Aspen’s summer arts forecast
ASPEN – Theatre Aspen found recently that it needed its carpets cleaned. Alas, every last dollar of the nonprofit’s budget was devoted to putting on its season: paying salaries, building sets, obtaining performance rights. The organization proposed a deal with the carpet-cleaner: an ad in their season playbill for vacuuming and shampooing services. Theatre Aspen’s carpets are now spring-fresh – and their shows can go on.It’s a small but telling example of what is happening from Belly Up to the Aspen Music Festival campus to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet studios as the summer arts season approaches. Faced with shrinking donations and uncertain ticket sales, local arts groups are becoming more resourceful and careful in how they spend their money and attract audiences.Many are sweetening the pot they offer: The Music Festival has added the high-profile, season-opening Sunday afternoon concert, featuring violinist Gil Shaham and a performance of Mahler’s Fifth, for buyers of its Locals Pass. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is introducing a new event, the Evening of Stars (July 31-Aug. 1), which features dancers from the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre paired with performers from the local company. The Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, which kicked off the upper valley’s season on June 5-6, booked its headlining bands to play marathon three-and-a-half hour shows, spiced up with special guest musicians.Just as pronounced is the effort to hold the line on costs. Jazz Aspen Snowmass moved the main part of its June Festival (June 18-20) from Rio Grande Park to borrowed quarters under the Aspen Music Festival’s Benedict Music Tent, obviating the need to build a temporary – and expensive – village grounds. Jazz Aspen also lopped a day off its Labor Day Festival. Theatre Aspen has cut back from four feature productions to three. Belly Up is negotiating aggressively with artists, in an effort to keep ticket prices down. Beginning next summer, the Aspen Music Festival will be shortened by a week, and some faculty will be dropped. Snowmass Village has eliminated its health- and spirit-oriented Wellness Experience, reduced the number of concerts in its Free Concert Series from nine to six, and folded its Independence Celebration into one of the shows in the free series.”I just have to be more creative,” said Josh Behrman, the events coordinator for Snowmass Village, echoing the mantra of arts presenters around the upper valley. “The blueprint that we worked on, all this knowledge, has to be re-thought. Because the consumer is different. The things that work, you try to do better. The things that don’t work, you have to let go.”
One thing the arts organizations are not doing is succumbing to doomsday thinking. Every presenter contacted expressed optimism for the upcoming season – although the term was often preceded by the word “cautious,” or followed by a warning to “check back with me in August.”The sanguine mood isn’t based mainly on advance tickets sales. A common trend in these days of shrinking paychecks and online box offices is putting off ticket purchases till the last minute. (Theatre Aspen reports it has avoided the trend; its sales are double what they were at this time last year.) Nor are the arts organizations necessarily counting on a major improvement in tourist numbers over this past winter.”The big question that I don’t think anyone has an answer to is, ‘How many people are showing up this summer?'” said Michael Goldberg, owner of Belly Up.Behind the sunny outlook is a firm belief in two things: that the local arts calendars should be filled with the kind of attractions that have made Aspen a cultural center. And that audiences, while choosier and more price-sensitive, will still make the arts a big part of their lives.”The most stressful thing is filling your calendar with quality,” Goldberg said. “Ultimately, this thing is about good music. The pressure is to bring good music here.” The upcoming lineup at Belly Up is as filled with big names as ever: John Prine (June 15), the Wallflowers (July 20), NAS & Damian Marley (Aug. 4-5), Blondie (Aug. 26). But one adjustment the club has made is to ensure that the calendar reflects as diverse a range of acts as possible, to draw from the widest pool of music fans.”There’s great choices and that’s where it all starts,” said Behrman. “That’s one thing that’s not compromised, is the talent. What’s happening at Jazz Aspen, Belly Up – there’s so much to do. And people won’t stop what they’re doing. There’s a need for art and culture, and that won’t change.”Alan Fletcher, president of the Aspen Music Festival, also emphasized the desire not to change too much in the face of increasing financial challenges.”This year is like every summer before it,” he said, referring to the organization’s programming. “And we’re excited about it. We think we have a winning formula and there is no reason to change it.”The economic climate, however, has changed the day-to-day business of arts presenters. All agreed that they spend enormous amounts of time addressing financial matters – as opposed to years past. Nonprofit leaders are keeping in close contact with donors, looking for ways to reduce expenses and increase revenues, and spending relatively more time with spreadsheets and less on artistic matters. “There’s more attention being paid by everyone to how things are going financially. People are really keeping their eye on that,” Jim Horowitz, executive producer of Jazz Aspen, said, adding that financial matters have generally constituted half of his job.
Amid the examples of downsizing, there are also glimmers of expansion. Jazz Aspen’s re-conceived June Festival now stretches over two weeks, with a second week devoted to jazz combos performing in small downtown venues. Theatre Aspen, while cutting back on the number of separate shows, will increase the overall number of performances, thanks to the installation of a cooling system that allows for afternoon presentations. It is also beefing up its Sunday Series, with local performers taking the stage for music and comedy on Sunday nights through the season. The Wheeler Opera House’s second annual Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival (Thursday through Saturday, June 11-13) features more comedians than it did in its inaugural run; the Wheeler also adds a new event – MountainSummit, an extension of Telluride’s Mountainfilm – in late August. The Aspen Fringe Festival, a small-scale theater event, launched this past week with productions of two contemporary plays at Aspen High School’s
Looking further down the road, Aspen’s arts presenters see the upside in down times. There was general agreement that not only would the current challenges be overcome, but that the groups would emerge smarter, and with a new experience under their belts.”This is not necessarily what we thought we were getting into. But this is where we are,” said Fletcher. “And the rewards for staying the course can be great. Anyone who can get through this, the prospects for the future are even better.””That’s what the arts do really well,” Paige Price, artistic director of Theatre Aspen, said. “The creativity born of poverty is kind of fun. Some of the challenges that come from lack of resources turn into the most creative ideas.”So now I want our windows cleaned.”With summer upon us, Aspen is about to be hit with the typical wave of concerts, festivals, plays, exhibitions, lectures and more. Even in lean times, it seems the old line about summertime in Aspen – You can’t do it all – holds firstname.lastname@example.org
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