There's debate on whether or not we're "officially" in a recession, but the signs are ominous: the escalating cost of gas, falling home prices, rising unemployment rates. The economy is in a slump, and everyone's feeling the effects. The arts community is no exception, especially with people scrutinizing where each dollar goes and perhaps deciding there's no room for arts and culture in the budget.
We checked in with the Mesa Arts Center, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and Vision Gallery in Chandler to see how each is dealing with the flagging economy.
MESA ARTS CENTER
"We've been looking at this for a while, just trying to see how ticket sales were going around the Valley, even across the country," says Randy Vogel, theater and operations director at Mesa Arts Center.
The conclusion of the inquiry was a simple one: Ticket prices need to be lower.
"We said, you know, gas prices are going up, expenses are going up for people," he says. "We really need to keep our ticket prices in check, and if anything, bring them down. For example, last year, the high price for an orchestra was $80 with a $70, $60 and $40 ticket - we went to $72, $62, $52, $32."
The current economic climate even has prompted Mesa Arts Center to look at what type of programs it presents.
"You'll notice there's more comedy (including Kathleen Madigan and Robert Wuhl) in our season next year," Vogel says, "because we want to do things that people feel good coming to. That doesn't mean that there aren't shows that are serious and you think about, but we recognize that people are coming to escape the realities."
The Mesa Arts Center also is taking a proactive approach in marketing its shows. It's preparing to launch an online "interactive brochure" so interested parties can watch video, listen to music or learn more about an artist before buying a ticket.
"You know, when dollars are getting stretched, you want to know that you're getting value for your dollar before you've spent it," Vogel says. "If you don't know what a show is, you want to somehow figure out how to test it."
The arts in Mesa have dealt with financial blows before - in 2006, an annual $50,000 grant request was turned down by the Mesa City Council, leading to shows being canceled and cutbacks at city museums. But Vogel remains optimistic.
"We're looking at the whole issue in a very positive way. We're not going to crawl under a rock and say, 'What are we going to do?'" he says. "
We've got an opportunity to make the Mesa Arts Center more valuable in someone's life."
SCOTTSDALE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Susan Krane, director of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, stresses a sense of perspective when discussing the current national economy.
"Most of us have lived through a few," Krane says of economic downturns. "And we all lived through the incredible trauma and slowdown after Sept. 11, which was not that long ago. I think you tighten your belt, you reduce variable costs, but you move forward, since we're providing a valuable asset to the community."
She admits it has been a challenge, though, especially since the museum can't realistically raise ticket prices in accordance to the escalating price of gas and other expenses.
"We don't have the flexibility like most businesses do," Krane says. "We tend to adjust those things very, very rarely."
Krane says that though consumers might think that they can't afford to use their limited disposable income on something like an art museum, they'd be doing themselves a disservice.
"If there's anything people need when times are tough, it's arts and culture," she says. "It's the ability to think big and feel deeply."
Like Vogel, Krane is optimistic. She points to the fact that though attendance has been "soft," national coverage and recognition of the museum has gone up - currently, the museum is exhibiting "Branded and On Display," which originated at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois.
The museum has carved a niche locally with programs tied in to their exhibits, from the popular thrice-yearly "SMoCA Nights" event to lectures and gallery talks associated with displays.
Krane says her staff has had to become more creative.
"I have a staff that knows how to do really interesting, creative programs on a shoestring," she says, pointing to Friday's summer solstice event at the museum's James Turrell Skyspace, where the museum was open at 4:30 a.m. so people could watch the sun rise on the longest day of the year.
But Krane's biggest rebuttal to people who say they can't afford to go to a museum is the mere fact that, during July and August, admission is free on Fridays, thanks to a grant from law firm Lewis and Roca. In addition, Thursdays are free year-round.
If it's hard to get people to spend $7 on admission to a museum, or $50 on a play, it must be that much harder to get someone to spend a few hundred dollars, or more, on a painting, which is exactly what the Vision Gallery in Chandler is experiencing.
"It certainly does affect people in regards to the purchases of art," says Eric Faulhaber, visual arts coordinator at the gallery. "From the standpoint, of 'Is it a necessity or not?' "
Faulhaber says that although nonprofit Vision Gallery, owned by the city of Chandler, hasn't been hit quite as hard as for-profit galleries, it's still felt the sting.
"We have definitely seen a decline in sales and we've definitely seen a slowing of people spending that extra dollar on what would be seen as an expendable," he says.
Being part of the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership has helped the gallery stay visible and active despite the economy, says Faulhaber.
"There are a lot of events downtown that support us," says Faulhaber of things like the Downtown Chandler Art Walk. "We as a group have done really well, not only with self-promotion but promotion as a whole and making downtown Chandler a destination point."