DOWNTOWN — For most local artists, actors, and musicians the slumping economy isn’t an abstraction.
As art patrons and collectors are seeing their assets dwindle away, they are more reluctant to spend money on shows and pieces. This leaves artists struggling for a way to keep their studios and stages open through these tough times.
“The pressure is a little greater, but it’s the same landscape,” Chris DeCarlo, co-artistic director of the Santa Monica Playhouse, said. “It’s always a touch-and-go, hand-to-mouth situation.”
Keeping the playhouse open isn’t easy. With $40,000 per month in overhead, money is especially tight.
“It’s a big nut to crack,” DeCarlo said.
The Santa Monica Playhouse is designed like a European theater company, DeCarlo said. Therefore every member acts, teaches, performs maintenance, and administrative work. Despite all this work, members only get paid for 1/2 to 3/4 of their time, DeCarlo said.
Part of the administrative duties are writing lots of grant proposals. Over the last 10 years, the playhouse has focused on getting grants from the city and state, DeCarlo said. These grants help subsidize ticket costs. The playhouse charges $25 per ticket when it would really take $50 to cover all the overhead.
“No small theater can charge $50 a seat,” DeCarlo said.
Recently, DeCarlo spent 100 hours filling out grant proposals for the possibility of $7,000. It would take a professional accountant 40 hours, but rearranging financial figures for each individual grant is difficult for an actor, DeCarlo said.
This time spent for little monetary gain pays off in other ways. When an organization is publicly funded, private donors are more willing to plunk down hard earned cash.
“It’s all about building up credibility over time,” DeCarlo said.
Nonprofit organizations like the Santa Monica Playhouse apply for grants through City Hall’s Cultural Affairs Division. This division of City Hall allocates $500,000 per year to art programming, subsidized art space and grants, Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager, said.
“Our budget has been pretty steady and pretty constant,” Cusick said.
The budget for art funding probably won’t change because it’s highly valued in Santa Monica, Cusick said. Forty-three percent of Santa Monica residents make their living in an art related field. Recently, City Hall hired an economist to gauge Santa Monica’s art production against other American cities. Per capita, Santa Monica has more people working in the creative sector than Los Angeles and New York, Cusick said.
Because people value the arts in Santa Monica, most nonprofit art organizations are confident they will keep operating by exercising budgetary restraint during hard economic times.
“We’re weathering through the storm but we are very cautious,” Dale Franzen, director of Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage, said.
In November and December the Broad Stage had a hard time garnering private donations, Franzen said.
“People were scared and they weren’t answering their phones,” she said.
Things have started to turn around in January, but people are usually donating half of what’s asked, she said.
Although there won’t be the same number of programs next season, the Broad will achieve it’s goal of becoming a miniature Lincoln Center and the most important cultural center in Santa Monica, Franzen said.
The 18th Street Art Center is undergoing the same budget restraints that the Broad is experiencing. The center leases studios below market rate to artists selected on a peer review process and showcases their artwork.
“We’re being very mindful of the circumstances and very conservative in our projections,” Jan Williamson, executive director of the 18th Street Art Center, said.
In the past six months the center has received 10 donations, but Williamson said this generosity could change because of the economic climate.
“We aren’t seeing an immediate impact right at this moment,” Williamson said. “But our individual donors all haven been impacted by the poor economy.”
Some Santa Monica artists see hope in the economic stimulus package proposed by President Barack Obama.
“This is the first president that had an arts platform as part of his campaign,” William Turner, owner of the William Turner Gallery and council member of the California Arts Council, said. “We have a president and a legislature that understands that the arts are not only essential to our culture but also our economy.”
The stimulus package plans to grant $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts. In general, every dollar invested in the arts returns four to five fold, Turner said. Legislators generally cut funding to the arts because they aren’t informed about data showing these metrics, Turner said.
Most artists act like small businesses creating individual products or making art on a consignment basis. These products fluctuate in value like any commodity.
“People [are] still willing to pay for top tier works by top tier artists,” Turner said. “But, the economy makes people much more cautious.”
Other than blue chip art — work from famous artists that is guaranteed to appreciate — people are reluctant to buy right now, Turner said. Collectors won’t buy from a less famous artist unless they are getting a great deal, he said.
“We are starting to see the bottom feeders circulate,” Turner said.
This puts a strain on artists and galleries that rely solely on sales, especially the financially unprepared. Several galleries in Culver City and Santa Monica have closed recently, Turner said.
“It’s a difficult business in the best of circumstances,” Turner said.
Even though selling art is always difficult, artists and patrons agree that art shouldn’t have a concrete monetary value placed on it.
“People feel the ultimate and intrinsic value of art more than ever before,” Turner said.
As an actor, DeCarlo said he doesn’t mind being poor because he gets to express his inner artistic voice.
“The emphasis is not the product but the journey,” DeCarlo said. “There is a freedom in the art realm not available else where.”