COLUMBIA — When the credit crisis went into full swing in September, financial institutions weren't the only ones that felt the crunch.
“Come September, you can almost clock it,” said David A. White III, executive director of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. White said that when the economy took a dive, the theater began to see a thinning in crowds.
“We are more than busy in regard to the use of the hall,” White said. Since reopening in May, the theater is booked 25 days per month, on average.
“What I am seeing is a decline in some events’ audience attendance,” White said. “I’ve also noticed that charitable gifts to the arts have closed down.”
Jennifer Perlow of Perlow-Stevens Gallery hopes that even as budgets tighten, people keep arts organizations and businesses in mind. “If people have the means, they need to make sure they are spending their money locally,” Perlow said. She and her husband, Chris Stevens, own the gallery.
The Missouri Theatre, as well as the gallery and other downtown businesses, are local examples of a nationwide downturn in arts spending. For months, the arts communities in such cultural meccas as New York, Los Angeles and London have been abuzz about the effects of the economy on the arts world. Many people are saying that, much like the housing market, the recent success of the market for visual art was a bubble might have already burst.
For evidence, look no further than the current condition of the major auction houses. On Sept. 15, the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 500 points, initiating a decline, Sotheby's began its ground-breaking auction of works by Damien Hirst, one of the world's most influential living artists. Sotheby's reported that the sale netted $200.8 million, setting a record for an auction of works by a single artist.
But since that auction, which has been seen as the pinnacle of the art market's excess, London-based Sotheby's has fallen on hard times. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Nov. 14, the company reported that its losses for the third quarter were $10.6 million more than originally estimated because of guarantees in auctions that weren't met. Guarantees act as reserve prices that ensure the seller a certain sale price.
The filing attributes the larger-than-expected loss to the "reevaluation of its estimates in the wake of the recent turbulence in the global financial and credit markets."
But financial woes aren't limited to the world's largest art dealers. Arts communities at many levels are seeing a drop in business, though it can be hard to quantify.
The Missouri Arts Council, a state agency that handles much of the grant money given to cultural organizations, has recently seen an increase in grant applications. But the council also received a huge bump in funding over the summer. Gov. Matt Blunt approved more than $6.6 million in new grant money in August, which allowed the organization to solicit more applications. It is unclear whether the increase in applications from Missouri arts organizations is because of those solicitation efforts or because of the economy. And in Columbia, the Office of Cultural Affairs has no hard data to indicate the economy's effects on the arts.
Some businesses in the arts community admit to feeling the pinch. The downturn has already cut into the Missouri Theatre’s budget.
"We’ve had to adjust our spending," White said. "We’re trying to do things on a more viral level and finding the free ways to communicate our message without investing money."
White said the drop in attendance might not translate to other forms of entertainment. But the Missouri Theatre hosts performances as varied as ballet, movies and rock shows, and White said he has seen smaller audiences across the board.
The Perlow-Stevens Gallery, which exhibits and sells art in downtown Columbia, has also taken a hit since September.
"We have certainly been affected," said Perlow, who co-owns the gallery. "I think that the action that’s being taken now is really a fear-based action. It’s not necessarily what people are seeing in their personal economic situation, but what they see overall."
Still, other organizations have not yet seen any effect. Alex Innecco, director of music ministries at the Missouri United Methodist Church, said that both donations and attendance at the church’s concerts have remained steady. He thanks the low ticket prices of the church's concert series for that.
"For everything that we do, the price is very accessible. It is $10 (in advance), and that is not going to change," Innecco said. Tickets at the door are $20.
Innecco likened the trend to what happened during the Great Depression, when cheaper forms of entertainment thrived.
In 1929, "the stock market crashed. That’s when Broadway really came on as a strong cultural outlet because the tickets at the time were very cheap. People needed a release from everything that was going on," Innecco said. "Of course, with Broadway, it’s not the case anymore. But things like movies and things that are accessible, I don’t think that they will suffer because people will need relief from what is going on."
Poppy, a downtown crafts and fine arts store, has even seen a recent boost in business.
"Our sales overall for the year have been strong, and they’re up from last year," owner Barbara McCormick said.
She listed several reasons for why Poppy could be insulated from the economic downturn, including a loyal customer base, a selection of goods that isn’t available anywhere else in Columbia and a wide range of prices.
"We have things that are extremely affordable, and we have things that are extremely collectible," McCormick said.
Still, the shop needs a strong holiday season to maintain a good year of sales. McCormick said she expects to meet that goal, though she can't be sure.
Mary Benjamin, one of five owners of Bluestem Missouri Crafts, said much the same thing as McCormick. The store hasn’t felt any stress from the economy, and she cites its ability to appeal to any pocketbook as one reason.
“As a small business, we can become more nimble, so we’re making sure we have things that are moderately priced,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin has heard varying reports of success from mid-Missouri artists. She belongs to an artisans association called The Best of Missouri Hands, through which she has heard from some artists that their sales are beginning to reflect the down economy.
“Their sales are not what they have been in the past, but they are still optimistic about things,” Benjamin said. But "there are some artists that have never had better years, which is surprising."
Bluestem deals with a potter, Benjamin said, who was supposed to bring back some works after two shows in Florida. But the artist did so well that after the shows, there was no pottery left to sell to the gallery.
Benjamin said she thinks the artists who were selling well had work that was priced at a good value.
Some members of the arts community expressed concern that the hard economic times could have lasting effects on Columbia's vibrant culture.
“If people do not financially support the arts, if they do not buy into art, when the economy recovers, the arts organization won’t be there,” Perlow said.
White agreed, and said that while he understands if people choose to donate to social service (rather than arts-based) organizations during tough times, it is still important to support community art.
“The arts are always a vital part of the culture, and some organizations may have tougher times than others, but music will be played and dancers will dance and actors will act, because we can’t live without it,” White said.
“A community without culture is a community without a soul, and we can’t lose our soul, can we?”