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Halls arts organizations get creative to fill funding gaps
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ProMusica shifts focus of concerts to community outreach: Gainesville organization changes with the times and economy.

When life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade.

Or, lemon custard or lemon bars, or even a lemon-flavored cake.

That's the attitude many Hall County arts organizations have when it comes to filling funding gaps left by the downturn in the economy. Luckily for them, creative thinkers produce creative solutions to a problem.

Take the Quinlan Visual Arts Center, for example. Executive Director Amanda Kroll said as soon as the stock market started to take a nosedive last year, they immediately started thinking about how to set up new exhibitions.

"We've thought about, starting this time last year, actually, how we're going to plan our shows," she said. "For example, the photography exhibition that's up right now has pieces that are of a different price point. So collectors that want to collect aren't necessarily collecting a $4,000 painting, but a $500 photograph gives them an option.

"That's what we're trying to do, is offer options."

That was the same idea behind a repertoire series of plays produced by Gainesville Theatre Alliance in early spring this year. By producing two plays - both with small casts — on alternate nights, the theater company was able to not only offer its student actors an outlet equivalent to one larger production but also offer theatergoers two choices.

And the result? Many chose both, and ticket revenues for the past season broke GTA's record.

"It meant that a lot of our audience members, instead of buying one ticket for a performance, were coming twice," said Jim Hammond, artistic director for GTA.

This year's performances include "The Wedding Singer," known by many as an Adam Sandler movie. The idea, Hammond said, was to expand the theater's reach to those who might not think of the theater as a typical night out.

"I think in this economy you have to be willing to change and try new things," echoed Kroll, who mentioned the Quinlan also rethought how the space is used, opening up once a month to potluck artists dinners and outside groups.

"You have to change your priorities from ‘We have to sell out this workshop or this show' to a place where people can come together as artists and talk about their needs, and that ultimately is going to strengthen our organization as well."

A makeover

ProMusica is one nonprofit arts group that took the downturn in the economy to reinvent itself.

The organization had to move offices because of the economy, taking up new residence in an office at Executive Director Jack Bell's Gainesville-based company. But the move also denoted a philosophical change, too, Bell said, that expands the outreach efforts of ProMusica.

"We've probably reacted and adapted to it as much as any organization could have," Bell said.

Each of ProMusica's three concerts this season include some kind of community outreach component, whether it be an arts extravaganza at a local church that includes elementary-aged kids and a classical guitarist, or an enormous food drive in conjunction with a concert by a world-renowned children's choir.

By pairing up with the community and making the concerts a family-oriented, learning experience, Bell said it gives even more weight to the organization when it comes time to look for funding.

"I believe, in terms of grants and corporate support, if you're in competition with those for food, housing and shelter ... you have to integrate it," he said.

Like ProMusica, which runs with the support of Bell, his wife and a few other officers and board members, Gainesville Symphony Orchestra has been getting by for the past year without a large staff.

But even though the search for an executive director continues, former board president Cindy Dieckman said the orchestra is constantly looking at ways to expand and enhance its performances.

At this point, the rehearsals are streamlined — many orchestra members live elsewhere and play in multiple orchestras, and so they practice individually — and board members have gotten good at using their individual strengths to fill the holes.

"We are continuing to seek out board members with different expertise, and people that are wiling to kind of strike out and give us new ideas; obviously we're having to think outside the box," she said.

Programming changes for this year include the addition of choral pieces, bringing a 132-member chorus for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, for example.

Where to cut?

For some organizations, cuts are inevitable.

At Gainesville Ballet, while the main programs this season remain, artistic director Diane Callahan said the company is saving a lot of money this year by opting out of buying new costumes for "The Nutcracker." Instead, they will make as many alterations as they can to get existing costumes to fit.

But even then, the company plans to expand its offerings, with an outdoor performance this spring in the evening, similar to the special Mother's Day performance held earlier this year.

The Arts Council, which produces several concert series each year, has had to cut the number of events due to lack of corporate sponsorships, but ironically, Executive Director Gladys Wyant said one other item the organization is cutting is ticket prices.

"Everybody's been hit across the board," she said. "We also reduced our ticket prices so we could have more people come, and we've also added more free programs; so we feel everybody's pain.

"We hope that by sticking together we can help each other through these hard economic times."

Or, it's simply a matter of doing more with less, which is something nonprofits are familiar with.

Donna Chalmers, founder of the community theater group Fifth Row Center, said a summer theater camp and membership in the local chamber of commerce helps the troupe stretch its dollars. As they start auditions for the winter production of "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" today, Chalmers said the support from the community has her optimistic.

"We've always tried to keep expenses down as much as we possibly can because we are a grassroots community theater," she said. "We have no advertising budget, but we never have. So having started from nothing, we're actually doing pretty well."

Community support

Dieckman said part of the benefit arts organizations have in Hall County is the support of the community, no matter the state of the economy. But the issue is drawing financial support from the same pot.

"I think we're very blessed in this town to have so many options. We get wonderful art with the Quinlan, and to actually have a ballet program," she said. "I think the problem is we're all sharing the same donation base, contribution base, and with all of them cutting back ... there's less money to go around for the arts."

It becomes a matter of where your passion lies, she said.

"It's a deeper level, beyond the physical. If you love it, please support it."

Wyant agreed that the arts community is strong, even through difficult times, because of the support of the community.

"Our patrons, where some have dropped their membership to a lower level, we have seen others increase because they have seen our need and the importance of arts in the community," she said. "We have never relied on government funding. Ours has been supported from the community, from individuals in the community, so our major support arm is through individuals and we have some foundation funds and a steady stream of rentals."

Hammond recalled a similar time, in 1979, when the economy was also hurting.

As a result of creative decisions then, Gainesville Theatre Alliance formed out of a cooperation between Brenau University and Gainesville State College.

"The glue that kind of holds it all together is that validation and support from the community," he said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that this extraordinary alliance formed in 1979, which was the last time we went through a difficult economic time."

Fast-forward to today, Hammond said, and he sees the economic situation as an opportunity, not a crisis.

Figuring out where to trim the budget, he said, is "not necessarily where you're spending a lot of money, but it's also when you're most creative."