Queen of Arts

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"We are not the sixth largest city in terms of culture, transportation or any of the above," she says. "We're way down the ladder."

Over the years, the museum has struggled to attract the money and gifts of art to build a collection worth returning to again and again.

The Phoenix Symphony and Ballet Arizona have repeatedly been in and out of fiscal troubles, as has just about every other performing arts organization in town. They haven't received the level of investment -- hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and art -- that older cities have heaped on similar arts organizations.

"I wouldn't say this kind of patronage lives exclusively through families," says Millinger. "But the money reflects the involvement of people who've remained committed. People stayed there long enough to become loyal and to have their cultural leaders become known. Then new leaders grew up and took their place. There's been no such natural progression here."

And there's an increasing sense that many of the rich who roost in the foothills of north Scottsdale and Phoenix have gone there to hide.

"That wealth is extensive," says Millinger. "It's up beyond Troon. But I don't know how much of it is available to anybody in the arts. If those people don't start to come forward, it's going to be extremely difficult for arts organizations."

A week before their spring finale, the dancers of the Ballet Arizona company move through their routines with the sweat-glossed strength and efficiency of professional athletes. The gymlike setting of their cramped studio in a building behind a strip mall in central Phoenix is a world away from the elegant illusions of flight that their performance will achieve onstage.

The hallways outside the main practice room double as a lunch room and stretching area. Socks and other clothing are clumped along the room's edges. The air at times is locker-room muggy, occasionally wafting the smell of genuine blue-collar labor.

Even with such rudimentary facilities, the company's costs are substantial. Toe shoes ($50,000 a year), classical tutus (about $2,500 each) and dancers (average pay $22,000) account for the most visible expenses. But the company's $2.6 million budget is packed with grittier essentials that rarely cross the public's mind -- $5,000 to truck the Nutcracker sets each year from storage to Symphony Hall, $12,000 to $18,000 for the rubbery black plastic flooring the dancers practice on, and up to $60,000 per ballet in royalties and fees for choreographers and music.

"People think they're supporting the ballet or opera by just buying tickets," says Howard Hirsch, a patron who last year formed the Five Arts Circle, a private group that contributed $25,000 to the ballet and four other Valley arts organizations. "But that doesn't even begin to cover the waterfront. They might pay for half the cost of the production."

The healthiest national ballet companies might make about 70 percent of these costs through ticket sales and other earnings. Many operate at 60 percent.

That scenario is similar for other performing arts groups. The Phoenix Symphony, for instance, brings in only 40 percent of its budget from ticket sales.

Like the symphony, the ballet and other nonprofit arts groups have to raise the remainder through donations from governmental, corporate, foundation and individual sources.

"People always think it's the corporations who give the rest of the money," says Sherry New, executive director of Ballet Arizona, "but that's never been the case. It's individuals."

Corporate gifts are very visible. Most are part of company marketing and public relations campaigns. Individuals are a good deal quieter. Many want no recognition at all. Yet their role in American culture and life is profound. Individual donors account for more than 75 percent of all philanthropic gifts in the United States. For arts organizations, that portion can be as great as 90 percent, with the bulk coming from just a handful of major donors.

The difficulty of finding that elite crowd is apparent in the playbills and programs accompanying local theater, ballet and symphony performances. They show plenty of contributors in the $1,500 range, some at $5,000, but very few contributing more than that.

The bumper sticker of fund raising may say: "No gift is too small." But the reality of running a donation-dependent arts organization is that the more checks it has to chase, the more time it has to spend shaking a tin cup rather than building its artistic product.

Cultural leaders point out that the impact of major individual donations -- both of art and money -- extends far beyond the better works they add to museum collections or the financial security they put in the bank. They provide credibility and sizzle that organizations can't get in any other way.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow