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Isle artists think outside the box

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In the midst of economic mayhem that has descended on the Hawaii arts community, it’s encouraging to extract at least a few rays of hope.

The fiscal challenges nonprofit organizations already were facing, due to competing entertainments and other structural changes in the arts marketplace, were amplified by the economic downturn. Most notably, the Honolulu Symphony musicians and management, long conflicted over how to stretch an ever-thinning financial base to cover expenses, now confront a plan to come back from bankruptcy with a smaller orchestra running a shorter season, and on a shoestring budget.

But the good news in all this gloom, according to a report by Star-Advertiser writer Michael Tsai, is that organizations are showing their willingness to try different business models to stay afloat. Some have taken steps to ensure the survival of their artistic mission in different forms.

For example, The Contemporary Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts are exploring a possible merger. Among the less risky gambits: Chinatown’s ARTS at Mark’s Garage is partnering with startup groups to inject new blood into the arts scene, which also has found new support through community events such as First Friday.

A few survivors, such as Hawaii Opera Theatre, are ahead of the game because of assets such as real-estate rental and an endowment providing additional revenue streams. Other groups might not find it easy to follow their lead.

Nonetheless, in some way all need to diversify to build a stronger financial foundation. Expanding boards of directors, as HOT has done, is one tactic within reach of even impoverished groups; this would improve fund-raising potential and, ultimately, expand the connections on which they might draw.

Being willing to scale back and forge new partnerships is a strategy that should be explored further — above all by the critically important Honolulu Symphony, on which several other organizations (the opera, Ballet Hawaii) depend to produce much of their season.

But a "lean and mean" organization shouldn’t have to mean one that’s locked in the basement. Donors and subscribers want to see that their support isn’t frittered away, but they also should know there’s a long-range plan for growth. The symphony’s plan, for example, would shrink the symphony’s budget from a reported $8 million per year to $1.7 million, at least initially. The musicians, and their fans, need hope for a future that’s brighter than that.

The arts get short shrift in the allocation of resources even in the best of times, and the public should recalibrate their value to society. For starters, artists educate as well as entertain. Telling young artists that the nearest teacher who can mentor them lives thousands of miles away is a harsh prospect.

"You don’t know what you really need until you don’t have it," said Marilyn Cristofori, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Arts Alliance, and she’s absolutely right.

But in hard times, the reality is that the organizations themselves must become more inventive and self-reliant. That’s simply what’s required to survive through lean years — and then to prosper when the economy improves.

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