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Sad state of the arts

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    Dwight Martin's job as producing director for Manoa Valley Theatre includes myriad other duties at the theater, including mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, as he did on Friday. He is quick to point out that all the theater's staff have multiple jobs.
    Hawaii Opera Theatre has been forced to cut costs during the economic downturn, but has been able to avoid cutting staff. Here, Olga Chernisheva appears as Mimi and Derek Taylor as Rodolfo in HOT's production of "La Boheme."
    Honolulu Symphony musicians, pictured here during the final performance of the Master Works season at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, continued to play last year despite being owed some 12 weeks of back pay.

As steward of one of the state’s oldest and most popular theatrical companies, Dwight Martin assumes myriad important duties.

Thus, on a warm Thursday afternoon, Manoa Valley Theatre’s long-tenured producing director found himself trimming the grass around the theater’s East Manoa Road property.

It’s no stunt, no photo-op show of sleeves-up austerity. Like every other member of the theater’s staff — and many board members — Martin makes a regular practice of minding the mundane details necessary to keep the small but resilient operation on solid footing amid the economic tumult that has Hawaii’s arts community struggling to hold on.

"We all have ‘other duties as assigned,’" Martin said, chuckling. "Cutting the grass is one of mine."

If all goes well, Manoa Valley Theatre will end the year with income and expenses in perfect balance. And for those familiar with the troubled state of the arts in Hawaii, that qualifies as a small miracle.

Already reeling from years of declining corporate and private donations, dwindling governmental support and diminishing presence in the entertainment marketplace, organizations devoted to the preservation and cultivation of visual and performing arts have been pushed, some to the brink, by more than two years of widespread economic hardship.

The delicate situation has been underscored by surprising initiatives on the part of three of the arts community’s most prominent institutions.

The Honolulu Symphony, which canceled half of its 2009-2010 season and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, is attempting to return to the stage via a new "financially responsible and sustainable" plan that calls for a radical reduction in the number of full-orchestra performances and a corresponding cut to what it pays its 63 full-time musicians. The plan would shrink the symphony’s budget from a reported $8 million per year to $1.7 million in the first year out of bankruptcy.

Symphony musicians — who continued to play last year despite being owed some 12 weeks of back pay — have predictably chafed at the proposed cuts. The ongoing disagreement on the direction of the organization has resulted in a stalemate in contract negotiations between the symphony society and the Musicians’ Association of Hawaii, Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the symphony musicians.

In a much less contentious move, Honolulu Academy of Arts interim Director Lynn Johnson and Violet Loo, chairwoman of the Contemporary Museum’s board of directors, announced that they had signed a letter of intent to investigate the possibility of the two museums merging operations. The announcement came nearly a year after Johnson first confirmed discussions between the two organizations.

‘Lean and Mean’

In 2008, The Contemporary Museum laid off 11 full-time and 14 part-time workers, equivalent to half its staff. Around the same time, the academy lost 19 positions due to layoffs, attrition or early retirement.

Despite the cuts, the Contemporary Museum has been able to maintain a full schedule of exhibitions and should end the year in the black, interim Director Allison Wong said.

"The layoffs were the hardest hit, but since then we’ve battened down the hatches and restricted our budget and spending," Wong said. "We’re definitely lean and mean."

Wong said the museum will continue to seek opportunities for partnerships and cross-promotions, such as its recent Mystery May Madness event at Fishcake, as a means of reaching new audiences and working within the limitations of its location in the Makiki Heights residential neighborhood.

"Partnerships and collaboration are the way to go," Wong said. "Hawaii is so small and the demographics that support us are much smaller than those in Chicago, L.A. or New York. The phenomenal thing is that the arts community is still rising to the occasion. We’re still putting on plays and performances."

The 83-year-old Academy of Arts has also found a measure of stability after suffering a one-third depreciation of its $42 million endowment two years ago. As part of its efforts to minimize costs, the museum has suspended its presentation of traveling exhibits and turned to its own trove of some 50,000 pieces of art to stage recent exhibitions like "Hokusai’s Summit: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" and "From Whistler to Warhol: Modernism on Paper."

"Our basement archaeology has been very successful," Johnson said. "It instills in people a reminder that we’ve got a world-class collection of our own. This can’t continue indefinitely, but right now it’s a win-win."

The museum has also benefited from its ongoing efforts to engage younger audiences and recruit new members. Its most recent ARTafterDARK event attracted 1,900 visitors and resulted in about 100 new memberships. A recent Bank of Hawaii Family Sunday event drew an additional 2,200 people.

Johnson said the proposed joint venture with the Contemporary Museum makes financial and artistic sense. The two parties are in the process of hiring a facilitator to assist in the planning, she said.

Volunteers vital

The developments at the symphony and the two museums have generated a buzz within a local arts scene already well familiar with the challenges of remaining relevant to the larger community.

"The strongest survive and the weakest get eaten," said Martin, the Manoa Valley Theatre director. "I think the community does realize the importance of the arts, how the performing arts contribute to the life of the community and help students and younger people establish their values, but what particular shape they take is governed by a variety of different factors, including the economy.

"All of us have to be even more efficient in how we run our organizations," he said. "No one is immune to what the symphony is going through."

The theater employs seven full-time and three part-time staffers — "a lot of our departments run just one deep," Martin said — and relies on volunteers to perform in its productions and handle offstage duties. Board members routinely volunteer to help with the productions, either informally or as part of the theater’s nationally recognized "Adopt-a-Play" program.

The theater works within an annual budget of about $750,000. Roughly 45 percent of that comes from ticket sales and other earned income, and the remainder from sponsorships, individual donations, grants and a modest contribution from the state.

Theater managers projected a $60,000 shortfall this season, due in part to a 20 percent drop in sponsorships and donations. However, better-than-expected ticket sales and strict management of the theater’s expense account will likely allow the organization to break even when its season wraps up next month.

"Instead of buying materials for new props or costumes, we’ll check around and see if someone has ready-made things that we can rent for cheaper," Martin said. "And instead of spending $2,000 for new lumber, we see if we can rework lumber from past productions. We’re really good at reworking."

Martin said the theater survives, in part, because board members, staff and volunteers are careful not to let budget constraints affect the quality of its productions.

"We tighten our belts so we don’t have to give any ground on the standards we’ve set for ourselves over 40 years," he said. "But you can only tighten so much. It’s like that old business school adage, ‘You can’t save your way into a profit.’"

Drawing audiences

That argument, the crux of the symphony musicians’ disagreement with symphony management, is oft repeated in arts circles these days as organizations deliberate over how to balance the need to save with the need to attract and retain audiences.

Despite what promises to be a complex, costly move to a new venue, Ballet Hawaii is seeking to expand its performance offerings in the coming years.

The company operates on an annual budget between $1.1 million and $1.5 million, with a core staff divided into 5 1/2 positions. Its income is generated through varying proportions of ticket sales, tuition for its educational programs, and donations and grants — all of which have declined in the last year.

The company self-produces two or three performances each year, including its popular "Nutcracker" at Christmas, and presents traveling shows as the opportunities arise, including last year’s performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ana Laguna. Each self-produced performance costs between $50,000 and $250,000, with unpaid performers complementing paid principal dancers.

Like other arts organizations, Ballet Hawaii has taken advantage of its opportunities to stage performances at lower overhead expense. Its next offering, "Cool Ballet for a Hot Summer: A Medley of American Dance," will be staged at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Kennedy Theatre.

The company recently lost its lease to the Dole Cannery space it had held for the last 13 years, necessitating a move to a smaller venue that should be completed in November. Still, executive John Parkinson said it hopes to take "a calculated, entrepreneurial risk" in expanding its offerings in the new space.

"We have a very strong and loyal local audience," Parkinson said. "Our ability to survive on ticket sales reflects that."

Fiscal harmony

A variety of factors can help insulate an arts organization in difficult economic times: endowments that cover or defray overhead expenses; engaged, well-connected directors who champion the organization to individual donors and corporate partners; land ownership; and ancillary lines of business that generate additional revenue.

Hawaii Opera Theatre has been hailed within the arts community as a model for the effective balance of artistic and financial interests.

The theater operates with an budget of $3.1 million to $3.4 million, depending on the number of performances it produces. Its expenses are covered by an enviable mix of revenue streams: 44 percent from contributions, roughly 37 percent from earned revenue, 16 percent from investments and rentals, and 3 percent from its educational programs.

The theater employs 11 full-time and two part-time staffers, and contracts its performers, including Honolulu Symphony musicians and featured singers from the mainland and Europe.

While Hawaii Opera Theatre, too, has been forced to cut costs (in 2007, in anticipation of worsening economic conditions, it chose not to extend its summer season pilot program), it has been able to avoid cutting staff, in part because of the added financial stability it gets from its real estate holdings (it rents out space in its office building and rehearsal hall) and from its $4 million endowment, which though relatively small is still larger than that of many organizations.

"We’re not without challenges, and this is a very challenging time, but this allows us to be masters of our own destiny," said Executive Director Karen Tiller. "It’s a big difference in that we have a stability that some other organizations don’t."

Just as significant, Tiller said, is the theater’s relatively massive 62-person board of directors.

A former opera consultant and National Endowment for the Arts evaluator, Tiller used to advise organizations against having such a large governing body — "but I could see quickly that although HOT was large, it was not at all unwieldy."

To Tiller, board engagement, frequent dialogue and "incredible" transparency have made the difference. The board’s six standing committees meet once a month, and the organization’s finances are reviewed at each monthly meeting of the full board.

Tiller said the HOT board is a particular asset because of its members’ willingness to engage the public.

"You have to be relevant to the community in order to fundraise," Tiller said. "In this economy, the arts are struggling because they are not social services. They are just as core to human development as social services, but it’s a hard argument."

Staying afloat

Indeed, according to the 2009 "Report on Charitable Giving in Hawaii," prepared by Ward Research Inc. for the Hawaii Community Foundation, donations to arts and culture nonprofits rank far below those for human services, health, religious/spiritual, youth development, education and environment programs. Among respondents who expected to donate the same amount as in the previous year, 77 percent indicated they would direct their donations to human services organizations versus just 9 percent who would support arts and culture.

"Everyone has had to do some sort of cutting," said Marilyn Cristofori, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Arts Alliance, a nonprofit arts organization representing 105 organizations and 300 individuals. "Most have had to cut staff and find ways to do more with less. Everybody is paddling furiously to stay afloat."

Cristofori said the current economic climate has exacerbated an already difficult situation in which the state funding for the arts has been cut, charitable donors have directed their limited resources to programs deemed more important, and public appreciation of traditional fine arts has eroded.

"There are people who think that the arts can be disposed of, or that they can wait, or that we don’t need them," she said. "But you don’t know what you really need until you don’t have it. In the end, the human race was born creative. Not everyone gets to stay there, or gets rewarded for it, but creativity should be encouraged throughout our society."

Cristofori said she is encouraged by the willingness of arts organizations to stay true to their artistic visions, even as they have had to adapt to a changing economic landscape. She pointed to the ARTS at Marks Garage program, which provides shared space to rising independent artists, as an example of a collaborative endeavor that fosters both individual and collective growth.

"Crisis does lead to innovation," she said. "We need to take the next step, take the next breath. It’s tough, but (the local arts community) will be reborn. I see little sparks. They need to take hold and be a flame, but I do see sparks."


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