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Indy's arts troika

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Indianapolis's three largest arts organizations in their respective disciplines are the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Over the last 12 months, all three have suffered the pangs of a recessed economy, along with most other public and private enterprises, with one of the three, the ISO, enduring a unique "convulsion." How is each organization dealing with its problems?

Indiana Repertory Theatre

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Janet Allen and Steven Stolen currently serve as co-CEOs, with Allen as artistic director and Stolen as managing director. Founded in 1971, the IRT's current annual operating budget is $5.5 million.

As to the current effects of the economy in funding, season planning and staffing, Allen said, "The economy has hit us in a manner we couldn't ignore. Declines in ticket sales, individual giving and tax-based funding were all pretty clear indicators that the economic uncertainty was affecting our patrons. Our challenge was made rather more apparent in that we had been able to sustain a couple of years of programmatic growth in the two years before the economic downturn, growth which we had, sadly, to forsake under the current circumstances.

"We had a couple of bright spots last year though -- our production of To Kill a Mockingbird became the second highest grossing show in our history, with public performances and a huge success with student audiences."

"We also experienced our highest corporate giving year ever, proving that Indianapolis' business community recognizes that arts are good for business and quality of life in Indianapolis," Stolen said. "Management stayed in focus with the theater's closest corporate allies and grew the relationship in a compelling and, we hope, sustainable fashion. Notable also was that individual support was the second highest in the history of the theater."

Allen added, "We've tightened our belts in a number of ways this year: The season is shorter, the number of actors we are employing is smaller, we didn't renew a few of our seasonal contracts, and we haven't replaced anyone who's departed from the staff in the past year. We flatlined all salaries. We're all covering more staff responsibilities and, so far, mostly being pretty jaunty about it."

Have the IRT's priorities shifted during this interim? Allen said, "Eclecticism was once our hallmark, but we're going to lead with our strongest suits in these financially dicey times -- work that will speak to multiple generations of our audiences with equal force. We've certainly picked the season offerings with extreme care, focusing on work that we can speak clearly and persuasively about and that should be able to find their audiences without tremendous outlays of marketing resources."

Is the IRT thinking about things differently or afresh? Stolen said, "We've been working for several years to try to launch some smaller, niche market packages of plays. This year we're very pleased we're testing it out -- we've got a Family Series to help parents with kids get to the theater, a Happy Hour performance package with drinks and food before the show, as well as a YouChoose series that offers a lot of new product flexibility to buyers."

Is the IRT the same organization that it was before the financial meltdown? "We are," Allen said. "We may be a bit scrappier, a bit lighter, a bit more streamlined, but our values haven't changed -- we want to change people's lives with theatrical experiences, whether they are 9 or 90."

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Max Anderson is the Indianapolis Museum of Art's current chief operating officer, with the title the Melvin & Bren Simon director and CEO. The IMA was founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883. The name was changed to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1969. Though it uses budget periods of 18 months, the IMA's current annual budget is approximately $25 million.

Like other nonprofits that rely on endowments for portions of their budget, the IMA will continue to work with the effects of the down market for years to come. Anderson said, "Even if the market were to recover tomorrow, our endowment draw is determined by an average of its value from the previous 12 quarters. In 2010-2011, we will have more quarters that have been affected by the downturn than we had in the 2009-2010 budget. Our 2010-2011 budget will be smaller than our 2009-2010 budget."

Many foundations are suffering from the decreased value of their endowments. "Of course," Anderson said, "in Indianapolis, we are fortunate to have the support of Lilly Endowment, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, the Fairbanks Foundation, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and other foundations that are pillars of our community. Without their support, the future would be much different, though we recognize these foundations have many of the same challenges that we're experiencing."

The IMA's priorities haven't shifted, though it's used the challenges of the economy to focus its message on its ability to provide access to art. Anderson said, "The IMA is one of the few destinations in Indianapolis that is completely free. Visitors don't pay for admission, or parking or anything else. We're taking steps so that our audience can grow through this economic turbulence. We have heard from our members and other visitors that the IMA is a comforting place when so much else is unknown.

"After the meltdown, our staff is much more careful in every endeavor to ask, 'How does this project further the IMA's mission?' We really consider every aspect of our work from the starting point of our mission."

