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Originally published Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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Feeling pinch, arts groups try minimalist budgets

As the recession wears on, arts organizations have been hit especially hard. Audiences are buying cheaper tickets, and donations from corporations, foundations and individuals continue to decline. Locally and nationally, as large arts organizations plan for their next fiscal year, some are cutting deeper than they did even in the previous year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For what's believed to be the first time in its 77-year history, Seattle Art Museum plans to close its doors for two weeks next year for budget reasons.

Even that's not enough to achieve its budget goal in this recession-wracked economy.

So, the museum, like other arts organizations, also is instituting a two-week staff furlough, while executives take pay cuts of about 10 to 15 percent.

At Pacific Northwest Ballet, the entire nonunion staff will take an 8.5 percent pay cut.

And Seattle Repertory Theatre is preparing to start another year of a four-day workweek — amounting to a 20 percent pay cut.

As the recession wears on, arts organizations have been hit especially hard.

Although some arts groups say their audience and attendance haven't decreased — indeed, they have grown — those who go tend to buy cheaper tickets.

And donations from corporations, foundations and individuals — typically a large chunk of revenue — continued to decline. Nationally, arts groups' share of total philanthropic dollars also went down.

Locally and nationally, as large arts organizations plan for their next fiscal year — which for many begins in July — some are cutting deeper than they have even the previous year.

They're reducing hours, eliminating positions, freezing or cutting pay, and halting employer matches for retirement funds.

"It's a sobering economic climate for arts nonprofits — there's no question about it," said James Tune, president and CEO of ArtsFund, which raises money for the arts in Western Washington. "It is the new normal, at least for a while."

Pay cuts and furloughs

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At Seattle Art Museum, which already had cut staff and reduced hours, leaders were looking to trim an additional $1 million from the budget to reach $24.3 million for the next fiscal year.

They decided to close their three principal buildings — the downtown museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park and the PACCAR Pavilion at Olympic Sculpture Park — from Jan. 31 to Feb. 13 next year and to institute staff furloughs during that time.

Top executives also agreed to a one-year, 10 percent pay cut, with director Derrick Cartwright committing to at least a 15 percent pay cut.

"Faced with the choice of reducing programs that would affect the public," he said, "we felt this was something, as leaders, we could do for the sake of the museum."

Cartwright, who arrived at SAM last year, declined to disclose exactly how much those salary cuts would save, though he said it was in the six figures. And he declined to reveal his salary. Tax records show he earned about $216,000 in the 2007-08 fiscal year in his former position as executive director of San Diego Museum of Art. His predecessor at SAM, Mimi Gates, earned $275,000.

Across the country, many arts organizations are reducing executives' pay as part of a range of cost-cutting measures. More than one-third of directors of major U.S. art museums reported taking pay cuts, according to The Art Newspaper, which covers art news worldwide. Executives from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to The Cleveland Orchestra to the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles have taken compensation cuts.

"You can't freeze the wages of lower-level employees while doing nothing with the leader," said ArtsFund's Tune.

In Seattle, where the top artistic and administrative executives of the largest arts organizations typically make in the $180,000 to $350,000 range, according to 2008 federal tax records, leaders are taking cuts or freezes.

At Seattle Symphony, which has cut staff and instituted furloughs, staff wages have been frozen and retirement benefits suspended. The musicians union made wage concessions, and musicians agreed to pay more for health coverage.

And former executive director Thomas Philion — who made about $286,000 in the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to tax records — volunteered to cut his salary by 15 percent last year. His successor, the interim executive director, volunteered to take another 15 percent cut on top of that.

Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz — whose compensation was about $763,000 in the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to tax records — also took a reduction, according to a symphony spokeswoman. The spokeswoman declined to specify the amount of reduction but said it was commensurate with cuts for others in the organization.

Pacific Northwest Ballet was facing a particularly lean year after facing a significant shortfall on December's "Nutcracker" performances, which typically provide about one-third of the company's annual budget.

"We just saw the full force of the economy, the recession, affect the ability of people to take part in entertainment activities," executive director D. David Brown said.

The dance company instituted a two-week staff furlough and a staffwide wage freeze that its major unions — including dancers, musicians and stagehands — also agreed to. The employer match for the retirement plan was suspended.

Negotiations are ongoing with the unions to continue the wage freeze in the new fiscal year. But the salaries for all nonunion staff, including top executives, will be reduced by 8.5 percent.

Looking for bright side

Still, not everything is gloomy.

After a year of belt-tightening, staff reductions and wage freezes that saved about $1.7 million, Seattle Opera is moving forward with modest, cost-of-living increases for its nonunion staff. (It's still negotiating with several of its unions.)

And attendance has risen for some arts organizations.

Seattle Opera and Seattle Repertory Theatre both saw their audience figures go up. That was offset, though, by the ticket buyers generally choosing cheaper tickets or smaller subscription packages.

At Seattle Art Museum, where overall attendance has been lower than projected this year, attendance is running higher than anticipated for the current Andy Warhol and Kurt Cobain-inspired exhibitions at the downtown building, and for the exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

There's also a sense among some that maybe the pain will lead to operating more effectively in the long run.

Seattle Repertory Theatre, which instituted a 32-hour workweek among other cost-cutting measures last year, is continuing the truncated workweek for nonunion staff next fiscal year. (It's still negotiating with its unions.)

"We can't have the expectation that corporations and foundations will recover enough" to give at the level they did in the past, managing director Benjamin Moore said. That requires arts organizations to "innovate the way we do our work."

At Seattle Rep, that means integrating the marketing and development departments to better focus on generating revenue — in particular, cultivating more contributions, both large and small, from a greater number of individuals.

The changes are "going to bear some good fruit," Moore said. "Not necessarily because things are going to get better economically but because we're going to get better at doing this work."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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