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Popped Art

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Does Pittsburgh have too much art? It's a question that attendees at a public forum, "Pittsburgh Arts in Tough Economic Times," were at least willing to consider.

About 160 people, representing dozens of arts organizations, turned out March 3 to hear from local funders at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council event. The news in the Benedum Center meeting room was bleak: Individual and corporate giving are drying up, and crashing stocks have cost foundations 20 percent or more of their wealth -- even as such funders turn their attention to other priorities, such as the growing numbers of hungry and homeless.

If the economy remains weak, as expected, grants will really start dropping in 2010 and beyond. "It's a crisis, it's going to be long-lived, and we have to prepare for it," said Germaine Williams, Pittsburgh Foundation program officer for arts and culture.

Many arts groups are hurting already: Of the 55 who responded to a recent GPAC survey, about half said they'd done worse than they'd budgeted. One in five groups expected deficits of 10 percent or more.

Paradoxically, however, more than half of the respondents -- 58 percent -- said they expected to write budgets similar to or larger than last year's. That would be a big mistake, said Mitch Swain, the GPAC's director of development: "I hope you'll be more conservative than that," he said. "If [those budgets are] really the case, we're setting ourselves up for some pain in the future."

Asked later why groups would reject belt-tightening, Swain said, "I honestly don't know why they would be doing that kind of budgeting." He's especially concerned about medium-sized groups, with budgets of $250,000 to $1 million, who typically lack endowments or cash reserves: "I think they're very vulnerable at this time."

With audience budgets tight too -- and regional population stagnant -- a question about the supply of arts perhaps seemed obvious. "Are we reaching a point of oversaturation?" asked Dan Iddings, an Attack Theatre and Squonk Opera board member.

The question isn't new. Having lots of performances and exhibits to choose from is fun for audiences, but "[f]unders have been asking this question for a long time," Charlie Humphrey, who moderated the forum, said a couple of days after the event.

Answering the question, though, isn't easy. For one thing, "There's still more potential demand out there," contends Humphrey, head of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. For another, arts groups accustomed to courting funders with attendance figures are loath to produce less work.

On the other hand, "more work isn't always serving more people," Robert Alan Reed, head of the Multicultural Arts Initiative, told the March 3 forum. If groups focus on their missions, "sometimes less is better."

Funders might have to change their criteria, too -- away from raw attendance numbers, for instance. "That kind of evaluation might not be fair, at least for a couple years," said panelist David Donahue, executive director of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, part of whose sales-tax revenue goes to the arts.

The forum's take-away was sobering. "Nature's going to take its course," said Reed. "Some organizations are going to survive. Some organizations are not."

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