Tucson Arts Surviving & Thriving – Economic Impact Exceeds $87.7 Million

By Mary Minor Davis –

On a recent Friday night in Tucson, arts enthusiasts could choose to attend one of nearly a dozen new theater openings, a symphony performance or chamber concert – in addition to a myriad of art exhibits and dance programs.

Tucson is indeed a city of the arts.

In 2014, the Tucson Pima Arts Council updated its report on the local economic impact of the arts. At a minimum, this region’s nonprofit arts sector generates $87.7 million in annual revenue, which is well above the national average of $49 million. The report also shows this sector employs more than 2,600 people and provides $55 million in salaries and wages.

Impressive as that sounds, it’s important to note that those statistics do not include the substantial economic impact of the University of Arizona’s College of Fine Arts programs, UApresents and the UA arts, photography and anthropology museums.

Achieving stability and success in the arts or any other business does not come easy. The Great Recession resulted in cuts in funding for the arts at the national level, and local organizations faced significant challenges in securing funding, attracting audiences and energizing their product.

To not only survive but thrive in today’s competitive landscape, local arts organizations are enticing audiences with new incentives and being more innovative, collaborative and dynamic in their approach to programming.

Competition is keen

Building relationships with audiences is ever more critical to ensuring long-term sustainability. Capturing patrons’ time and dollars is key.

Matt Lehrman, interim managing director at the Arizona Theatre Company and a national consultant on audience development, said that arts organizations today “must take nothing for granted – audience relationships, loyalty, longevity, satisfaction, experience – everything is up for grabs. It’s a competitive market out there and we understand there is no substitute for us being vigorous, creative and energetic.”

Traditionally, audience loyalty has been cultivated through the subscription or membership model on the assumption that audiences will invest in an organization whose work they like and want to continue to enjoy. Organizations rewarded patrons who made season-long commitments with preferred seating, discounts and other benefits.

When the recession hit, however, many organizations saw drops in this core revenue stream – from minimal dips to significant losses. Contributed income and sponsorships also waned. National philanthropic support still has not rebounded to pre-recession levels.

While recovery is occurring and patrons are returning to their seats, arts leaders say they are very different audiences today with entirely different expectations. Today’s arts enthusiast expects higher quality, demands more engagement and seeks a deeper connection with the experience, whether it’s the visual or performing arts. For Tucson audiences – where a large part of the population is seasonal – they also want flexibility.

Flexibility, choice and convenience are key

Tucson’s arts groups have responded by offering flexible subscription packages and it seems to be working. Many organizations, including the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Tucson Chamber Artists and Broadway in Tucson, report subscriber retention rates in the double digits over the past two seasons.

“We just took the limit off of our create-your-own packages,” said Andrea Dillenburg, the TSO’s VP of external affairs. “We just said, ‘Pick as many or as few as you want.’ That’s really worked well for our patrons.”

“We have found that flexibility, choice and convenience are very important to our patrons,” said Eric Holtan, music director for TCA, now in its 11th season with consistent audience growth each year.

The Tucson Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art also made adjustments in membership packages.

Attracting a diverse patron base is important to MOCA, according to Anne-Marie Russell, executive director and chief curator. Low student pricing, special member benefits including private tours, and supporting the economically disadvantaged are priorities for attracting patrons. “Access and social inclusion are very important to us,” she said.

“There are so many different motivating factors that go into an attendee’s decision to become a member that we are constantly examining the efficacy of how our program is run,” said Robert Knight, TMA’s CEO. “The museum derives patronage from all levels of economic strata. It is important for us to capture all of these differing levels and motivating factors to becoming a member.”

Innovative programming

Community engagement is another way organizations are building both content and audiences. Marc David Pinate, producing director for Borderlands Theatre who took over after founder Barclay Smith retired late last year, said he believes that audience connection is a driving force behind why people come to theater.

“People want to see themselves on stage, or if they can’t see themselves, they want to see someone like them, someone they can relate to,” he said. While Borderlands has produced plays about the border region, he said there now are plans to develop projects that are about people and events in Tucson. Borderlands has already launched a number of programs that partner with Pima Community College, Upward Bound, the UA and others.

“By mining the stories in our community and involving the community in the creative process, we plan to bring more people to the theater,” he said. Some of the projects they have in the works will also take theater out into the community, “away from the proscenium, with all of its baggage of class and status.”

UApresents, TSO and TCA also expanded programming into other venues.

“We have started what I call the ‘embrace your city’ campaign,” said Itzik Becher, director of programming and development for UApresents. “We are now presenting in eight venues all over town, each reaching a diverse audience. On top of the diversity of content, we also match specific performances with specific spaces.”

