I read the news today, oh boy…

And yesterday, too. From yesterday’s ArtsJournal links came this, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Travel industry fears tougher security

Already tight precautions discourage foreign visitors and are about to get tighter

 

There are fewer foreign visitors than there used to be, the story said, and in the future there may well be fewer still. This is bad news for many New York attractions (and maybe attractions elsewhere), but especially for the Metropolitan Opera, which has long gotten many sales from people who visit New York from abroad. A couple of years ago, Joseph Volpe, who runs the Met (until Peter Gelb takes over), said there had been a problem, blamed it on 9/11, and said that things were getting better. Now, apparently, they’re not.

This is especially a problem because the Met, by all informed accounts, is hemorrhaging ticket sales. Which leads to a fascinating question. Why do music critics sometimes think the Met is doing well? Possibly because they mostly go to first nights of major, hyped productions, for which tickets, in any sales climate, will go faster than they normally would. Quite a different story comes from visitors from out of town. When I’ve traveled, I’ve talked to people from other cities who go to the Met, and of course buy tickets for more random nights, when they happen to be in New York. These people tell me that the house seems half empty, and they wonder what’s going on.

 

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Also linked yesterday, a story from the Miami Herald about the Florida Grand Opera’s spiffy advertising. This, the story said, is raising ticket sales. The ads are bold and sassy, aimed, intelligently, at people who don’t go to the opera. This is a theme I’ve touched on before. If ticket sales are falling, you can’t just advertise to your usual audience. It’s disappearing! You have to reach new people.

In this story, though, was a silly quote from Danny Newman, the marketing guru whose book on how to sell subscriptions is a classic of the last generation. “We live in a Philistine society,” says Newman, explaining why new kinds of ads are necessary. It’s a society, he adds, “that does not hold the arts very high in their [sic] estimation.”

I really get annoyed when I read things like this. What makes us Philistines? Because we don’t support the arts enough? But—given the scope and intelligence of popular culture—why is it Philistine not to support the arts? This seems like a circular definition. Define the arts as culture; note that people don’t support them; then call the people Philistine.

If you look at wider cultural tastes, sure, a lot of mainstream culture can be stupid. But intelligent movies, TV shows, and music can be hits. Why are people who watch The Sopranos more Philistine than people who go to La bohème? The Sopranos is more challenging in just about every way, sometimes even musically.

The last thing any arts person should do is attack our potential audience. What we need to do is figure out why they’re not paying attention to us, and fix that. (But what if they’re right? Why should people who watch The Sopranos go to La bohème?)

 

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And today there was a story from the Dallas Business Journal, about the Dallas Symphony. Good news, the story said:

 

Symphony ends year with balanced budget

 

Fund raising was up, the endowment was fatter, expenses were down. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But as usual, I read with eagle eyes, looking for the fine print. And soon I found it:

 

The symphony’s total revenue for fiscal year 2005 included earned income (mostly ticket sales), contributions and “planned use of board-designated reserve funds,” according to a release. Ticket sales were down 7.5% from fiscal year 2004.

“Planned use of board-designated reserve funds”? The story doesn’t elaborate, but that doesn’t sound very good to me. The board, quite properly, puts money in reserve, in case of rainy days. Now they’ve spent it (or some of it). So now they have less in reserve. What happens if the rain keeps falling? They can’t keep on balancing the budget that way.

And ticket sales were down! (A trend, from everything I’ve heard, among most big orchestras.) This is more important than a balanced budget. We’ve just seen how a budget can be balanced by using reserve funds. They can also be balanced by taking money from the endowment (the Cincinnati Symphony), by extraordinary one-time gifts (the San Francisco Opera), or by fiscal sleight of hand.

So what does a balanced budget prove? It might not be a sign of fiscal health. Rising ticket sales would be a better indication. If they rise, that’s money in the bank, both now and (if the trend continues) in the future. They’d also be a sign of rising popularity, which of course will help in many ways, both intangible and tangible.

Falling ticket sales, conversely, are a sign of trouble. That’s loss of revenue, and loss of popularity. If the sales keep falling, a lot of things eventually fall with them, including the amount of money you can raise. How can you raise money for an orchestra people are deciding that they don’t want to hear?

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