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Arts groups struggle to stay relevant

Last decade, the cultural landscape of the Valley was literally transformed as multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art performing-arts centers opened in Mesa, Tempe and Peoria.

Now, the landscape is shifting in a less tangible — but no less monumental — way with a wave of leadership changes that will redefine the identity of the major arts organizations for years to come.

At least eight of the Valley’s largest cultural non-profits, including the Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Opera and Arizona Theatre Company, have hired or are looking to hire new artistic or business directors.

Those leaders will face tremendous challenges navigating rocky financial waters and exploring ways to make traditional art forms relevant to the next generation.

“I don’t remember any time we had that many changes at the same time,” said Shelley Cohn, former director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts and a longtime supporter of cultural organizations in metro Phoenix.

“I think it’s exacerbated by what organizations have gone through over the last five years. They have cut and refocused. They are all trying to put on a good face because they want to maintain the credibility of putting on quality work for the public, but that has to be stressful, both for the management and for the (governing) boards.”

Lingering financial fallout from the Great Recession contributed to some of the recent shake-ups, while others have been long-planned and orderly.

But even if the rash of departures and arrivals is partly coincidental, the sheer number is unprecedented.

The Heard Museum and the Musical Instrument Museum both welcomed new directors in August, and the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is searching for one.

Ballet Arizona is examining its business operations after the departure of its executive director, and just this month, the Scottsdale Cultural Council’s CEO announced he would be leaving after more than five years on the job.

The leadership changes represent a turning point for a significant sector of the state’s economy.

In a report earlier this year, the Arizona Cultural Data Project — which collects financial and audience information on 219 arts and cultural organizations — found that its participating groups spend more than $225 million a year, while their audiences inject $356 million into the economy.

And community leaders in both the arts and business agree that thriving cultural institutions are vital to drawing new business to the state.

Among the various management changes, the most consequential will be the artistic executives — they are the public faces of their organizations and set their artistic missions.

For example, the Phoenix Symphony in May bid farewell to charismatic music director Michael Christie, who recently accepted a similar position at Minnesota Opera.

During his eight years in Arizona, Christie introduced audiences to a diversity of contemporary composers rarely heard at Symphony Hall, including Christopher Rouse, Osvaldo Golijov and Antonio Estévez. His successor almost certainly will bring a different sensibility to the orchestra.

The same will be true at Arizona Theatre Company, where artistic director David Ira Goldstein plans to retire next June after 22 years leading the state’s only member of the elite League of Resident Theatres.

“My fondest hope is that they don’t try to find a clone of me but that they do a really wide, diverse search,” Goldstein said. “We live in a very diverse state, and I think that … diversity needs to be a watch word as we look forward.”

While changes in artistic programming will be most visible to the public, financial challenges also are contributing to the leadership changeover.

At Arizona Opera, for example, four-year general director Scott Altman resigned abruptly in April, leaving behind a $1.3 million deficit. His successor, Ryan Taylor, got the top post after spearheading a fundraising campaign to erase $1 million of that red ink.

Arizona Theatre Company, in addition to the search for a new artistic director, needs a new managing director after the departure of Mark Cole on Aug. 16. He resigned — along with about a third of the board of trustees — after a fractious debate over the theater’s future that was sparked by a $1 million deficit for 2012-13.

It was the fourth straight year the theater had ended significantly in the red, having seen its contributions, including government support, fall from a high of $3.4 million in 2008 to $1.7 million this year.

No question, the financial crash at the end of the last decade took a tremendous toll on the arts community.

More than half a dozen Valley theater companies, including Arizona Jewish Theatre and Creative Stages Youth Theatre, have closed in the past two-plus years because of declining audiences and sharp cutbacks in contributions from government agencies, philanthropic foundations and corporations.

As the economy has slowly recovered, so have donations.

According to a recent study by Americans for the Arts, corporate giving in 2012 had risen 18 percent over three years and was back up to levels last seen in 2006.

After years of cuts, both the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture have seen a portion of their grant-making budgets restored.

Yet, “even with those modest increases, organizations still rely on individual philanthropy and ticket sales to keep their doors open,” said Matt Lehrman, an arts-marketing consultant at “So figuring out what kind of products to put on a stage or in a gallery (is vital).”

Indeed, beyond the perennial funding issues, cultural organizations are even more deeply concerned with the challenge of redefining their identities for the 21st century.

Interest in traditional genres such as symphonic music has been slowly declining for years, and the explosion in digital entertainment options has only increased competition for people’s time and attention. Thus the latest watch word for the arts: “relevance.”

“The big challenge is to transform the way arts organizations do their business and create cultures that are more adaptive, more flexible, more responsive to the wants and the tastes of prospective audiences,” said Herb Paine, a management consultant at, who assists in reorganizations during mergers and financial crises.

“They have to demonstrate how they make a difference in our communities and our lives.”

It’s not that audiences are abandoning the arts.

Last season, Phoenix Theatre and the Phoenix Chorale, two marquee companies with very different creative niches, both set box-office records.

But ticket buyers have become choosier. Gen-Xers and Millennials are less likely to commit to a season subscription and more likely to make last-minute purchases.

Programming that appeals to a wide audience is a crucial part of the relevance equation.

