Anatomy Of A Crisis

There is much to be said about the arts in Arizona, and a lot of it isn't kind.

Too often, the productions and exhibitions that unfold before Arizonans' eyes pander to a worn-out and pathetic sensibility. It's the sensibility expressed recently by a community leader and member of the Phoenix 40, a man of wealth and education. As he was pondering the state's downturned economy and the way the crunch is being felt by arts groups, this man suggested that the best solution is for arts organizations to slash their budgets to the bone.

And although the arts must undeniably make some financial adjustments these days, there was something unsettling about the man's tone. It was that his voice held no regret.

He was asked, But how will that affect the quality of the arts here? "You know what? Most people don't know the difference," he said.

Thank God there's been some sure relief from such attitudes and the kind of artistic drivel it produces. For many years, the people who do know the difference have flocked to the Arizona Theatre Company, which has also known the difference.

Audience members have flocked because, when too many art shows at the Phoenix Art Museum were about Oriental art or period dressing, ATC's dramas were often topical and contemporary. They have flocked--to the tune of 110,000 filled seats this year--because, while Scottsdale's Stagebrush Theatre is still content to people its "community" productions with stiff-faced amateurs, ATC's Equity actors have long radiated across the footlights a version of hinterlands theatre as glossily expert as anything you'd see in Minneapolis or New York.

As the flocks have grown, so has the complacency. It would have seemed impossible, had anyone even considered it, that the fate of the state's most renowned and big-budget theatre company--the only theatre company in the country to provide full seasons to two cities, much less to win a federal citation for doing so--could suddenly hang by a thread.

So when the news hit at the end of March, it seemed as incomprehensible as though it were written in a foreign language. "This season will be the Arizona Theatre Company's last unless $972,000 is raised by June 30," read the lead to the startling press release that streamed into media newsrooms. And the text that followed did little to clarify the blow.

Ticket sales in Phoenix had never soared because the lack of a permanent theatre kept ATC from establishing an "identifiable presence," the statement said. (ATC is now slated to set up permanent residency in the new Herberger Theater Center, but during its last six seasons, the company while in Phoenix has shuffled its dramas between the performing arts theatre at Phoenix College and the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.)

The 1987 season had been a controversial one that left 700 season ticketholders disaffected and unwilling to renew, we were told, resulting in a revenue loss of $77,000.

Amended tax laws had caused a "significant decline in contributions," we heard.

When queried by the state's reporters, ATC's officers added another factor to the list: In Arizona's newly struggling economy, the arts group had not been able to raise its usual donations from amongst a list of corporate contributors that depended heavily on the hard-hit development industry.

They were good excuses all, but did they add up to a million dollars of debt? Why, that's much more than the entire budgets of most state arts organizations, and more than a third of ATC's $2.8 million budget for the 1988-89 season.

And why was this announcement so sudden? Wasn't a need for a million bucks something that would have crept up over a long period of time?

As onlookers wondered whether they were hearing the whole story, another revelation reinforced the impression they were not: On April 7, eight days after the first news of the disaster, ATC's managing director, Susan Goldberg, resigned. "It is clear to me that ATC as an organization has evolved in such a way that I am no longer able to lead it in the manner that I believe is appropriate and most effective," read her carefully worded statement.

What in the world had happened at ATC?
In 1988, it ranked fifth in the nation among 103 resident theatre companies in terms of the total amount of money received from individuals, and tenth with respect to corporations. If ATC is doomed, and it's largely the economy's fault, can any of the Arizona arts be safe?

It may have been the wrong question. The question presumed the economy was the villain. But if you believe some insiders, the economy alone did not create the flailing battle that is ATC's fight for its life. It was created at least in part, these observers say, by the infighting and struggle for turf waged between artistic director Gisselman and former managing director Goldberg, a struggle that distracted the company's primary officers from the issue of ATC's financial health until the problem had gotten out of hand.

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Deborah Laake