Is the IMA the same organization it was before September 2008? "I'm not sure that any organization is exactly the same as it was before last September," Anderson said. "The IMA has never been stagnant, and we've just used these challenges to focus resources on doing the most good possible with the resources available."

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

With an annual budget of $28 million, a staff of 72 and a player complement of 87, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is the largest arts organization in Indiana, so that anytime there's a hiccup, its effects can be newsworthy on a national level. This July 30, the ISO endured one of its largest upheavals in recent times: the sudden, completely unexpected dismissal of its music director, Mario Venzago by ISO president and CEO Simon Crookall, backed by the Indiana Symphony Society Board. The dismissal was effective Aug. 31, at the expiration of Venzago's current contract. NUVO reported it the next day on its Web site. Blogs ran rampant over cyber space, some better informed than others.

It had been clear to most symphony insiders that Crookall and Venzago were at odds on many issues, artistic and management, with reported occasions of their being outright unfriendly to one another. For the record, Venzago was appointed music director -- replacing outgoing Raymond Leppard -- in April 2002. Crookall took the place of retiring Richard Hoffert in December 2004, after serving as CEO of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Hoffert, with his search committee, had been responsible for Venzago's appointment. The new music director originally signed a four-year contract, expressing the hope, in an interview with this reporter, that he could bring his family to Indianapolis from Heidelberg, Germany, if things went as well as they appeared at the time.

Clearly, things did not. Crookall, a more visible presence at ISO concerts than Hoffert had been, mixes well with his ISO patrons, makes many introductory announcements from on stage and appears friendly, affable and engaging to all who meet him in this way. He must have equally impressed the ISS board. But he has not been so well thought of on the inside, especially by ISO players. Within a year of Crookall's appointment, Venzago's dissatisfaction evolved to the point of not wishing to commit himself to the orchestra for more than a year at a time. All succeeding contracts were, at Venzago's request, for one year each. This made both sides more vulnerable to action by either one.

The straw that broke the camel's back was last season's financial downturn. This led to the layoff of eight ISO staff people, including Venzago's personal assistant Cassie Goldstein. Venzago refused a replacement assistant and kept Goldstein on with his own funds. No longer on the ISO staff, Goldstein has been the information conduit from Venzago, who has, to date, made no public response to his dismissal. She indicates that, at present, he remains in a state of near shock at his firing -- though he is proceeding with local conducting engagements in Germany.

One factor that may have figured into Venzago's dismissal has been a change in the ISO's management structure. During Leppard's 14-year tenure (1987-2001), the musicians and the conductor(s) reported directly to the ISS board, along with the orchestra's management and staff. It now appears that the board allows Crookall to assume a leadership role, whereby the music director, and presumably Pops director Jack Everly and associate conductor Sean Newhouse, report to him.

When asked about putting together the Classical Series programming, Crookall said, "The process of putting a season together here at the ISO is led by our music director, with the full consultation of Martin Sher, our newly appointed VP of artistic planning, together with our two planning directors: Toby Tolokan for the Classical Series and Ty Johnson for the Pops. I am, of course, consulted, as I am in every aspect of the business. On the Classical side, my involvement tends to be in the choice of guest conductors and in the overall balance of programming from a market perspective."

Player position vacancies have, in the past, required a music director present to assist in making choices. Crookall states, "We are working with the orchestra committee to draw up a policy for filling vacancies during the interim period," meaning that the current open positions of principal cellist, principal trumpeter, principal oboist, second bassoonist, associate principal violist and two violinists may be chosen without an extant music director.

This upheaval could not have occurred at a worse possible time. "Venzago's contract should've been settled last November," Goldstein points out, "but it kept getting put off." It's my speculation that Crookall and Venzago simply did not want to communicate with one another -- a fact borne out by the two failing to make any contact during Venzago's appearance this July, his first at Symphony on the Prairie, a concert with which he was reportedly pleased. That's when he could have been told, in person, about his dismissal. Instead, he was informed on July 30 by e-mail, which he didn't receive until Goldstein reached him in Germany by cell phone. Many others, including this reporter, had evidently received the news before Venzago himself.

As a box office staffer told me recently, "It will be an interesting season coming up."

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