Economy stresses the arts in SLO County

Tribune photo by Jayson Mellom

When times are tough, expectations change, said Karen Kile, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Art Center.

Consequently, she can look at last year’s operating budget — down 20 percent from 2008 — and still see the good side.

“We were just a little down,” she said. “But I consider that the new up.”

As the nation’s economy continues to struggle through the recession, local arts organizations and museums are feeling a trickle-down effect. In troubled times, donors are less charitable, state and federal dollars dwindle, and families are less likely to spend money on fine art and other nonessential items.

“The biggest thing has been the drop in art sales,” said Kile, who estimated that sales have dropped about 30 percent.

Not only does that impact the art center, which takes a 40 percent commission, but also the artists, whose living often depends on selling their work.

The local impact is no exception. A survey of more than 500 institutions by the American Association of Museums recently found that more than two-thirds of the institutions reported financial troubles, the Associated Press said. At the same time, they saw attendance increase more than 57 percent, as families are opting for cheaper — and more local — forms of entertainment.

With that in mind, local museums don’t want to cut hours, which could result in even less money coming in. But, as state legislators are discovering, if there’s not enough money available, painful cuts must be made. That’s why the art center laid off its curator in September.

As a result, future shows will be curated by freelancers.

“That just widens our horizons,” Kile said, keeping with the positive approach.

Meanwhile, when Natalie Schaefer, the executive director of the Paso Robles Children’s Museum, left last April to head the American Red Cross chapter in San Luis Obispo County, operations manager Tamara Richardson absorbed the director’s duties.

Such cost-cutting moves are happening nationwide, Richardson said — both at for- and non-profit organizations.

“I think everybody’s taking on a little more work,” she said.

While the museum is leaving open the option of filling the director position, there are no immediate plans to do so. In this case working without a director is especially difficult, Richardson said, because Schaefer was a good grant writer, which helped bring money into the organization. Meanwhile, fundraisers — like an elegant dinner that used to be held at the Paso Robles Inn — aren’t providing funds as they used to.

“That was before the economic downfall,” Richardson said.

In an attempt to adapt to the cautious economic climate, the museum held a more modest fundraiser at the facility last year. While memberships are slightly down, Richardson said, daily traffic has gone up.“We’re going to be fine,” Richardson said. “We’re here for the long run.”

That’s what they’re saying at Arts Obispo, which promotes local artists. But, executive director Marta Peluso said, there were times when the organization’s future looked bleak.

“It has definitely created a sense of insecurity,” she said.

At Arts Obispo, foundation funds, plus state and county money, have dropped.

“We are now looking at $20,000 less than we could depend on two years ago,” she said. With a budget just over $200,000, that’s significant.

“Nothing else is going down,” she said, referring to expenses such as rent and supplies.

Members of the community who can afford to donate have stepped up to help, she said. Arty Gras, a recent fundraiser at the Madonna Inn, raised $19,000. Still, the tough times forced them to hold off filling a vacated arts and education position for six months. And even now the once-20-hour job is only a 12-hour position.

“It was difficult on staff because we didn’t cut back on programs,” Peluso said. “We were able to tread water and keep things going.”

While Arts Obispo’s Open Studios tour is a big fundraiser, even that was down this year. The organization had hoped to make $51,000 off the event; it made just $41,000.

So staff continues to seek ways to cut costs, such as turning its newsletter into an online-only publication, saving $7,000 in print costs.

“The down side of that is we don’t reach as many people,” Peluso said.

Not far away, the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is also looking to cut frills. But even after cutting costs, money was tight because of a downturn in donations and grants, which went from representing 50 percent of the museum’s funds to about 25 percent. Furthermore, businesses that were previously willing to sponsor events have lately opted not to.

“In this economy, you definitely dip into your reserves at an uncomfortable level,” said Allison Alltucker, president of the museum’s board of directors.

Since the museum’s biggest costs were personnel, four jobs were consolidated into two. And to encourage more traffic, discounts have been offered on admissions.

The art center is also offering discounts, hoping to encourage families to participate more in after-school classes. Now art classes are $33 a month, as opposed to $44. Even though there are fewer classes, enrollment has gone up since the prices were changed, Kile said.

Despite the fragile economy, most nonprofits are still experiencing moments of hope. Tough times will no doubt stall the art center’s plans for a new building. But a recent $225,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation will allow it to adopt a new marketing approach. As part of that new strategy, the art center will rename itself the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

“We are giving ourselves a name that will more clearly define what we do,” Kile said, noting that many people mistake the art center for an art store.

That name will become official this summer, but Kile is already making changes.

While all of the nonprofits The Tribune contacted have had to deal with less money, none have mentioned the possibility of closing doors — as the Fresno Metropolitan Museum did in December, amid crippling financial losses. In fact, most say, if they can weather the storm, they will come out better for the effort.

“If we’ve made it through this, we can make it through anything,” Alltucker said.