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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Cultural organizations struggle for support

 •  Chart: Where arts organizations get their money

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Administrators at the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra agree that all the Hawai'i arts and culture scene really needs to survive is another thousand Babs Fergusons.

Conductor Matt Catingub puts the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra through its paces during a rehearsal at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall. Many of Hawai'i's arts and cultural organizations are facing dwindling support.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

All Ferguson does for the symphony is donate money, work the phones as a volunteer receptionist, and passionately advocate for its proper place as one of Hawai'i's cultural treasures.

"The other volunteers and I don't have that much to donate, so we give what we can and we donate our time," the 70-year-old retired financial planner said. "The public has got to understand that just buying tickets isn't enough to give the symphony the support that it deserves."

To help the symphony erase a $1 million deficit, its musicians recently agreed to a 20 percent across-the-board pay cut and reductions in pension benefits. Administrators and staff also took pay cuts.

The agreement was an eye-opener for a community largely unaware of the tenuous financial state of one of its most storied cultural organizations.

But it came as no surprise to the scores of arts and cultural organizations in Hawai'i, which already have come to the realization that traditional financial structures heavily reliant on government grants, corporate sponsorship and private donations are breaking down.

"Hawai'i has a unique challenge in that, in terms of population and geography, we're an island," symphony president Stephen Bloom said. "The pool of available funding is limited. The people who give to the symphony are the same ones who support the Aloha United Way and the Hawaiian Humane Society.

"In other places, you tend to have more distinct populations (of donors)," Bloom said. "In Hawai'i, it's much more difficult."

Years of financial austerity measures have helped the major arts and cultural organizations survive, but administrators say innovative solutions are needed to cope with a confluence of negative local and national trends, such as the decrease in season-ticket buyers and a growing perception that arts and cultural organizations services are not as valued as they were a generation or two ago.

Stretched thin

Violist Anna Womack and fellow members, administrators and staff of the Honolulu Symphony took pay cuts to help eliminate a $1 million deficit. Arts groups nationwide are dealing with similar pressures.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

According to a 2001 study conducted by the Hawai'i Community Foundation, a private organization that has become a major financing mechanism for Hawai'i's nonprofit organizations, arts and cultural institutions derive most of their income from program services and contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals.

Almost every major arts and cultural organization in Hawai'i relies on grants from HCF, which pools money from a variety of sources. Several other private foundations, such as the Atherton Family Foundation and the Frear Eleemosynary Trust, are also major money sources.

But, as Honolulu Theatre for Youth managing director Louise King Lanzilotti said: "There are many more nonprofits — all kinds, not just arts and culture — than there were 10 years ago. So we're all competing for the same money, and there are more of us."

The Hawai'i Community Foundation doesn't track the total number of nonprofits in Hawai'i.

The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts continues to link arts and cultural organizations with sources of money, but its own grant-making abilities were handcuffed when its appropriations for grants from the Legislature were cut from more than $5 million to about $1 million in one year.

Ronald Yamakawa
SFCA executive director Ronald Yamakawa said the foundation gets about 300 to 400 requests for money per biennial cycle. Roughly 100 are approved.

"We recently informed several groups how much they will be getting and in most cases, it was less than what they asked for," Yamakawa said. "Our concern is how they're going to cover the difference."

Yamakawa also said there is plenty of federal grant money available, but the difficulty is finding the right departments and then identifying the nonprofit group that best matches the requirements.

"It's not easy," he said, "but that's something we'd like to do more of."

Survival stories

Hawai'i's arts and cultural organizations are in perfect harmony with their financial laments, but each faces unique challenges with regard to the way they fulfill their missions and the way they secure their future.

Mark Lutwak
HTY's Lanzilotti and artistic director Mark Lutwak are veterans of the battle for nonprofit survival. That experience has helped the theater weather a national trend that has seen several distinguished theater companies close their doors.

"We were at a national theater conference recently, and everyone was walking around in a state of shock," Lutwak said. "Several theaters had laid off people, had pay furloughs or pay cuts, they were all running deficits. We're actually stable in comparison because we've been dealing with these issues for eight years."

When HTY ran a $150,000 deficit last season, the staff took a 10 percent pay cut; administrators cut their salary by 20 percent. The theater's operating budget this year is $1.3 million.

HTY is the only venue for professional stage actors in Hawai'i. Actors make a base salary of $365 a week.

Lutwak and Lanzilotti said nonprofit arts and cultural groups need to work together to survive.

"It's not easy," Lutwak said. "Working with another organization doesn't reduce your workload, it doubles it. But it does open up new resources and and new audiences and, for us, it helps us to fulfill our mission of bringing arts education to the children of the state."

Deena Dray
At Diamond Head Theatre, managing director Deena Dray is cautious in describing its financial situation.

"We're in a good position because we've built a strong following among our patrons and our seasons have increased, which goes against the national trend," she said.

Dray is cautious because in Hawai'i's tenuous financial environment, things can change quickly.

Still, the theater is a good example of how a diversified strategy can lead to financial stability.

The theater covers 67 percent of its operating expenses with ticket sales and other earned income, including costume and facility rental and theater classes. The rest comes from contributions.

The theater leases land from the state but owns the theater building. Balancing a schedule of popular productions like "Hello Dolly" and more challenging fare like "Ragtime," it has managed to end each of the past eight seasons in the black.

"I'm a former banker and I'm very conservative," Dray said. "I'm careful about how we extend our reach. Part of the balancing act is knowing your niche and why your audience comes to the theater."

Harry Wong, artistic director of Kumu Kahua Theatre agrees, though his situation and his direction are very distinct.

Kumu Kahua's mission is to highlight work by local playwrights that speaks to local issues.

Like Diamond Head Theater, Kumu Kahua relies on volunteer community actors. It operates on a budget of $256,000 and regularly manages to sell out its 100-seat theater downtown.

"It's difficult to find funding when the ones you want to reach out to think (theater) is too hoity-toity," Wong said.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 535-2461.

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Correction: Stephen Bloom is president of the Honolulu Symphony. His name was incorrect in a previous version of this story.