Ohio Arts Groups Merge To Solve Their Budget Woes

Orchestras, ballet and opera companies across the U.S. have been forced to make cuts to staff and performances — some even facing bankruptcy — during the economic decline. The arts community in Dayton, Ohio, is trying something different. The city's orchestra, opera and ballet are merging into one non-profit entity, sharing staff and costs. Organizers say despite the cultural differences between the three, the new entity can offer audiences new, collaborative programming. They say it can also be a model for other arts organizations across the country that are trying to find new ways to survive.

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Symphony orchestras have seen a lot of labor disputes recently due to financial troubles. Musicians are on strike in Chicago. In Atlanta, they've been locked out. Contracts for both the Minneapolis Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra expire Sunday with no immediate sign of settlements. Then there's the Dayton Philharmonic. As Emily McCord of member station WYSO reports, it seems to have solved its budget woes by merging with the city's opera and ballet.

EMILY MCCORD, BYLINE: You can't walk into the Mead Theater at the Shuster Center in Dayton and not look up. The domed ceiling with its rich orange tones, has a smattering of tiny lights that look like stars. It's like being in an outdoor performance at night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's start with Belkis, please.

MCCORD: On stage, the conductor rehearses the orchestra for its opening concert.

This season, conductor and artistic director Neil Gittleman is able to offer his musicians something rather unusual nowadays - extra gigs.

NEIL GITTLEMAN: In a time when almost every other orchestra in the country is asking its musicians, we have less work for you, we're actually able this season to offer more work to our musicians than we did last year. And that's a really good thing.

MCCORD: Especially because a few years ago, the orchestra's outlook wasn't so rosy. In 2010, the Philharmonic was operating under a budget shortfall of over $100,000. And Gittleman says, the Dayton Opera and the Dayton Ballet also faced uncertain futures.

GITTLEMAN: Certainly speaking for the orchestra, we had made, I think, every conceivable cut that wasn't draconian.

MCCORD: So we wondered, could it be done differently? Could in fact, the three organizations band together? And when he brought that idea to the other artistic directors of the ballet and opera...

GITTLEMAN: I think people thought it sounded a little bit interesting but probably impossible, which is frankly what I thought. But again, I figured as long as we're looking at the business model, why not look at the business model.

MCCORD: Two years later, the three organizations are one. The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, as it's now called, has one board and three artistic directors, which they say will help maintain the distinct identity of each art form.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Move, move, move, move, go, go, go...

MCCORD: The Dayton Ballet rehearses in a studio overlooking the city. Even though it's cloudy outside, the room is filled with light.

KAREN RUSSO BURKE: The ballet dancers work during the day.

MCCORD: Karen Russo Burke is the artistic director of the Dayton Ballet.

BURKE: We work six days a week. Where the Philharmonic works in the evening, they have, some of them have day jobs. And then the opera, they hire out and have auditions in New York and Chicago. They just come in for the two weeks prior.

MCCORD: With the orchestra now backing some of the dance performances, the two ensembles had to figure out a way to coordinate their rehearsals. And with all three part of one organization, they didn't want to compete with each other and schedule conflicting concerts. Paul Helfrich, the president of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, says other questions remain - like how do you raise money for one organization that presents dance, music and opera? And how many people will lose their jobs in the merger?

PAUL HELFRICH: It's not to be - it's like marriage, it's not to be entered into lightly.

MCCORD: Helfrich says the three companies were so lean already, there wasn't much to cut. In fact, less than five people were laid off. And as far as fund-raising, Helfrich says donors can continue to support their favorite arts organizations the same way they always have.

HELFRICH: We are committed to allowing people to designate their gifts. And those will be tracked, and we will be able to demonstrate that the designated gifts for ballet were used to support ballet performances.

MCCORD: It's all uncharted territory for Dayton. But Jesse Rosen, with the League of American Orchestras, says many arts organizations across the country are trying to find new ways of doing business.

JESSE ROSEN: To me it looks like a period of great, great transition. And in some ways, that means it's a little messy. We see an unprecedented amount of experimentation.

MCCORD: It'll take another season for the artistic program at the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance to fully integrate. But right now for example, Paul Helfert says, you can buy a season pass to see the Phil, and get your choice of free tickets to see an opera and a ballet performance.

HELFRICH: Anything we can do to make all the arts more accessible and to demonstrate that they're part of a vital community is a good thing to do.

MCCORD: But come December, audiences will really begin to see it. This year, when the sugar plum fairy takes the stage in the "Nutcracker," she'll have the orchestra behind her. For NPR News, I'm Emily McCord.

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