traditional arts markets: educated, wealthy, older, white. Its demographics demand a different approach. From its origins in 1986, Ballet Memphis realized that it needed to develop an identity rooted in Memphis. This involved programming based on Memphis's cultural traditions (jazz and blues to name two) and on issues important to the city's citizens. To assist with economic development, Ballet Memphis partnered with the Chamber of Commerce in the development of "Investing In Inspiration" to support economic growth by fostering civic dialogue. Ballet Memphis supports public education through a program called Dance Avenue serving third graders in three elementary schools as well as a dance instruction program at Youth Villages, a secured facility for highly troubled teenagers. Ballet Memphis sees itself as a partner in addressing other community issues as well. Over the last five years, its "Connections" series and its "AbunDANCE" performances have addressed issues of architecture, food, the environment, religion, human sound, fashion, and gender.

"And what have been the results of this work? For the first 2 years of the recession, in contrast to national trends, we increased donations and ticket sales by 17%. Although this growth did not continue in the third year of the recession, we have made tremendous strides in securing major gifts for our endowment and for capital reserves to sustain our annual operations. The future looks quite stable. Exciting new partnerships with minority arts institutions are in the works as well -- partnerships which will prove beneficial for our city."

 

New Jersey community theaters are playing on, despite tough economy

Jim Cook, NJ.com, 2/12/12

It's no secret that there's nearly just as much live theater in South Jersey as there is on Broadway in NYC. Some of the companies are fairly new, but are housed in revitalized old vaudeville venues or silent movie houses. Some are as old as the roofs they're performing under. All are run by teams of dedicated volunteers with few paid roles. Whatever the case, South Jersey's little theaters are managing a difficult economy with relative ease. [Here are three examples:]

  • Just before falling into hopeless disrepair, the old Broadway Theatre in Pitman got a new lease on life from a grassroots organization of local residents. In 2007, the musical "Gypsy" premiered, relating a story about the vaudeville era when the Broadway itself was first built. The production, directed by Jason Phillips, saw sold-out audiences for the entire run. Six years later, "We're doing surprisingly well," Phillips said. "It's all about who you market these shows to. People want to get away, especially when the economy is bad, and we offer affordable subscriptions."
  • In Woodbury, the Sketch Club Players has been in operation for about 65 years, performing at a century-old theater for most of that time. Erin Blackwell has been involved since 1990 [and echoed] the sentiment expressed by other groups, agreeing that audiences want to escape their stressful lives with a live theater experience. That's what has carried them through the economic downturn, she notes. "We've done well, and we've managed through the economy. We've developed a building fund that is our go-to when we need maintenance. And when it isn't maintenance, it's an upgrade to the facility. Some years, you do well, some years you just get through by the skin of your teeth," Blackwell said. "But the fun never dies."
  • Over in Hammonton, the Eagle Theater, teamed with Collaborative Stage Productions, [to revitalize] an old movie house and opened in 2009. "A bunch of volunteers in town knew that there was a theater from 1914, and we got together and decided to save it," said Jim Donio, president of the Eagle.  The building was set to be torn down and the site used for a parking garage until private funding and a loan from TD Bank allowed the group to save the space. "Despite the recession, it really worked out well in the end," Donio said. "Our expectations were that it would take us a long time, once we opened, to be able to sustain ourselves. But we've met those expectations and exceeded them."

How the Recession spurred creative solutions to Seattle's arts space crunch

Deanna Duff, Crosscut.com, 2/27/12

The slow economy has been a temporary boon for Seattle artists, leading to a drop in real estate prices and creating empty storefronts, but many worry  what will happen when the economy inevitably stimulates again. "Right now, renting to an artist is better than having nobody, but what is the motivation if the economy gets better?" asks artist Jane Richlovsky. "Seattle is a boom and bust town. There is a fever about [affordable space] now, when the economy is down, but if there is another boom and the prices re-escalate, then the discussion is forgotten. We need ongoing support."

  • Shunpike, a non-profit organization that assists small and mid-sized artists and arts groups with administrative, business, and funding support, recently introduced a program helps artists find long-term, affordable arts space on a case-by-case basis. Shunpike's Artist Space Assistance Program (ASAP) works with artists to help them organize financial reports to prove lease eligibility and provides legal direction regarding contracts.
  • The 29,000 square-foot 12th Avenue Arts project is scheduled to break ground in summer 2012. The space will house a mix of affordable housing and affordable arts and performance space in addition to retail and offices. Randy Engstrom, a longtime Seattle arts activist, highlights the city's willingness to "make the numbers work" as a key component to success. He would like such cooperation to become standard. "I hope that regionally we can get a coherent policy for affordable arts space," he says. "It doesn't mean that I want the city to pay for everything, but I hope that we could develop policies to thoughtfully address the problem long term."
  • The INScape building is another example of an effective partnership between artists and government. The historic building was previously occupied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Today, the $10 million project is an arts and cultural hub that will eventually be home to more than 120 artists. INScape's cost was offset by historical tax credits and the New Markets Tax Credit Program, a federal program intended to spur real estate and business projects in specialized and low-income areas.
  • Storefronts Seattle has taken a less permanent approach to creating affordable arts space. Artists and art groups pay $1 a month to occupy empty storefronts. Storefronts pays for everything including utilities, insurance, and minimal improvements and repairs. Meanwhile, property owners pay absolutely nothing. Funded by grants from Seattle's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, the Office of Economic Development, 4Culture and neighborhood groups, Storefronts Seattle is now occupying empty window space in Pioneer Square, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Rainier Beach, the International District as well as Auburn and Tacoma.
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