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Arts, cultural organizations fall near bottom of corporations’ funding priorities

Local institutions, from symphony to small playhouses, suffer

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Earlier this year, Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts permanently closed its doors in the Icon Building downtown. After 31 years of presenting cutting-edge performances rarely seen elsewhere in San Diego, Sushi became another casualty of the economic downturn.

Even in a robust economy, nonprofit arts organizations – which rely on both public and private financial support – aren’t considered a top funding priority. According to a 2008 report by San Diego Grantmakers that surveyed 37 of the city’s largest companies about their corporate giving programs, arts and culture nonprofit organizations fell near the bottom of the list when it comes to funding priorities.

During difficult economic times, companies may narrow the focus of their philanthropy, or eliminate it altogether.

San Diego Symphony lost almost half a million dollars in corporate support when the recession hit. A major construction company was no longer able to provide funding after the real estate market collapsed, the symphony’s primary sponsor of the Summer Pops series dropped out, and other corporations had to reduce their giving, said Edward “Ward” Gill, the symphony’s executive director.

“The long and short of it is, when the market dropped, we were hit very hard,” he said.

The symphony was able to offset the losses with new support from Bridgepoint Education, but it took half a year to get back to its approximately $1.4 million in corporate sponsorships. The symphony has a budget of almost $20 million.

In recent years, San Diego Opera has seen its corporate donations “significantly decrease,” said Ann Campbell, director of development. During the recession, San Diego Opera lost its major season sponsor, which provided $400,000 a year. Since then, other corporations have stepped up to help fill the gap, Campbell said.

San Diego Opera’s current annual budget is almost $16 million, and corporate cash and in-kind donations account for about $1.1 million.

“It makes a huge difference,” Campbell said. “For example, a lot of corporate money is applied to education programs. We lost an enormous amount of foundation education funding, so if it weren’t for corporations, we would probably have to close down our education programming.”

Many local arts groups have managed to maintain corporate funding levels, but have had to work harder in recent years to reach their goals.

La Jolla Playhouse Executive Director Michael Rosenberg said his theater has done a better job of evolving its efforts to get corporate dollars.

“In the bad old days, we said: Arts are important, support us. Now we spend more time with companies saying: These are our activities, this is what we do every day, how do they intersect with your needs as a corporation? Are you interested in team building activities with your staff, unique experiences with clients, reaching new audiences? Let’s talk about those things,” said Rosenberg.

The Playhouse has a budget of $14 million, and corporate donations make up $750,000.

Rosenberg said securing corporate dollars is about developing relationships, and finding people at companies that believe in the work and want to help. Even if the money isn’t there, in-kind donations – such as legal work, advice on fundraising or accounting software – can make a big difference.

“You’re building a relationship, so when they do have cash, you’re at the top of the list,” he said.

The same is true for smaller arts organizations, which face the additional challenge of not having dedicated development staff.

Mo’olelo Performing Arts, a community-focused theater company founded in 2004, has a full-time staff of one, a single part-time employee and a budget of $198,000. Corporate contributions are about $16,000.

Executive artistic director and co-founder Seema Sueko cited the theater’s relationship with Qualcomm, which has been contributing to Mo’olelo since 2005, as helping to garner greater visibility among other potential sponsors.

“They were the first corporate contribution, and helped us leverage other ones. It gave us instant credibility,” Sueko said. “Qualcomm employees attend plays and volunteer. They are a shining example of philanthropy.”

Many of the arts groups said San Diego lacks the culture of corporate philanthropy found in other cities.

Rosenberg said a much longer tradition of corporate philanthropy exists on the East Coast, where he spent most of his professional career. High-tech, biotech and medtech companies in San Diego often have immediate cash flow needs and don’t focus on philanthropy. And the military industrial sector, the largest segment in San Diego, doesn’t give for various reasons, he added.

“When you look at the number of corporations that are actually here and giving, relative to other major cities, it’s a small pool,” Rosenberg said. “Having said that, some organizations have shown real leadership in giving, in ways that other cities should look at, such as Qualcomm, Wells Fargo and law firms such as Cooley; it’s quite impressive.”

Mo’olelo’s Sueko added that in cities like Philadelphia, Denver and Minneapolis, corporations provide a lot of support to the arts, and the impact can be seen in the number of arts offerings.

The arts leaders agreed that to help develop a culture of corporate philanthropy toward the arts, companies must be made aware of the economic impact of the arts in San Diego, as well as the value of a vibrant arts and culture landscape in attracting and retaining talent.

According to the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture’s annual report for fiscal year 2010, the arts stimulated the local economy with more than $173 million in direct expenditures, including $98.8 million in salaries, and supported a work force of more than 7,000.

Beyond the numbers, “a strong, vibrant arts community will result in a stronger city,” said Gill. “It makes it a much more positive environment for any corporation trying to attract top-level employees. You know that any great city in America will have a great symphony. These are headquarters of major corporations. Why? Because they want their children to have the joys and pleasures of a top city.”

“The importance of arts to a city is not just in terms of creating a place where people want to live, and where workers want to come to, but in creating people who are smart and nimble, who are critical thinkers,” Rosenberg added. “The arts instill those values and skills. The arts help create that well-rounded worker that you want on your staff.”

Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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