The Show Must Go On

WOU's Smith Fine Arts Series weathers economic downturn, looks toward future

MONMOUTH -- Recessions aren't kind -- to people or institutions.

If you've monitored the news with an eye toward music, dance and theater in the state, you know things have been bleak for the performing arts.

At one end of the spectrum, the Oregon Symphony saw paying customers fall by 12 percent in 2010, while the Oregon Ballet Theatre slashed a third of its budget, according to The Oregonian.

Much closer to home, music programs at Dallas elementary schools were eliminated for the current school year.

"It's never easy for the arts, in good or bad economic times," said Keller Coker, a music professor at Western Oregon University.

Somehow, WOU's Smith Fine Arts Series has been able to weather the storm. Coker, executive director of the program, is already in the midst of booking guest artists for the 2011-12 season.

"I could see the series holding strong ... as long as we don't lose money," Coker said. "I think everybody wants to see it succeed."

The Smith Fine Arts Series (SFAS)

is one of the higher profile arts series in the Willamette Valley. Outside of the University of Oregon, it's arguably the most comprehensive of its kind on a college campus in the state.

The series annually brings four to six nationally and internationally-renowned singing, music and dance acts to Monmouth.

SFAS's budget ranges between $110,000 and $125,000 a year. That includes partial salaries for Coker and a half-time coordinator, costs to book acts, production and advertising.

The university provides in-kind facilities support. A working 18-member board of directors and volunteers also contribute their time.

Ticket sales account for most of the revenue; the rest comes from donations and fundraisers.

Sandy Newland, WOU manager of donor relations, said the university challenged the SFAS board two years ago to ramp up fundraising efforts in light of the economy.

"Because of the way the budget is going, nothing is a sacred cow," Newland said.

SFAS hasn't been able to balance its budget without borrowing from ticket sales from the upcoming season for a while now. But that's not uncommon for performing arts series.

SFAS sold a total of 1,480 tickets in 2005-06; those numbers dropped sharply to 608 in 2007-08. Fortunately, ticket sales have been increasing since. This season, 623 have been sold to date, with three shows left on the schedule.

"We are getting closer and closer to being able to get out of the hole," Coker said. "We want to get the series to a place where it's self-contained."

How? For one, there's been a heightened focus on the program's summer picnic and auction -- which raised $29,000 last year -- and the creation of a "wine pull" fundraiser.

According to University Advancement, series fundraiser revenue has risen by almost 50 percent in the past two years.

To avoid empty seats, WOU has begun allowing students to purchase discounted tickets on the night of the show, Newland said.

There's also been more community advertising within Polk County and some audience-specific marketing; overtures were made to the area's bluegrass community prior to the Travelin' McCourys visit in December, said Esther Neely, a board member.

Three years ago, administrators offered Coker the executive director's position -- originally, not a part of the academic functions at WOU -- to make the program more "faculty and student driven," Coker said.

WOU President John "Minahan said he felt it was a good time to bring the series into academic life," Coker said.

This has translated to more campus awareness. The current SFAS board, meanwhile, has emphasized the series' educational component.

In 2009, the Moscow String Quartet played a composition with five WOU music majors and then gave them a critique. This month, classical guitarist Adam del

Monte will perform for 250 student musicians in Woodburn.

"We're seeing much more student participation," Coker said. "When I started working here, students didn't know what SFAS was, in spite of all the posters around."

Having Coker also helps, Neely said. A musician, composer and producer, Coker is able to leverage relationships with agents and well-known artists to bring acts to WOU, she said.

Neely has been involved in performing arts management for nearly 30 years, including a stint running a 5,000-seat auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

"Running an art series, especially in this economic climate, is difficult," she said.

SFAS has an advantage, however, as a "presenting organization," instead of one dealing in production -- such as a ballet company.

"We have more nimbleness in being able to adjust in what kind of acts we can bring in and adjust prices," she said. "That's easier than having a payroll for performers."

Coker said individual donations for the series are down $15,000 this year from what they were in 2006-07. Fortunately, that's been offset by a jump in ticket sales.

"We look forward to the day when we're breaking even every season," he said. "And if we could ever significantly be in the black, we could all rest easier."

For your information


* The Smith Fine Arts Series was founded in 1976 by Edgar Smith, a former music professor and WOU creative arts division head. The series hosts a variety of music, dance and theater acts five or six times a year.

As an educational component, the series provides workshops for university students; performances for area elementary and secondary schools; and lectures for audiences prior to shows.

Cost for a show?

The expense of a show is generally dependent on the profile and number of guest performers in a given act.

It cost SFAS $10,000 to book the Las Vegas-based Cirque Mechanics in October. That doesn't include another $2,700 for lodging, food, ground transportation and other overhead.

The Travelin' McCourys, a bluegrass band, was booked for $5,000, plus $500 for lodging.


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