With No Tickets to Sell, Arts Groups Appeal to Donors to Survive


One of the headliners of the New York Philharmonic’s fall gala last month was Leonard Bernstein, who led his old orchestra in the overture to “Candide”.

Yes, amber died three decades ago. But since the gala, like so much else, was forced to move away, the Philharmonic had some fun with the format, filming their current players taking historical shots of Bernstein with his staff. The virtual gala had several advantages: the production cost less, without catering, linen rental and flower arrangements for a black audience, and it reached around 90,000 people, while the concert hall can hold around 2,700 people.

But when it came to the bottom line, the picture was less rosy. The virtual event generated less than a third of last year’s gala concert revenue: $ 1.1 million versus $ 3.6 million, a vivid example of the great challenge of raising money for the arts during a global pandemic collect.

Nonprofit cultural institutions across the country seek a source of income that is often even more important to their bottom line: philanthropy, as little or no income is generated from canceled performances and banned public gatherings. Now that they are anxiously awaiting the results of their year-end fundraising appeals, they face competition from urgent causes such as hunger, health care and social justice.

“I’m pedaling quickly to make sure we can figure out how to do it,” said Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, who ended her fiscal year on September 30 with a deficit of $ 500,000 compared to last year’s balanced budget. “We are heavily dependent on income generated to survive.”

Walking was difficult indeed. Box office receipts for many institutions have fallen off a cliff: ticket sales for performing arts groups in the United States fell 96.3 percent in November compared to the same month last year. This is according to a report released last month by the analytics group TRG Arts. And donations don’t seem to make the difference.

Despite numerous contributions when the virus first appeared, donations to individuals to arts organizations in North America fell 14 percent in the first nine months of the year, the group found in another report. The average gift size of the most active and loyal customers declined 38 percent, according to the survey.

A survey of performing arts administrators by Inside Philanthropy found that 45 percent said they were “diminishing the interest and resources of donors as a result of the current shift in funding for Covid and racial justice.”

The outbreak has forced institutions to find creative ways to interact with donors: virtual cocktail parties, music quizzes, online events for musicians.

“It’s a long way to go to fill that void and I think we should all be realistic that this is nowhere near a replacement,” said Henry Timms, Lincoln Center president who helped develop #GivingTuesday in 2012 . A day to promote philanthropy on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. But he added, “When the traditional fundraising vehicles return, many of us will have learned some new digital tricks as well.”

Among these tricks: The New York City Center has invited the audience to “Make Someone Happy” this Christmas season by sending out digital access as a gift (for $ 35) to their evening with Audra McDonald, which runs until January 3rd Request is available. And earlier this month, Ars Nova, an artist incubator in New York, raised more than $ 400,000 during its 24-hour livestream telethon of more than 200 artists.

Museums are struggling to raise funds when there are no events and because they had to close in the first few months of the pandemic. “We expect about 30 percent of the budget on the doorstep. So it’s dangerous to lose it in one fell swoop,” said Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who forecasts a deficit of $ 13 million and had to cancel a potentially high-traffic Joan Mitchell tour retrospective because the timing was no longer working.

Instead of turning to a virtual gala, the Guggenheim decided to cancel this event entirely and instead invite donations to a “gala fund” – also because of the tiredness of Zoom and because online programming wasn’t a forte.

“We used to be a little way behind Virtual so we had to catch up and we’re still finding out,” said Armstrong. “We’ve certainly published a lot of content in the seven months. I think we learned how to make the online museum more comparable to physical space. “

The New York Ballet and School of American Ballet typically perform each year after a Saturday matinee of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, followed by a backstage tour and party on the boardwalk at the David H. Koch Theater. This year they went online.

The main dancer Tiler Peck gave a backstage tour, told the story of the ballet and performed an excerpt. People who bought benefit tickets received treats that were delivered to their homes and were able to interact with dancers on Zoom. Dancers in costume were streamed live from their theater dressing rooms, where they gave makeup demonstrations, talked about their characters, and answered questions. Participants received a free link through which they could perform the entire ballet on marquee.tv until January 3rd.

However, many art institutions have to find their way in a sensitive climate for donations in order to represent culture as a worthy cause and at the same time to take into account the international health crisis, growing hunger and a national accounting for racist and social justice.

“We made sure not to go too far and enabled partner organizations to do what they had to do, like United Way or other nonprofits that literally deal with life and death,” said Mark A. Davidoff, chairman of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said. “How much is enough and how much could be too much?”

This month’s Arts Funders Forum Summit, which aims to increase private funding for arts and culture in the US, highlighted how arts institutions need to show donors what they are doing to drive social change.

“Of the causes Americans of all generations support,” said Melissa Cowley Wolf, director of the forum, during her opening speech, “Arts and culture do not make the top 7.”

Many nonprofits are hoping to seek help in the stimulus package signed by President Trump on Sunday evening.

In the midst of the crisis, some foundations step in to keep the institutions alive and large organizations seek emergency assistance from their boards.

Fundraising virtually has benefited somewhat from the fact that people are stuck at home, which makes them aware of both engagement and less-planned appointments.

“People have the bandwidth for these types of conversations,” said Ms. Rutter of the Kennedy Center. “In the past, it was like meeting for lunch and it would be six months before it was put on the calendar. Now it says: “I’m free tomorrow.”

Still, the challenges of fundraising remain formidable. What is usually a subtle dance – we give you that advantage if you give us your dollars – has now become a bolder cry for help.

This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art placed donation boxes in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue entrance: “Please give The Met so we can connect others to the power of art.” The Detroit Symphony has launched what is known as a Resilience Fund, “To ensure that our world-class orchestra plays the music for our community during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond”.

The New York Philharmonic launched the “It Takes an Orchestra Challenge” and is trying to raise $ 1.5 million by December 31st. David M. Ratzan, a New Yorker who usually takes his son to several concerts a year, donated $ 100. “If people don’t join in,” he said, “these places won’t exist.”

The orchestra was forced to cancel its entire current season, and this month its musicians agreed to substantial pay cuts as its administration was reorganized to allow Deborah Borda, its president and chief executive officer, to focus on two priorities: David Geffen’s renovation Hall, Lincoln Center Home and Fundraising.

“It is an incredibly serious situation,” said Ms. Borda. “Our last concert was March 10th and we can’t play all year. The next question is what will happen in the fall of 2021. What will happen to the vaccine? How comfortable will people feel when they come back? “

Given this uncertainty, cultural workers are still far beyond the boundaries of the traditional art management playbook.

“I’m not talking about yo-yo available,” said Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony’s executive director, referring to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, noting that the symphony usually started selling tickets for its summer would have Tanglewood season in November. “I’m talking about the future.”