Laura Schairer, spokesperson for Arizona Opera, said coming out of the recession has presented opportunities for arts groups to be more innovative in programming, which is at the core of any successful audience development. She’s the founder of Audience Magnets, an arts marketing firm.

“Audiences, particularly younger patrons, want to see innovative productions, interesting stories and pieces they can relate to,” she said. “I’m seeing many smaller groups doing incredibly innovative things, from aerial dance performances and vampire productions to theater in unusual places like public transportation. Creativity – but without huge funding.”

Creative collaborations

Many groups are collaborating with other organizations in and outside of the arts community. This offers the benefits of cross-marketing artistic presentations, thus reaching new audiences, while sharing limited resources. It also allows for organizations to work with the business community as partners, not just as a funding source.

Rob Elias, VP of marketing for Pima Federal Credit Union, said the company made a commitment to get more involved in community giving five years ago, and it has become a part of the company’s shared values.

“Whether it be dance, music, writing or theater, those who are introduced to the arts at a young age can learn to step out of their comfort zone and develop new points of view,” he said. “These behaviors are important because they can create openness to others’ perspectives, which is vital in business and in life. If our support can provide more opportunity for others to develop these types of qualities, we believe we’ve helped move Tucson forward.”

Roberto Bedoya, executive director for TPAC, said the arts council is working with the private sector in several areas. “Most recently we collaborated with Tucson Metro Chamber on the First Impressions project by facilitating selection of art works for the landscaping of the medians lining the entrance to the airport. We are also partnering with the business community to develop Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators, an 18-month program of seminars, coaching and practicums to develop adaptive leadership to business challenges in the arts.”

Jed Kee, executive director for Ballet Tucson, said he sees more partnerships among arts organizations and between the arts and the private sector. “That means arts organizations will have to provide some ‘value added’ to private organizations to garner their support,” he said. “We need to find ways to begin this dialogue.”

In 2014 ATC embarked upon a successful $1 million “friend-raising” campaign that was essential to “keeping ATC alive,” Lehrman said. Going forward the theater company will implement strategies designed to build a greater earned-revenue base. “There is no question that we need ticket sales to drive our future self-sufficiency. Becoming more entrepreneurial is the necessity of all arts organizations.”

Arts and economic development

Most of Tucson’s arts groups enjoy some level of support from the business community. Yet many of the larger corporations in the region have “funding policies with a narrow focus that prohibit them from supporting the arts,” said Randi Dorman, past board president of MOCA. “It truly holds the community back.”

Dorman added that there is a great amount of individual giving. However, “there is so much social need that arts’ giving is often seen as less important. Another challenge is that for many patrons, Tucson is their second home and they often support the arts where their primary residence is located.”

Dillenburg agrees. “I understand our competition is not just other entertainment options in Tucson – our competition is with all of the other cities where people here are coming from. We have to look as deep and as solid and as excellent as anything they are experiencing there.”

Mike Kasser, president of Holualoa Companies in Tucson, was a key driver of the ATC’s campaign and supports the arts in Tucson on several levels. He said he considers his company’s support an investment in economic development.

“The less people support the arts, the greater it affects the ability for economic development to occur,” he said. Building successful arts organizations in the community gives Arizona caché and makes the region attractive to companies considering locating here. “The arts are important to the fabric of our community.”

Joe Snell, president and CEO of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, agrees. “Under the umbrella of our Economic Blueprint and in the spirit of building community beyond jobs, we encourage the entire region to offer excellent arts, cultural, outdoor and other amenities and experiences to support a vision that Tucson is a great place to work, live and play.

“The primary goal of TREO is to facilitate job and investment growth in the region. By increasing the number of primary employers and the jobs they create, we are increasing the amount of ‘new wealth’ coming into the region, leading to a larger economic base. As a result this leads to a growing demand for many amenities – including the arts.”

Economic development isn’t the only motivator for corporate giving. Jorgen Hansen, owner of Copenhagen Imports in Tucson, has supported local arts organizations over the years. “It just creates a more desirable community to live in,” he said. “Tucson is very, very lucky to have the quality of arts groups that we do. It’s the community’s responsibility to help keep them thriving.”

Lisa Lovallo, head of Cox Communications in Southern Arizona, said the company supports the arts because it is good for economic development and it helps build a stronger community. “For every $1 invested in the arts, our community experiences $7 of value. That is a very positive return,” she said.

“We know that a thriving, healthy, vibrant and prosperous community must be a place where people feel connected to each other and where they have a sense of place. Museums, festivals, cultural events, performing arts, music, concerts, public art and human expression of all kinds engage our friends and neighbors and bring people together. As a business that depends on the local economy, we see the arts as a partner in making Southern Arizona successful.”

Kasser added, “A successful business should give a certain amount to charitable organizations. There should always be a place in the continuum for the arts.”

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