Struggling to keep the stage lights on

Seattle's arts organizations receive less public support than most of their counterparts around the country. And now they've lost the PONCHO auction and a beloved auctioneer. It's time to get creative.
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Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

Seattle's arts organizations receive less public support than most of their counterparts around the country. And now they've lost the PONCHO auction and a beloved auctioneer. It's time to get creative.

It's no secret that the nation's ongoing financial crisis has taken a toll on arts and culture funding nationwide. And Seattle, sad to report, is no exception. The arts here are hurting.

Even in the best of times, the arts often are strapped. Ticket sales seldom, if ever, cover the price of putting on quality productions. As much as a third to half of the costs of performances remains to be funded through subsidies of one form or another. For most nonprofit arts groups — opera, symphony, theater, art and historical museums &mdash the gap is filled through a combination of gifts from wealthy donors and foundations, government subsidies, endowments, and marketing of merchandise.

It's a year-round quest to keep the lights on at theaters and concert halls, the doors open at museums, projectionists employed at film festivals, the rent paid and the utility bills current. And in difficult times like these, arts organizations — like the canary in the coal mine — typically are among the first to feel the pain.

Seattle appears to be at the low end of the arts funding picture in Washington state. That'ꀙs partly because King County government captured the region's one and only dedicated arts and culture tax source — a portion of this state'ꀙs hotel-motel tax. Under state law, Seattle alone among cities cannot levy such a tax.

Add to that the state's ranking as among the worst in the nation for per-capita public arts grants. The state'ꀙs current economic plight makes it unlikely that will change any time soon. And that'ꀙs a shame since arts and culture have been shown to bring a high return to states and municipalities. Cultural tourism is a major draw for the region.

Meanwhile, our private sector has done yeoman service for the arts. Look at the names on our arts institutions: Benaroya Hall, McCaw Hall, the Bagley Wright Theatre, just to name a few of the notable private contributors. This stewardship has a long history locally. Take the Seattle Center opera house which started out with a grant from a Pioneer Square tavern owner, James Osborne, who died in 1881 leaving the city $20,000 to build a 'ꀜcivic hall.'ꀝ

It wasn'ꀙt until years later, in 1925, that then Mayor Bertha Knight Landes, a major booster, engineered a city matching grant of $900,000. She picked up a shovel and broke ground on a site at 'ꀜPotlatch Meadows,'ꀝ homestead of David and Louisa Boren Denny. Recalling the tavern owner'ꀙs legacy, Seattleites called that first civic hall 'ꀜthe house that suds built.'ꀝ

Since that day, Seattle has amassed an amazing array of arts and cultural organizations for a moderate-sized city. And, while the city is blessed with generous benefactors, there sadly are fewer donors today than there were even a dozen years ago. As corporate headquarters like Safeco and Boeing move to other cities and as former large supporters like Washington Mutual are swept away, their contributions no longer help subsidize our tastes for the finer things in life.

One couldn'ꀙt help being reminded of the challenges to the arts in recent weeks with the passing of one of Seattle'ꀙs most successful arts fundraisers: Charity auctioneer Dick Friel. Friel was long identified with the charity auction. He had taken it to new levels over the years, conducting scores of million-dollar auctions a year and advising and helping other cities around the world excel with charity auctions. He, along with his wife Sharon, reportedly raised more than $300 million for Seattle-area nonprofits.

Mr. Friel was most closely identified with PONCHO, the oldest arts funder in the state. PONCHO was founded in 1963 by arts patrons, led by the late Paul Friedlander, a local jeweler and symphony backer. The PONCHO name stands for a forgettable acronym: Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations. It was founded to cover the Seattle Symphony'ꀙs $36,000 debt, left as the result of a lavish production of Verdi'ꀙs 'ꀜAida'ꀝ at the 1962 Seattle Worlds'ꀙ Fair.

The original PONCHO black-tie gala, undertaken by Friedlander and others, was such a success that it not only paid off the symphony debt, but raised enough money to establish the Seattle Opera and contribute to the Seattle Chorale as well as the Council on Aging.

PONCHO held its glitzy black-tie event annually for 46 years. And what a party it was during those decades. I recall covering the fete in 1998 for the Seattle Times when the gala set the Sheraton Hotel afire in red: color choice of Poncho president Cathi Hatch who was carried into the grand ballroom, draped floor to ceiling in red velvet, seated on an immense sedan-chair throne. That evening Auctioneer Friel and his crew charmed guests out of $2 million for scores of local arts groups.

It wasn'ꀙt until this year that the gala, unfortunately not the runaway success of earlier years, was placed on hiatus. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that there are fewer millionaires ready to part with tens of thousands of dollars for donated items like the adorable Labrador puppy or the safari trip to Africa, donated to the charity.

Another reason for the hiatus is that so many of the nonprofits that have been benefactors of the gala auction have undertaken auction events of their own. The charity auction has been replicated throughout the city and region. PONCHO, sadly, is a victim of its own success. The granddaddy of them all still has a spring wine auction and an arts auction in the fall. But these are smaller, targeted events and do not approach the erstwhile glamour of the gala.

Without PONCHO momentum it will be more difficult than ever to keep our cultural edge. The arts locally have some fantastic venues: the Seattle Art Museum, McCaw Hall, Benaroya. However, it has been easier to raise the money for these arts palaces than to scrape up the funds to keep them operating. Who wouldn'ꀙt rather contribute to bricks and mortar than to an endowment fund, even though both are necessary for the arts to thrive?

The Seattle Symphony, with a $4 million debt, vacancies in top positions and an unsustainable budget, illustrates the problem. And what a problem it'ꀙs been. For eight long months, Symphony management and its musicians engaged in tense bargaining. In January, the musicians unanimously rejected the symphony'ꀙs 'ꀜlast, best offer'ꀝ and were making strike preparations. At the eleventh hour, a tentative agreement was reached last week, calling for a 23-month contract with 5 percent pay cuts and contributions of $2,010 to the Symphony'ꀙs Annual Fund.

Meanwhile, the arts recession has struck elsewhere. Suffering under the weight of difficult times and years of operating losses, the Everett Symphony announced that it will cancel the rest of its season.

What can be done to keep the lights on, to preserve our rich cultural traditions? Undoubtedly, renewed outreach and appeals by individual arts organizations is called for. But it may be that what'ꀙs needed is a thoughtful, united approach. In other cities across the country — many of them hit just as hard by the Great Recession — there have been arts summits. Would such a focus help? It'ꀙs possible. The work undertaken by Councilmember Nick Licata on behalf of the Capitol Hill arts community, creating Codac, an arts overlay district, is a promising example of what can be done when arts groups unite.

Local arts supporters have looked to other localities such as Denver, which has a dedicated funding source for arts organizations. There are other successful approaches to arts funding, such as those used in Canadian cities like Vancouver and Montreal. Moving forward, we need to assess what realistically can be done to help.

Before our concert halls go dark and our stages go barren, it'ꀙs time to start talking and looking for ways to maintain our cultural lives.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.