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Roundtable discussion

Bad economy, small fan base hurt city's performing arts scene

Organizations seek wider audience, create ‘holistic’ experiences

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To handle a dampened economy and a small pool of potential donors, leaders in the local performing arts scene said they have many strategies, including collaboration, reaching for wider audiences and offering a more holistic performance experience.

Six heads of local arts organizations, including the La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Repertory and San Diego Symphony, gathered at a roundtable hosted by The Daily Transcript on Nov. 16. They shared their thoughts on the local arts scene and offered their ideas and plans for shaping it in the future.

Every organization's head conceded the economy has impacted their ticket sales, subscriber numbers, or some other aspect of their businesses.

"This summer, the economy in San Diego was rattled harder than in my two to three years here," said Michael Rosenberg, the managing director of La Jolla Playhouse. "It felt scary."

Panelists said they have increased their programs' accessibility and mass appeal to compete with tightened wallets. The San Diego Symphony offered a concert of "the greatest piano concertos out there," performed by famous pianist Lang Lang, along with another concert of symphonies by Beethoven, said Edward Gill, San Diego Symphony's chief executive officer.

"We're having things people are very familiar with," Gill said. "They may not know the names but when they hear them, they know what they are."

Rosenberg also said his playhouse is combating the bad economy by "throwing our doors open wide."

"We have lots of new programs, are accessible on stage and behind-the-scenes, and are partnering with other cultural organizations to have a bigger impact and to make our dollars go further," he said.

Many panelists said partnering with other organizations was a good idea to weather the bad economy, and Dalouge Smith, the president and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony, said this collaboration is shocking to his colleagues in other cities.

"We clearly understand we each have a different role in the community and can compound that role by working together," he said.

Sam Woodhouse, the artistic director at San Diego Repertory, said the crossover among art patrons in San Diego helps fuel this collaborative spirit.

"You run into people and say, 'Have you seen this arts exhibit, this show,' so the audience base crosses disciplines and goes to multiple theaters and symphonies," he said.

But Gill also noted that crossover is one of the arts scene's biggest challenges, because it means the group of people donating to the arts is small.

"There are 300 people who support all of us," he said.

Rosenberg agreed the crossover among donors is an issue.

"We have a small base of support, which creates a fragile balance that could be upset easily," he said.

However, Victoria Hamilton, the executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture, said collaboration can also help arts organizations.

"Someone will have a great experience at Dalouge (Smith)’s concert and say, 'Now I want more,' so he or she will move on to the symphony," Hamilton said.

Panelists also discussed some of their efforts to appeal to younger audiences.

La Jolla Playhouse offers "Foodie Fridays," with food trucks, beer from Stone Brewing Co. and a "more youthful party atmosphere," and recently partnered with NBC San Diego's "Soundiego" blog, Rosenberg said. The Playhouse also tried lending out iPods with pre-planned music for people to listen to while touring the Botanic Gardens.

"But we found that the people who came to see it were not hip young 20-somethings, but was our regular subscriber base," Rosenberg said.

He added that he is sometimes conflicted about working to attract a younger generation to the theater.

"When in the history of time have 20-somethings gone to the theater?" he said. "By and large, that’s not who goes. We can chase our tails, spend enormous amounts of money, throw free booze at them, do everything we can to entice young people, but that’s not who’s going to go."

Smith added that free or cheaper events still need to be subsidized somehow.

"It's a long-term investment, but the short-term returns need to come from somewhere, and they don’t come from a young audience," he said.

Gill said to attract a younger audience -- and a wider audience overall -- the San Diego Symphony is working to enrich the experience for its audience members.

"We're trying to bring more visuals into the concerts and are looking at from the time they walk in to the time they leave, what can we add?" he said.

Smith agreed, saying just a performance is often no longer enough to draw crowds.

"We're finding it's important to more deeply understand the connection to the community around us," he said. "We can’t just market and sell tickets, but have to be in neighborhoods and create pathways to performances, so people who've never been before feel welcome and like they have a place there and can see their own cultural history on stage.

"It's a much more complex series of steps we have to take now. You can’t simply put up an ad."

San Diego Repertory is also working to create this more holistic performance experience, Woodhouse said.

"We look at the material on stage and ask ourselves, 'Who would be interested in this content, what groups do they belong to, what areas of the community do they participate in?' and then work to form partnerships and bring in experts," he said.

For example, for an upcoming performance called "The Music of Pete Seeger," Woodhouse said they could bring in a civil rights expert, a banjo expert, or someone to talk about how song is used as community activism.

"It's someone talking to the audience to say, 'I live here, I’m embedded in this community, I care about you and want you to come dance with me,'" he said. "Let’s make this dance more interesting, throw food and drink into it, and it enhances the experience."

Most of the panelists also agreed that a desire for this attachment between a performance and the community is unique to San Diego and part of what makes the city special.

"This city does feel that enormous amount of civic pride, and there's also this feeling of, this is a city on a big growth trajectory and we want to be part of that growth, to make the city better," Rosenberg said.

Roundtable Participants

Edward Gill, CEO, San Diego Symphony

Victoria Hamilton, Executive Director, San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture

Michael Rosenberg, Managing Director, La Jolla Playhouse

Dalouge Smith, President & CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony

Bruce Warren, President, San Diego Performing Arts League

Sam Woodhouse, Artistic Director, San Diego Repertory Theater

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La Jolla Playhouse

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P O Box 12039
La Jolla, CA 92039

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