Dayton Arts Community Faces Struggle to Stay Afloat

April 10, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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The arts scene in Dayton, Ohio, has been feeling a financial pinch as the troubles of the "Big Three" U.S. automakers and other economic woes ripple through its community. Jeffrey Brown reports on Dayton arts organizations' struggle to survive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the arts world struggling to stay afloat in the economic downturn. Jeffrey Brown reports from Dayton, Ohio.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Victoria Theater downtown recently, the Dayton Ballet presented its final performances of the season, facing an uncertain future.

Is the survival of the company at stake?

DERMOT BURKE, Dayton Ballet: If the freefall doesn’t stop, I think we’re in jeopardy, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dermot Burke has led this company for 17 years. Founded in 1927, it’s the second-oldest ballet company in the U.S. and a source of pride in this Midwest city.

But in the economic downturn, it’s in trouble. It’s cutting administrative staff, the number of dancers, and shortening its season.

Things were already bad, Burke says. Then they went off a cliff when the big three automakers, including G.M., came to Washington in November to seek a bailout.

DERMOT BURKE: We know the day that it happened. It was…


DERMOT BURKE: The day, literally the day.

RICK WAGONER, Former CEO, General Motors: Our industry, which represents America’s real economy, Main Street, needs a bridge to span the financial chasm that has opened before us.

DERMOT BURKE: This is a car town. It’s a G.M. town. And it’s not just the people that work at the plant, the suppliers, as well. And people just stopped buying tickets. They just simply stopped buying tickets.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ticket losses came at the worst possible time, during the company’s production of “The Nutcracker,” a family favorite that usually brings in some 40 percent to 50 percent of earned income for the entire year.

At the same time, the ballet was losing much of its rainy day fund in the market, and philanthropic support slowed. Drastic measures were required.

You yourself took a very large salary cut, 50 percent?

DERMOT BURKE: That’s true. Yes, I did. I couldn’t ask people to take the hit they were going to take if I didn’t take a hit. And the hit that I took had to be significant. The closeness of this organization is what makes this week tough.

City's cultural life vibrant

JEFFREY BROWN: Dayton has long been a home to innovation, inventors -- the Wright brothers built their first planes here -- and corporate powerhouses. The nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a major engine of jobs and technology for the area, and there are some signs of new growth from tech startups.

But like other traditional manufacturing centers, this is a city in economic distress, and key employers have cut back, folded, or left town.

The parking lot at the G.M. plant, which closed in December, was virtually empty. The lot at the nearby job center, the largest of its kind in the U.S., was packed.

Unemployment for the region is now more than 11 percent, and Dayton hasn't posted a positive gain in job growth in eight years, the longest streak of any U.S. city.

But this is also a place that takes enormous pride in its cultural life, an unusually vibrant one for a city of its size. Among its gems: the Dayton Art Institute; the Schuster Center, home to the Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic; the Human Race Theater Company, an active community of visual artists; and DCDC, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, founded in 1968 and today nationally known for its African-American repertory.

Here, too, the dancers are facing a shorter season and a drop in income, taking on outside work, and considering the future.

NABACHWA SSENSALO, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company: I have a house and a husband. And, you know, between mortgages and all the sorts of bills that we have, you know, we have to be realistic and know that, unfortunately, bills have to be paid.

Funders have to prioritize

JEFFREY BROWN: To help the dancers and bring in new funds, DCDC is developing partnerships with the city schools and the University of Dayton, among other steps.

The company continues to reach out to foundations, corporations, and individuals, the lifeblood of nonprofits. Executive director Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders, a native Daytonian whose father worked for G.M., makes that pitch often.

RO NITA HAWES-SAUNDERS, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company: When I am talking about who we are and what we are and what it is that you are contributing to, I am talking about a world-class organization that has been around for 40 years, that has a proven track record, that can truly deliver and that is going to spend your money wisely, because we have always had to be very conservative in the way that we operated our business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, even more than usual, all kinds of groups are now making similar and sometimes dire pleas for support.

Mike Parks is president of the Dayton Foundation, representing some 3,000 individuals, families and others in the city's philanthropic community. And he's acutely aware of the growing need.

MIKE PARKS, The Dayton Foundation: In our community right now, in our five-county area around Dayton, we have over 4,000 nonprofits, 4,000. Nationally, we now have over 1.6 million nonprofits. So we have the number of nonprofits going up at a time when each of those nonprofits are struggling for funding. There is a recent study that said, in the next 24 months, up to 10 percent of the nonprofits nationally may not be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Parks recently called an emergency meeting of local nonprofits to discuss ideas that could help them survive. Funders, he says, are balancing these needs, and some areas, including the arts, may suffer.

MIKE PARKS: I've gotten a number of calls from individuals that have advised funds, donor-advised funds, where the family makes decisions, and they say, "I see the hurt in our community. My neighbor has been laid off. My nephew has been affected. I see the lines for basic human needs, such as food and housing, and the demands on the local services." And they say, "I want to help."

They may dig deeper, but in many cases they're making a decision, a tough decision, to shift their priorities.

Choosing between art and food

JEFFREY BROWN: We happened on a vivid example of this conflict at a nearby St. Vincent de Paul community store, which gets its funding from foundations and individuals and was literally in the process of expanding its food bank to respond to the growing number of families new to poverty.

Terry Williamson, a development programs manager for St. Vincent, formerly raised money for arts groups.

TERRY WILLIAMSON, St. Vincent de Paul: The money needs to go to that pallet of peanut butter before it goes to supporting that artistic experience. You know, my heart is in the arts, but you've got to understand that it's a complete picture and it's very difficult in scary times to look at a complete picture when the food's not there.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, every one in the arts world we spoke to understood this very well. They also know they can't expect much help these days from local government.

Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, has given a million dollars a year to local arts organizations. Commissioner Dan Foley told us that, with sales tax revenues flat for so long, that will be hard to maintain.

But at the same time, he says, the region can't afford to lose the arts if it's to attract new businesses and turn around its economy.

DAN FOLEY, Montgomery County Commissioner: I give a few speeches every week, and a lot of times I talk about the strengths of the community, and I talk about the fact that we have affordable housing here. I talk about the fact that we have the air force base. I talk about the fact that we have a history of innovation. And every time I list those strengths, I talk about arts and culture, and that's a strength we don't have to manufacture. I mean, it's here.

Arts are an investment

JEFFREY BROWN: Denise Regh, who as head of a group called Culture Works is one of the city's strongest arts advocates, puts it this way.

DENISE REGH, Culture Works: I often like to tell people, you know, the Dayton Art Institute, which is a bastion of culture in this region, was built in 1930. How many people must have thought that was crazy? But how much more people must have thought it was crazy in 1933, when the Dayton Philharmonic began?

So when you look now back over 75 years, and all they've brought to our community and the great city that Dayton became, you know, the arts are to some degree an investment in not the here and now necessarily, but the future of who and what will be.

JEFFREY BROWN: It may be a tough argument for many just now, but tenacious artists and supporters in Dayton are hoping that history is on their side.