Many arts organizations across the Commonwealth and the nation have been in a bad way since about 2008. Roanoke, however, seems to be living a fairly healthy life and is using some of its cumulative creativity to make its position even more solid.
It has become all but a custom and a requirement for arts organizations to bemoan their fiscal health, while using a lot of their creative energy to figure out how to stay in business. That creativity has been especially beneficial during the past few years, as government funding has all but disappeared for most of them – especially those in the western half of the state, the “rural” half.
Still, a conversation with those in charge of the local organizations leaves a distinct impression; one of vibrancy, health, growth and innovation.
Margaret Vanderhye, executive director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, is digesting yet another General Assembly budget cut (this one five percent), and strongly suggests that “it is essential to be creative and innovative in this economy.”
The Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the arts funnel public money to arts organizations of a wide variety in Virginia.
“Proportionately, we’ve had to reduce the amount of the grants from the days when funding was at $1 per citizen [per year]. We’d like to achieve that level again,” says Vanderhye.
Most executive directors in the Roanoke Valley speak infrequently of government funding, since there has been so little of it in recent years, preferring instead to emphasize efficiencies and partnerships. There are a lot of those, some not looking all that logical on the surface, but working to a mutual benefit.
Here is a brief look at the individual fiscal health of arts organizations and what they have planned in 2015:
Roanoke Symphony Orchestra
When Botetourt County native David Crane was appointed executive director of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in May of 2014, he took over a healthy, progressive organization that has been one of the true innovators in the Roanoke Valley. Under the leadership of Beth Pline (who retired for health reasons), the orchestra created a reputation for fiscal innovation and with David Wiley continuing at the head of the orchestra, it was a group of admired musical professionals.
Crane hopes to continue what has been a successful combination of big orchestral and small, intimate events, concentrating in its three specialty areas: pops, destination and masterworks. In addition, the Green Room Series of small, free concerts and lectures will continue. The three big and distinct offerings “are our signature,” says Crane, head of one of three professional Virginia symphonies (others are in Richmond and Hampton Roads).
Innovations at RSO began recently with its season ticket options, which allowed patrons to spread payments over a season and with ticket prices at a relatively low $32-$52 (and a lot of discounts available). The orchestra’s talent level has remained high, says Crane.
“We not only have some of the best musicians from all over Virginia, but we’re also pulling in people from Ohio and West Virginia. The talent is at a fantastic level.”
The RSO’s budget has remained at around $1.5 million and is “comparable to orchestras our size across the country,” says Crane. He says the symphony, “like everyone else, has adapted [to the realities of the economy]. We have had the opportunity to be creative [professionally and fiscally].”
“Support [for arts organizations] changes and you have to keep the wheel turning and be open to any resource for support,” says Jefferson Center Executive Director Cyrus Pace. “Funding the arts is a challenge. That has not changed.”
The Jefferson Center has found a winning formula for its three-pronged sources of money, each representing roughly a third of the nearly $2 million annual budget: development, ticket income and tenant rentals in the former high school in downtown Roanoke. Direct government money is not forthcoming, but grants from organizations like the Doris Duke Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts have been helpful.
The Jeff Center’s bread and butter has been its Star City Series, Jazz Series and Family Series, all of which are programmed on a fiscal year, rather than a calendar year. “Public and private support have stabilized,” says Pace. “We’ll have the second half of 2015 booked early in the year.”
Berglund Center (formerly Roanoke Civic Center)
After a record-setting 2013 (number of events, attendance, revenue), two major events were postponed in 2014 and the civic center didn’t make its budget. Those events move into 2015, however, and the year is looking up for several reasons, in addition to revenue.
Berglund Center Manager Robyn Schon is overseeing a major re-branding from its old identity. That sponsorship is bringing in $1.75 million over the next 10 years, more than $300,000 of that up front.
“Not many major players have ‘civic’ in their names any more,” she says. “This will give artists and agents a whole new perception of who we are and it will raise our profile.”
Scheduling the concert season is always tricky “because it is cyclical,” says Schon. “We’re coming out of a slow period, but we are on the radar of the heavy hitters.”
Physical changes are coming with the re-branding of the 40-year-old center. New seats, doors and a major paint job are scheduled. The center’s budget of $590,000 is “less than half what it was before Global Spectrum took over the operations,” says Schon, “and with the new LED lights we’re putting in, that bill should drop another 35 to 50 percent.” Schon says that the national average for occupancy among civic auditoriums is 65 percent, which is right where the Berglund Center sits.