As the national and local economies continue to falter, Baltimore's arts institutions are in a state of crisis. The first casualty is the Baltimore Opera Company,which announced friday that it will file for Chapter 7 liquidation, leaving Baltimore without a grand opera company for the first time in 58 years.
"It was a very painful decision after 58 years of putting on operas in the city here," Baltimore Opera Company general manager M. Kevin Wixted told Baltimoreon Friday. He said the Company could possibly have survived for a couple more months but that a long-term solution was impossible and the Board of Trustees decided to "cut the agony," and close down the Company. "It's a great loss for the city and it affects the whole cultural community."
Other institutions are also suffering, and recent developments have been troubling. Though considered healthy, the BSO, Walters, and Centerstage have seen their endowments take significant hits, and all three have implemented cost cutting measures. The Symphony and the Walters trimmed office staff and retooled some programming with an eye towards savings, and Centerstage has undertaken similar measures. Its production of Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change was reportedly mounted without understudies to save cash, and some administrative staff, including Managing Director Debbie Chinn, worked without pay last month. Walters Director Gary Vikan also didn't draw a paycheck in February.
Smaller arts organizations are on the bubble. The future of Theatre Project remains up in the air. Baltimore Chamber Orchestra sent out a fundraising email in January, before canceling the final two shows of its season.
"It's very rough," says Doug Mann, CFO for Maryland Institute College of Art and executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the state's largest arts advocacy group. "Arts institutions are being hit by the recession in many ways: Tickets sales are down, contributions from individuals are down, contributions from corporations are down, foundations giving is down, those lucky enough to have endowments have been hit hard by the stock market—they're down 30 to 40 percent."
It figures to get worse for such groups. Indeed, a recent Gallup Poll reported that almost 70 percent of Americans are cutting back on entertainment spending. That results in fewer patrons for concert venues, theaters productions, museums, and galleries. Coupled with less corporate funding from the likes of Constellation and Legg Mason, it means the effects of the recession are spreading across all sectors of the local arts scene, and organizations are struggling to meet new challenges to stay afloat.
Compounding matters, Governor Martin O'Malley recently proposed a bill to reduce state funding for the arts by 36 percent for 2010, from $16 million to $10 million, a move that critics say could put more arts institutions out of business.
"It will just be devastating," says Mann, whose group, Citizens for the Arts, has been actively lobbying state legislators to vote down the cuts. "This is the one last revenue source that's always been somewhat of a safety valve for these organizations. Some kind of small, modest reductions in line with what other agencies got wouldn't be unreasonable, but 36 percent is so draconian, it's hard to really hard to understand."
Theresa Colvin, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, which administers the state arts budget says arts institutions should be happy to get even meager budget allocations given the holes in the state budget. "I think we should recognize that there's still $10 million in the governor's budget despite the fact that there's a hole in the 09 budget," she says. "Everyone's suffering. There are no easy decisions left."
Funding cuts are forcing the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA) to scale back this year's Artscape. The festival's budget has been cut 25 percent, from $1 million to $750,000. Although the festival's imprint will remain the same, BOPA Executive Director Bill Gilmore says there will be fewer national musical acts on the bill. In fact, the Saturn Stage—which was sponsored by the troubled carmaker—will likely be a victim of the cuts. In recent years, that stage has hosted the likes of Joan Jett and Rusted Root. Otherwise, there will be few noticeable changes, says Gilmore.
Leaders of Baltimore's arts community have taken to playing the grim game of guessing which local institution will be the next to face severe trouble. "I'm especially worried about the Symphony," says MICA president Fred Lazarus. "They've done a great job in the last couple of years of coming out of a real difficult period, but how fast they dip back into real troubles again is really scary."
As for Opera, Wixted doubts Baltimore will ever get back what it lost in the Baltimore Opera Company. "There are a lot of little opera companies in the city which are doing work which is very nice," he says. "Whether that's going to satisfy the opera appetite I don't know."
This piece was a web-exclusive article that did not appear in print.