Culture News

Arizona Theatre Company Needs $2 Million to Avoid Closing

Arizona Theatre Company needs to raise $2 million by Friday, July 1, to continue operations, the company announced on Monday, June 27.

Founded nearly five decades ago, the company has performed at both Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix and the Temple of Art and Music in Tucson since 1990. It's one of only a handful of professional theater companies in Arizona, and the state's only member of the nationwide League of Resident Theatres.

If Arizona Theatre Company can’t raise the money this week, it will cancel its upcoming 50th anniversary season. And then, artistic director David Ira Goldstein says, it will be faced with deciding whether to go on hiatus or close for good.

The company currently operates with an annual budget of about $6.5 million. Its revenue comes from two basic sources, Goldstein says. One is earned income, including ticket sales, which represents about 60 percent of its budget. The other is contributed income — which includes donations and grants. 

Goldstein says the past two seasons were the company’s most successful in terms of ticket sales. At this point, it’s the lacking donations that pose a problem. It’s not that there aren’t any donors; Arizona Theatre Company has more than 2,500 of them. But major gifts are coming from the same people year after year, Goldstein says. And those donors can't be expected to continue doing the heavy lifting.

ATC is still struggling to recover from prior challenges. “We’re still carrying debt from two places,” Goldstein says. One is the 2008 recession. The other is $1.5 million lost in 2012 and 2013, when the company was undergoing a transition period that included management changes.

Bob Booker, executive director for Arizona Commission on the Arts, says the dilemma facing Arizona Theatre Company is a reflection of bigger issues in the Arizona arts scene, including the fact that arts in general are “undercapitalized” here. Having fewer Fortune 500 companies than other major cities means fewer corporate donations. And both state and city investments in the arts are small here, Booker says.

The challenges facing Arizona Theatre Company are happening at the national level, says Jake Pinholster, associate dean for policy and initiatives at ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. "Virtually every organization is facing these same issues, and nobody has all the answers or the resources to implement them at speed."

But the potential loss of Arizona Theatre Company is especially concerning, given its longtime status as a staple of the Arizona arts scene. 

Founded as Arizona Civic Theatre in Tucson in 1967, Arizona Theatre Company adopted its current name in 1979. Since the 1990-91 season, the company has staged all productions at both the Temple of Art and Music in Tucson and Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, where it's one of three resident companies.

Although Goldstein says it costs about $200,000 to $250,000 to operate at Herberger Theater Center each year, compared to less than $1,000 a year at their Tucson venue, he doesn’t fault the Center for the company’s financial woes. Herberger has renegotiated the lease and given the company a little bit of a rate rebate, Goldstein says.

This isn’t the first time a resident company at Herberger Theater Center has faced tough times. 

In 2012, Actors Theatre of Phoenix left its residency at Herberger, then took a hiatus to revamp its business plan before making a short-term comeback with performances at various venues. In late December 2014, Actors Theatre announced that it was ending productions and liquidating the company.

But theater companies performing in other venues have also struggled in recent years. Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, which performed most recently at the John Paul Theatre at Phoenix College, closed during the summer of 2012, after fundraising pleas failed to generate enough cash to continue operations.

On June 8 of this year, Class 6 Theatre announced via Facebook its intention to take a hiatus after seven seasons due to growing debt. Even participating in a Mesa Arts Center Foundation program that helps local artists cover the costs of using the venue wasn’t enough to keep the company going for another season.

Even if Arizona Theatre Company reached its $2 million fundraising goal and moved forward with its 2016-17 season, other obstacles would remain. 

Goldstein had actually planned to retire in 2013, but stayed on to help Arizona Theatre Company survive the tumult. "I was supposed to leave three years ago," Goldstein says. "This is my last year." 
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble