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December 2012

Keeping the Lights On Off Broadway

The show must go on, but at what cost?

The Movement Theatre Company, which develops new works by artists of color, will provide input on developing a business plan to provide collective services to arts groups.

The Secret Death of Puppets by Sibyl Kempson is performed at Dixon Place, one of the off off Broadway theaters that may benefit from shared back-office services. Photo: Cathryn Lynne 

Behind the curtain, accounting, insurance, legal compliance, and equipment purchasingmust be dealt with before the lights go up. But these administrative functions are eating up small theater budgets and are often handled by artists who’d rather be performing. “Many of these theaters were founded in the 1970s when the rents and competition were low, and government subsidies and advanced ticket subscription rates were high,” says Kerry McCarthy, arts program officer at The Trust. “Today, these theaters face a saturated marketplace and mounting operational expenses.”

With the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York published a report that looked at how small theaters were fairing in a bad economy, and recommended the creation of a system that would provide shared back-office administration.A $50,000 Trust grant will help the Alliance apply this research to develop a business plan to provide collective services in areas such as accounting, human resources, technical support, and facilities management. The Alliance will first survey arts groups and experts to identify administrative challenges and business solutions. It will then create a system that takes advantage of economies of scale and uses a custom web-based platform tailored to the needs of small and mid-sized arts groups.

“We are creating a holistic, shared system that can eventually include the provision of other services, such as data management and facility maintenance,” says Guy Yarden, financial director at the Alliance. Because people in the arts often need second jobs, the project would likely give artists the opportunity to train for jobs in the program. “For instance, an actor with a knack for numbers might process checks or complete 990 tax forms for several groups at a time.”

“We want to allow the theaters to do what they do best—create art,” says Ginny Louloudes, director of the Alliance. “If we can’t help them bring in money, then we can help them reduce costs.”

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