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Groups attempting to reach non-traditional donors.

Performing arts nonprofits rise to fundraising challenges

Jackson — Performing arts nonprofits continue to fulfill their mission of bringing quality artists, concerts and stage productions, even as they experience challenges in fundraising and attracting audiences to their performances.

New Stage Theatre staged a success with their season-ending show, “Ain’t Misbehavin” — a musical revue of Fats Waller and other musicians of the Harlem nightclub scene of the time.

According to newly-appointed artistic director Patrick Benton, “We had a lot of sold-out performances, especially for the second week. Word-of-mouth got out that it was a really good show.”

Benton has served as interim artistic director for two years and education director for four with the professional company.

The musical represented a renewed push to reach out to a diverse audience, a hallmark of New Stage’s history of integrated audiences and casting of minority actors in shows, he explained.

It’s a theme that more and more arts organizations in Mississippi are beginning to sound as they compete for corporate grants and audience dollars, said David Blackburn, artistic director of the Natchez Festival of Music, formerly the Natchez Opera Festival.

“Opera festivals are doing two things across the nation…either burying their heads in the sand or expanding their offerings to new audiences,” he said.

The limited base of financial donors is a point that arts organizations in Mississippi have taken note of, according to Phoebe Smith Porter, development director of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

“You have a core group of people who typically donate to performing arts organizations, and those lists overlap. We’re all drawing from the same list,” she said.
The MSO hopes to reach out to a new age demographic for their fundraising campaigns and ticket sales by making appeals to younger adults and families. Such appeals beyond traditional donors are necessary in a small market such as Mississippi, in terms of individual donors and ticket buyers.

One goal the MSO hopes to accomplish is re-establishing contact with younger adults who once were involved with the orchestra as students, either participating in their educational programs or simply attending performances in their schools.

“They go off to school, and then come back into the community to work — so we’d like to draw them back in,” she said.

Reaching out to the next generation

New Stage recently resurrected the tradition of children’s productions to reach the same market.
Last year’s four-production run of “Annie Jr.,” with child Broadway veteran Skylar Harden of Brandon in the lead role, was a rare sell-out for all performances. Tickets are discounted for the children’s productions, but the only costs are in rights, professional production and full-scale set design, without salary costs to the theatre.

“It’s a great way for us to give the young people in the area a chance to work in our facility, and I think it helps us reach young families. That’s a great part of our outreach,” Benton said.

Bringing folks in the door is always a challenge for performing arts organizations, whether professional or not, according to J.C. Patterson, a WLBT production coordinator active in community theater in Jackson.
Good promotion is one way to do that.

“People know you when you get the word across. They buy season tickets. They tell their friends to come,” he said.

Patterson’s seen an upsurge in interest in publicity techniques within the performing arts community. He’s doing back-to-back presentations on the topic to the Mississippi Theatre Association’s statewide summer workshop, as well as the Fondren Theatre Workshop’s monthly meeting.

“Why should people come to see your theatre’s show? What would make them want to leave their cozy house, have a nice dinner somewhere and see a play? There are plenty of other things to do,” he said. “You’ve got to market the play.”

Tips on Web sites, newsletters and press releases are part of his talk, as are more unconventional techniques, such as advertising on a bank’s electronic billboard or promotional tie-ins.

“When I produced ‘Dracula’ (in Clinton), I got Mississippi Blood Services to do a tie-in blood drive. Give a pint, get a ticket. Plus MBS was on TV talking about the blood drive and the play,” Patterson said.

Finding those audiences is still a challenge to some organizations.

The long-running World Performance Series, managed by the Thalia Mara Arts Foundation, is taking a hiatus to refocus and rework its mission to bring high-quality performances to Mississippi audiences.

“I’m going to follow a different format. I’m going to do fewer, more high-profile performances,” said Lee Ann Mahoney, executive director. Shows should resume in fall 2006 after the next International Ballet Competition.

Mahoney said the hiatus came about for several reasons, one being the need to develop more financial backing. “In order to do what I do, I have to have outside financial support.”

She believes that the performing arts community support is being splintered among too many groups in Mississippi, leaving organizations that focus on “classical” performances behind.

“Arts organizations have always had to scramble for money, but in Mississippi, support for the arts also goes into the more popular forms,” said Mahoney. “People in Mississippi are not as aware of classical performances, so it takes a lot more time, money and effort to find the audience.”

The Jackson-based Fondren Theatre Workshop found a way to bring in supporters that was a little different than a typical subscription season sales. The group sold “memberships” that qualified buyers to attend various special programs for free and offered discounts on any scheduled productions.

The group, affiliated with the nonprofit Fondren Renaissance Foundation, was able to generate enough interest to draw about 100 members that participate in the company, while giving the group flexibility to plan their events, said managing director Diana Howell.

“In order to sell subscriptions, you have to plan and announce a full season, which puts a lot of pressure on you that is counterproductive in a group this small, made up of people who all have full-time ‘regular’ jobs,” she said. “You also need to have ‘proven’ yourself in order to sell subscriptions, and we’re simply too new to do that.”

Annual membership is $20 and gets members into 10-12 workshops during the year, plus members received a 20% discount on tickets to three to four shows per year.

“The concept wasn’t so much about raising capital as about raising numbers of people getting involved,” said Howell.

The group has enjoyed some success since their founding in 2003, with the original production “Alice Through The Looking Glass” being selected for production at the inaugural Oxford Shakespeare Festival and their recent New Playwrights Festival playing to sold-out crowd this summer.

Howell is enthusiastic about the group’s future in Jackson. They’ve been able to invest in equipment and bank some funds for future productions in 2004 and 2005. “We’re still planning on taking things small and slow for the next year or so, focusing more on each individual project and making it a quality experience for the actors and the audience, rather than making any large-scale, long-term plans.”

Mahoney noted that funding concerns have always been an issue with the performing arts groups competing for the consumer’s entertainment dollars — a phenomenon she doesn’t foresee ending soon.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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