Economy has arts groups hurting, but not helpless

Leaders of local arts and culture organizations are feeling bullish about their future despite a bare-bones economy.

Just ask Denise Montgomery, communications director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, where 10 full and part-time staffers were laid off in January.

“Culture is a place people have turned to in times of difficulty and recession,” she said.

“People still need that in their lives.”

The museum, which has two galleries, has seen a small decline in attendance at its downtown San Diego location. However, attendance at its La Jolla museum is slightly up over last year’s total.

Make no mistake, more than a few nonprofit arts groups are singing the blues.

Safety net shrinks

For many, donations and memberships have declined. Also, their endowments have suffered major losses, leaving them with less of a safety net to absorb declining revenue or inflation.

A $2 million endowment held by La Jolla’s 110-year-old Athenaeum Music and Arts Library lost 22 percent of its value in the recent stock market meltdown, said executive director Erika Torri.

While she does not foresee any layoffs, a hiring and salary freeze is now in place, Torri said. Also, some staffers have voluntarily reduced their hours. So far, only one musical performance has been canceled to save money.

“We’re the oldest cultural institution in town,” she said. “I don’t think (the recession) will put us out of business.”

Tightening the belt

The endowment held by the Torrey Pines Kiwanis Foundation, which sponsors the annual La Jolla Festival of the Arts, suffered a 15 percent loss at the end of 2008.

But organizers say they still expect to set a new attendance record in excess of 9,000 during the two-day event this summer.

Last year, four MBA-candidate students at UCSD analyzed the event and produced a 56-page report outlining suggestions to enhance the festival’s image and attendance, said Ronn Rohe, festival chairman.

“We’re on a much leaner financial diet,” said Rohe. “We’re expecting to make a greater income this year based upon the management steps we’ve taken.”

The La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, which reported a 20 percent decline in the value of its endowment, also has experienced a decline in donations from patrons and supporters, said executive director Diane Salisbury.

“Ticket sales have remained strong, which is very positive,” she said. “It’s still sobering.”

In the turnstiles

Over at the Birch Aquarium, operations are going swimmingly and attendance remains strong, said executive director Nigella Hillgarth.

Although UCSD owns the building and property, the aquarium is self-supporting, Hillgarth said.

Keeping attendance high is key because half of the aquarium’s annual budget of $5 million comes from ticket revenue.

To keep a steady flow through its turnstiles, the aquarium is offering discount group rates as well as coupons for admission on its Web site.

Three Balboa Park museums, the Mingei International, the Museum of Man and the Museum of Photographic Arts, just announced half-price admission on Saturdays and Sundays from March 1 to May 25. Also, on Monday, Balboa Park announced a “Stay for The Day Pass,” enable visitors paying $29 to visit any four of the 13 participating museums. Go to


“We want to continue doing our mission even through this difficult economic time,” she said. “That means being creative. We’ve been advertising a lot.”