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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth

In the past week, two more local theatres -- Empty Space and ArtsWest -- announced that they are running significant deficits this year and will be cutting staff and/or programming. This is on top of the spate of other recent similarly dire pronouncements of doom coming from ACT, The Village, On The Boards, among others, not to mention the Symphony, the Opera, and a whole plethora of smaller arts and cultural organizations around the region.

Now, granted times are tough and the current economic slump has resulted in a one-two roundhouse to many of these organizations in the form of lower ticket sales and reduced private/corporate/government support. But when you start adding up the numbers and looking at where most of the deficit-spending occured during the past year or so, one trend seems to be crystal-clear; the major cultural institutions have been squandering money like a 1990's era dotcom startup. And the attitude of many people on the administrative side seems to have been just as cavalier; "Oh, we'll just wait for one of our big-pocketed board members to cut us a check and wipe the red ink off the books in one fell swoop." Trouble is, those big pocketed patrons have themselves been smacked down to the mat by the plunging stock market and whatnot, so the pockets are no longer quite so big, nor is the hand quite so eager to reach into it and spread around the rapidly diminishing contents.

The result of this is that now most of our regions major cultural institutions (with a few notable exceptions) have racked up literally millions of dollars of debt (and if you throw in the $28 mm the City of Seattle loaned to The Seattle Opera to complete the underfunded refurbishment of the new McCaw Hall, that number goes into the tens of millions of dollars), which means the Seattle arts community is going to be hit by yet another set of combination-punches; at the very least millions of dollars that might have gone to sustaining and growing these same organizations will now be diverted to paying off debt, leaving less to go around for everyone; and in the worst-case, some of our valued institutions will cease to exist altogether, contributing to an already spiraling downward trend in support for the arts.

It's like we have our own cultural version of the Cretaceous-Tertiary cataclysm, with the dinosaurs being represented by these (for the most part) gigantic, overspending, under-delivering, inflexible organizations, while the on-going economic downturn gets to play the part of The Big Rock. And we all know what happened, don't we? Yep, the big ole' dinos couldn't deal with the massive climatic changes and became crude oil, while the small, scrappy little fur-bearing critters managed to eke out a marginal existence until the time was ripe for them to spring up out of the muck and start their own little evolutionary parade toward dominance.

Maybe in these tough times, it might actually pay off to be a little guy in a world full of lumbering behemoths. Keep that in mind the next time someone starts griping about the state of local Fringe Theatre.

Posted byCOMTE on 12:17 PM

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