Paying for art in a bad economyby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
This might seem like a bad time to hold a capital campaign for an arts organization.
People are already feeling the pinch when it comes to buying their groceries or gas; how do you get them to give away their money for a new theater or gallery?
St. Paul, Minn. — In a stately old church building in St.Paul, a cast of kids is performing Petite Rouge -- a Cajun-spiced version of Little Red Riding Hood. The reconfigured church, located just a few blocks from the Grand Avenue shopping district, is the new home of SteppingStone Theater.
It's a far cry from the theater's previous home in the basement of the Landmark Building downtown. Artistic Director Richard Hitchler said buying and renovating the church was entirely worth it.
"We've seen a 30% increase in our ticket sales for the year, our summer day camp enrollment is up over 25% so far. It's been a huge payoff," Hitchler said.
What isn't paid off is Steppingstone Theatre's capital campaign. It still needs $700,000 to completely pay for the building and its accompanying program fund. Hitchler said while the money poured in for the first two years of the campaign, it's now more of a trickle.
"We're now here so it seems like it's all done," he said. "When people get here they think, 'Oh that's it, they must have finished,' when in fact it's not done."
Hitchler said he doesn't know how much of the decrease in contributions is attributable to the economic slowdown of the past year. He's hoping that time will take care of both the economy and his capital campaign.
What he originally hoped would be a three year campaign he has now extended to closer to five years. He's also going to back to those first major donors to ask for help, and he's creating opportunities for parts of the theater to be named by generous benefactors.
Over in Minneapolis, The Highpoint Center for Printmaking on Lyndale avenue provides low cost access to printing presses to both artists and young students.
Co-founders Cole Rogers and Carla McGrath are used to dealing with a poor economy - they opened Highpoint just a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Seven years later, it's classes and school programs have become so popular they've had to turn people away, and it's outgrown the space it currently rents.
"We're looking forward to being able to provide all six of our staff people with their own desks" McGrath said.
Carla McGrath said their campaign is relatively modest. They're hoping to raise $3 million to purchase and renovate a nearby building. They've already raised $1.5 million, and are still waiting to hear from some major funders.
Cole Rogers compares their situation to that of someone who rents an apartment. Depending on your finances or your job, you may or may not be ready to take the leap of buying your own home. But then, renting an apartment isn't a good long-term investment of your money.
"With each new lease it costs us more and more and more," Rogers said. "And we're never guaranteed that we'll get the next one."
Like a first-time homebuyer, Rogers says the bursting of the real estate bubble has helped them. They are going to be able to buy their new building for much less than they would have had to pay a few years ago.
Back in St. Paul, Richard Cook sits in his office at Park Square Theatre - it's downtown in the old Hamm Building. On his desk is a large stack of papers representing four years of research into a possible capital campaign. Park Square Theatre has been around for close to thirty five years, and Cook is hoping to retire soon.
"I want to be able to walk away from Park Square and leave the theater as a healthy thriving institution embraced by the community," Cook said. "I really want this town to own Park Square."
Cook says a capital campaign takes an arts organization and transforms it from "some guy's project" into the pride and responsibility of the entire city. Someday, he said he would like to add a black box theater to his current space. He would fill it with shows that would attract younger audiences. But he's not yet sure that right now is the time.
"It wont do us any good to enlarge the reach of Park Square Theater and have a bigger organization four years from now if we come out bigger but weaker," he said.
Cook said he's going to look long and hard at what he wants for the theater, and pick only what it really, really needs.
- All Things Considered, 07/22/2008, 6:25 p.m.