That’s why the big exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum right now is “The Art of Video Games,” which not only traces the evolution of digital imagery from the low-rez “Space Invaders” to the cinematic splendor of “Mass Effect,” but also invites visitors to try their hand at five playable games, including the original “Pac-Man” and “Super Mario Bros.”

But relevance is about more than just the product. It is also about the way people interact with it.

“One of the problems an art museum faces is we’re still a ‘Don’t touch’ place,” said Jim Ballinger, the Phoenix Art Museum’s longtime director. “Interactivity is more and more important. How can we add that without distracting from the art?”

He added that the museum is working with Cox Communications to create a Wi-Fi network for patrons and is looking into developing smartphone apps that would enhance their experience roaming the galleries.

“One of the things I’m convinced of looking at video games in preparation for this show, the idea of game theory as an education device is staggeringly powerful in a positive way,” Ballinger said. “So how can we harness that at the art museum? Something tells me we’re on the front end of some pretty interesting things to keep ourselves relevant.”

Tapping into the expectations of the wired generation is also a hot topic in the performing arts.

“We live in a world where so many people don’t want to sit passively in a dark theater watching something take place on a stage and not feeling a part of it,” said Audience Avenue’s Lehrman, who also founded the non-profit website, which closed last year. “So how do we offer this experience in a way that connects with the way people want to experience it?”

Such concerns have prompted a handful of theaters around the country to experiment with designating “tweet seats,” special sections where ticket holders are allowed to tap away on their phones during a show.

It’s an idea that’s anathema to most performers, but it does demonstrate how eager artists are to figure out ways to engage new media.

One arts executive who has put a lot of thought into the relevance issue is James Ward, president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony, the largest arts organization in the state. He was hired in January 2011 to engineer a fiscal turnaround. Saddled with $3 million in debt from past years and facing a $2.1 million structural deficit — a permanent gap between fixed costs and expected income — the orchestra was in danger of bankruptcy.

Ward, a former executive at Lucasfilm who ran for Congress in 2010 as a “tea party” Republican candidate in District 5 in the southeast Valley, negotiated with the musicians union to make permanent a 19 percent pay cut from 2009, enabling the company to slash its budget from $10 million to $8.5 million. Then he set about the even tougher job of redefining the symphony’s identity.

“When we came aboard, the mission at that point in time was ‘We want to be the next Los Angeles Philharmonic,’ ” he said. “And the problem with that was going out into this community and telling people we want to be the next LA Phil fell on deaf ears. We’re Phoenix.

“Having just run for Congress, unsuccessfully, I knew no one was even talking about the Phoenix Symphony. The dialogue in this community is about the economic challenges we are facing, the lack of diversity of our economy, education. These are the things that people were talking about. So for us to have credibility and a seat at the table, we came up with a vision of the Phoenix Symphony being the arts leader in the revitalization of Arizona, solving the problems that Arizona has.”

For example, last year the symphony launched Mind Over Music, a program at ASU Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school, to study how music education can enhance learning in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM topics).

To boost its presence beyond its home base at Symphony Hall, the orchestra is adding performances both big and small, from co-productions at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and the Mesa Arts Center to the B-Sharp Music Wellness program, which brings players into care centers and homeless centers.

The new community-focused mission is guiding the search for a music director, Ward said.

“We’re looking for someone that wants to help us achieve our vision of being the arts leader in revitalizing Arizona, which means somebody that’s going to make a commitment to this community, somebody that’s going to come here, spend time here, somebody that’s going to care about the issues of the community beyond just music.”

With a new generation of leadership taking shape across the Valley, everything about the business model for arts non-profits is up for examination: programming, fundraising, marketing, community connection and the role of technology.

Nobody has all the answers, but as Arizona Theatre’s Goldstein said, “It’s a really great time to ask these kinds of questions.”

Management shake-ups for arts groups

Many of the Valley’s largest cultural institutions have hired new leaders recently or are looking to hire:

The Phoenix Symphony, the state’s largest arts organization, gave maestro Michael Christie a big farewell in May after he accepted the music director position at Minnesota Opera. The search for a new maestro might take a year or more.

Arizona Opera general director Scott Altman resigned April 8, the day after the final performance of the 2012-13 season. Ryan Taylor replaced him after spearheading a $1million fundraising campaign.

Ballet Arizona artistic director Ib Andersen, who has elevated the company’s global reputation, still has his hands firmly on the reins. But the company is undergoing a business reorganization after the departure of executive director Alison Johnston less than a year after taking the job.

Scottsdale Cultural Council President and CEO Bill Banchs will leave at the end of August after 51/2 years overseeing the city’s contemporary-art museum, performing-arts center and public-art program.

The Heard Museum and the Musical Instrument Museum both have new directors on the job — Jim Pepper Henry and Carrie Heinonen, respectively — and the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is looking for a new leader after President and CEO Deborah Gilpin left in May.

Arizona Theatre Company managing director Mark Cole resigned last month after the company posted a $1 million deficit. Longtime artistic director David Ira Goldstein, who had planned to retire in December, will stay on through June 2014 to help pick a successor. But with an annual budget downsized to $6 million, ATC is about to lose its status as the state’s largest theater.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4896.


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