When many people think of the arts and the economy, they would expect a pretty fairly coordinated response between a strong economy and strength in arts programs and, conversely, a struggling economy and weakened arts. It makes sense since funding for the arts is often the first to go in tight economic times, the wallet gets squeezed when the price of gas and food are steadily increasing and donations tend to head toward food banks and other social service organizations. However, the correlation between a pained economy and theater attendance is not so clear-cut.
Many organizations, of course, will feel the painful impact of the slumping economy. Touring companies may cut back on the number of stops. Tourist-based destinations may have fewer travelers. Nonprofits may have state and local funding cuts from municipalities. In Washington, D.C., the Helen Hayes Awards reported a decline of 1.9% in overall theater attendance, a decrease of nearly 37,000 attendees from a year ago. This makes the fifth year in a row attendance is down in D.C. area venues. Helen Hayes, the CEO and President of the organization who conducted the study, said, “In an uncertain economy, art is often among the first things to be eliminated from discretionary spending.”
In the academic theater realm, the University of Mississippi in Oxford has reported low attendance woes as well. The faculty believes a lack of funding for advertising is one of the most pressing issues. With a lack of money to get the word out, a self-perpetuating cycle is created. Since much of the program’s funding comes from ticket sales, poor attendance makes the situation worse, particularly when word of mouth is an important component. Free ads in local newspapers are the primary means of getting the message out. Students and faculty are exploring alternative methods of generating buzz, including enhancing publicity and increasing attendance among certain student groups, such as sororities and fraternities.
However, even with the expected economic pains affecting theater ticket sales, other factors are often at play as well. The Orlando Fringe Festival, a 12-day event held each May, reported a slight decline in ticket sales. The festival offers a variety of venues for a wide range of live performances and is attended by over 20,000 audience members. The 2008 festival did have a decline of ticket sales by about 7.5% over the 2007 numbers; however, the festival itself blames the lower sales on the lower number of venues and shows available this year rather than directly on fewer overall ticket sales.
In New York City, the theater hub of the U.S., Broadway itself has experienced a dip in sales, albeit relatively slight. The Broadway League has released its annual end of season numbers, which run from May of 2007 to May 2008; 12.27 million attendees saw shows, compared to 12.3 last year – a decrease of only .2%. In Broadway’s case, the Broadway League attributes the measly drop not to a shrinking economy but to a 19-day stagehand strike that occurred last fall.
In fact, tourism officials in New York City expect the wounded economy to potentially bolster theater and tourism in the Big Apple. Why? In the first quarter of 2008, the number of visitors to New York was up by a million people compared to 2007, with an attending $700 million more in money spent. According to a CBS News report, George Fertitta, head of the NYC tourism office, said, “Faced with an expensive euro and tighter budgets, Americans who might usually choose a trip to Europe are more likely to take a shorter trip to New York.”
Theater attendance is also highly influenced by local forces. In Bloomington, Illinois, the Bloomington Arts Center has seen a boom in attendance. The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA) has recently undergone a $15 million renovation; as a result, live performances in a variety of genres are available nearly all week long. Furthermore, the center has created a partnership with local schools, resulting in over 10,000 student attendees this year.
Across the pond, theater attendance is mixed as well. In London, a wave of reality TV shows has generated a flurry of interest in live theater. The concept of choosing the next musical theater star through a televised competition has created a large interest in seeing the final staged product. Shows such as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s productions of Grease and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat have drawn in television viewers from the living room to the theater, with musical theater attendance up a startling 10%.
On the flip side, the Vienna Opera has had its own troubles. Not affected by the euro or other economic forces per se, the Opera has had to contend with a force all its own – soccer. The Euro 2008 soccer matches were held in Vienna at the same time as the famed opera house staged a Verdi production; the opera believes its fans were avoiding the stampedes of crowds in the city and have taken steps to avoid future conflicts.
While an economy in recession may have a direct impact on some arts organizations, it is clear that many will not suffer deeply. Local forces and other outside factors play into the way a theater and its audiences respond to economic changes. Both in the U.S. and Europe, pop culture, local facilities, venue changes and publicity factor into ticket sales; it is not just a tightening wallet.