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Arts groups struggle to survive

AFTER 30 years as a professional violinist, Vivian Wolf thought the days of nerve-racking auditions were behind her. Then, the recession hit.

In the span of a month, an opera company with which Wolf played for 19 years abruptly shut down and another orchestra slashed concerts to stay afloat.

"I'm actually practicing like a maniac to take auditions," said Wolf, who has seen her income drop by at least one-third. "It's very frightening, and I'm even looking into doing something else because I'm not quite sure how I'm going to make it."

Wolf isn't alone. Performers are scrambling across the United States, as symphonies, operas, theaters and ballet troupes struggle under the weight of shriveling donations, plummeting ticket sales and sagging endowments decimated by Wall Street.

From Baltimore to Detroit to Pasadena, venerable performing arts institutions are laying off performers, cutting programming, canceling seasons and doing without new sets and live music. Some are closing down completely.

Those on the brink face the difficult task of soliciting money from loyal donors who might be facing bankruptcy or unemployment themselves.

"You can't expect people to do something that they're not able to do," David DiChiera, general director of Michigan Opera Theater and the Detroit Opera House, said. "We're really functioning within a tsunami of economic and financial disasters, and we're just doing everything we have to do to get through."

Those working feverishly to keep the arts alive point to a 2007 study that found nonprofit arts groups and their audiences generate US$166 billion in economic activity each year and support nearly six million jobs.

The report by the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts found those institutions get half their money from ticket sales, 40 percent from donations and 10 percent from government - all of which have taken big hits during the economic downturn.

Bob Lynch, the group's president and CEO, says about 10,000 arts organizations nationwide - about 10 percent of the total - have shut down or stand on the verge of collapse.

"It's the worst I've seen it," Lynch said. "They're desperate. In every state, we're seeing some organizations going under."

Many in the arts, too, believe the crunch is only the beginning, since many organizations are still operating on budgets that include sales and donations from the last spring and summer, when times were better.

Pasadena POPS director Rachael Worby sees virtue in the arts in the current economic climate.

"The more depressed, as a whole, a nation or a people are, the more important it is to keep the lively arts alive. I think ultimately they're the source of what can make you sure that life, in fact, is worth living," she said.


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