Nine months after Orange County was pounded by the largest municipal bankruptcy in history--and five years into a seemingly endless regional economic drought--the county's arts leaders have recorded an unexpected banner year.
They say they haven't seen any impact of the bankruptcy, despite fears that it would bring disaster to their doorsteps by unsettling audiences and limiting spending and donations.
"We've just come off our best year," says David DiChiera, executive director of Opera Pacific, a company in Irvine that produces professional opera at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. In March, when the county announced plans to lay off more than 1,000 workers and to eliminate an additional 563 jobs, Opera Pacific had sold-out houses for Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
Greg Patterson, a spokesman for the center, could offer only the traditional explanation: In bad times, he said, "people want to forget their troubles."
Indeed. Over the last 10 months, even as corporations in the county were firing thousands of employees and headlines revealed incompetence and alleged fraud in county government, "our season actually built," DiChiera said. "There were lines of people outside the center waiting for opera tickets, and we couldn't accommodate them."
At least as remarkably:
* The center itself, which dwarfs all other arts institutions in the county, earned $18.5 million last year, roughly 30% more than it did five years ago.
* Private donations to the Pacific Symphony, the county's major orchestra and second-largest arts institution, set a record.
* South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa--the county's third-largest arts institution and its largest professional theater troupe--mounted the two highest-grossing productions in its 31-year history.
* The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which presents classical concerts, managed to achieve financial stability after several years on the ropes.
* All these organizations, as well as the Irvine Barclay Theatre and the Laguna Playhouse, report that their annual budgets grew to new heights, bolstering their confidence.
Ironically, county government's customary lack of support for the arts--a chronic sore point among cultural activists--actually saved the major nonprofit arts institutions from any loss of county funding when the bankruptcy hit.
The weak Southern California economy of the nasty '90s still furrows arts leaders' brows and one day may give them ulcers. Draconian cutbacks in congressional funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, which have already begun, also loom like a potentially devastating migraine.
But in April, when the aptly named "Blithe Spirit" opened at SCR just after former county Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron pleaded guilty to bankruptcy-related felony charges, it promptly became a box-office smash.
"That was by far our largest show for single tickets," said John Mouledoux, who for 16 years was SCR marketing director until leaving in August. Mouledoux was referring to walk-up sales and non-subscription purchases by telephone. With an added week of performances to accommodate demand, it broke the company's overall box-office record--which had been set in October by "A Streetcar Named Desire," roughly three months before the public learned of the county's fiscal collapse.
The Philharmonic Society ended the fiscal year in June with a 20% budget surplus. Paid attendance was up 17% and fund-raising exceeded projections by 30% in private donations. "It was a phenomenal year," said board chairman Richard Reinsch. "Everything worked."
If further proof were needed of the bankruptcy's minimal impact on wealthy arts philanthropists, William J. Gillespie offered it in May when he announced a $6.6-million donation to several institutions.
The Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach was not among the recipients. But it still raised 30% more money this year over last from private donors who contributed $250,000 to its annual operating fund.
Doubly striking, playhouse executive director Richard Stein points out, is that the company also has been conducting a successful $1.5-million capital campaign for a 225-seat Second Stage venue to supplement its 419-seat Moulton Theatre.
A rule of thumb among fund-raisers is that contributions to annual funds decline when organizations are in capital campaigns. "But we're doing gangbusters in both areas," Stein said. "We do have one potential donor who was about to sign a pledge when the bankruptcy occurred. This person told me he was heavily invested in Orange County municipal bonds and had to put his pledge on hold. But that's the only instance I know of directly where there's been an impact."