Chili Dogs at the Opera and Other Signs Your City Is Doing Culture Right

September 15, 2014
How to Keep Arts Institutions Alive in the YouTube Era

There was a sell-out crowd at the San Diego Opera’s April 13th matinee of “Don Quixote,” its season closer. Normally a sign of a healthy arts organization, this sell-out was actually a sign of just how dire things had become. Almost like a crowd at a funeral procession, ticket-buyers filled up the 2,877-seat San Diego Civic Theatre to pay their last respects to what was, at that time, a historic institution on the verge of dissolution.

A month earlier, the Opera’s board had voted nearly unanimously to close the company. Ticket sales were down, the organization struggled to attract new audiences, and support from sources both public and private had gradually diminished to a point where it seemed impossible for the 49-season opera to eke another one out. Internal politics, conflicting visions and questionable compensation for some of its top executives played into the dramatic last-minute vote to close the opera company. It was just the kind of drama that gets opera lovers to stand up and take notice and within days, employees had mounted a crowdfunding campaign. A petition to save the opera made the rounds online.

At the next board meeting, nearly half the board resigned and the opera gained a few weeks’ reprieve. The executive director was pushed out. In the meantime, the campaign, Save San Diego Opera, had set a fundraising goal of $2 million. More than 20,000 people signed the petition and donations ranging from $10 to $10,000 began rolling in. By mid-May the campaign passed its goal, bringing in a total of $2.23 million. Additional fundraising brought in another $1.7 million and a reformulated board voted unanimously to rescind the closure vote. After two months of wavering precariously on the edge of a cliff, the San Diego Opera managed to hang on, if just barely.

“Fortunately when the outcry came, people learned that it does take a village to keep this company alive,” says Keith Fisher, chief operating officer of the San Diego Opera. The near-death experience and the grassroots campaign had attracted a new breed of donor for the stodgy institution. An impressive 48 percent of campaign donors were first-time contributors, and only about $100,000 came from the traditional corporate sources that often fund major arts organizations. In many ways, the success of the campaign was more surprising than the death of the opera would have been. It was enough to give Fisher and his colleagues pause.

“We can no longer depend on those few numbers of wealthy individuals to take care of us in the future,” Fisher says.

Teetering on the edge of viability is something of a recurring trend among non-profit arts organizations in the U.S., be they opera companies, ballets, orchestras, art museums or smaller, community-focused programs. These cultural anchors have always struggled to make ends meet, and that challenge has become especially acute in the aftermath of the economic recession. Since 2008, symphonies in Albuquerque, Honolulu and Syracuse have folded, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection, and the New York City Opera went out of business. That’s just a handful of some of the larger organizations among tens of thousands of arts and cultural organizations nationwide struggling to survive.

Yet amid the turbulence, there are a number of arts organizations that have found new ways to stay afloat. They confronted a new economic landscape and, like the San Diego Opera, they adopted new strategies and even new identities. Much like big media has learned from the fast-paced movement of the blogosphere, old cultural lions are taking hints from smaller organizations that long ago learned the value of engaging with their communities.