Arts economy snapshot

Jungle lobby
The lobby of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Season ticket sales at the Jungle have dropped from 1800 two years ago to 1600 this year.
MPr photo/Chris Roberts

At the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, Executive Director Margo Gisselman said the news has been pretty good lately.

"We've just come off one of our most sucessful productions ever," she said.

That was a one-woman show called "The Syringa Tree."

"More people came to see that show than had come to see, I think, any show in the last at least a year and a half," she said.

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Gisselman said the production generated an amazing word of mouth buzz on the street, which can make almost any show nearly recession proof.

"When that's going on, people will find the wherewithal to come," Gisselman said.

Margo Gisselman
Margo Gisselman is executive director of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Gisselman says research indicates participation in the arts nationally is declining.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

Over at the Fargo Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, Executive Director Linda Coates is excited about the future.

"Ticket sales are great," she said. "We have expanding audiences."

Which, as Coates points out, is mainly because of North Dakota's expanding economy. Commodity prices are up, energy development is picking up in the western part of the state, and agriculture has been strong in the east.

Coates, who's also a Fargo city commissioner and deputy mayor, said North Dakota has long been insulated from any dramatic spikes in the economy.

"We kind of don't let the rest of the nation's bad news get us down," she said.

But a lot of arts organizations will admit they're concerned. Things aren't bad now, but they aren't great either, and they haven't been great for some time.

Vickie Benson, Program Director of the Arts for the McKnight Foundation, said many artists and arts groups are still trying to recover from the economic upheavel caused by 9/11.

"They haven't been given a break really, since 2000, 2001," she said.

The post-9/11 stock market plunge hit foundations' investment portfolios really hard, leading to massive cuts in giving to arts groups. Benson said nothing like that is on the horizon now.

"But I don't see foundation giving growing," she said. "It's kind of flat. It is at McKnight."

Benson said arts groups learned some lessons in the years following 9/11, one of them having to do with generating revenue.

"We're sort of in a challenging time anyway. And that's why we're all very concerned about the potential for a recession because that would just add another element to the challenges that we face."

"When foundations had to make cuts, I think more organizations got more savvy about turning to individuals for support," she said. "And I think that kind of giving will be affected too if we are in a recession."

It's never been easy to keep an arts organization going in any economic climate, and there are signs it's getting tougher.

The Jungle Theater's Margo Gisselman cites research at the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations. It found participation in the arts nationally, whether through artistic activities or attendance, is declining. That's because audiences are aging, and there is less arts education in the schools, and so new young audiences aren't being developed. All of this is compounded by the fact there are many more ways for people to spend their leisure time.

"We're sort of in a challenging time anyway," she said. "And that's why we're all very concerned about the potential for a recession, because that would just add another element to the challenges that we face."

This week audience members trickled in to see the Jungle's latest production "Rabbit Hole." With a few weeks remaining in its run, ticket sales have been a little soft.

Season ticket sales at the Jungle have dipped from 1,800 two years ago to 1,600 this year. Margo Gisselman isn't sure why, but given the less than robust audience response to "Rabbit Hole," she's watching closely.

"If this show falls short at the box office, and then the next show looks like it doesn't have enough of a pre-sell on the single ticket side, then we'll start to wonder; are people really maybe cutting back a little bit?" she said. "Are they tightening up?"

If that happens, Gisselman said she can only speculate about the reason, but the economic downturn will be at the top of her list.