Lower Manhattan Arts League learns art of surviving the recession | Crain's New York Business

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Lower Manhattan Arts League learns art of surviving the recession   | Crain's New York Business

By Miriam Kreinin Souccar

Battery Dance Company, a 36-year-old modern dance group in lower Manhattan that performs all over the world, was nearly wiped out by the recession. Its foundation support dwindled to just $30,000 in 2009, and its executives had to cut the annual operating budget in half, to $400,000.

“We didn't know how we would adapt and if we could maintain our programs,” said Jonathan Hollander, president and artistic director of Battery Dance. “The bottom was falling out.”

But by 2010, just one year later, the company's budget was back up to $800,000, and foundation support had more than quadrupled.

Mr. Hollander attributes the organization's quick turnaround to an unusual alliance between 11 small to midsize downtown cultural organizations who banded together in 2009, during the depths of the recession. Members of the group, called the Lower Manhattan Arts League, helped Mr. Hollander get a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and provided space for Battery Dance's most recent season, among other feats.

The league—which includes small groups like Access Theater and larger organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam and the Children's Museum of the Arts—has monthly meetings where constituents help each other with everything from fundraising to legal advice. The groups have created a downtown cultural festival, which they produce in the fall and spring. The members even apply for some grants as one entity and lobby the city government as a pack.

“Our profile has been raised by coming together,” said Catherine Martinez, managing director of the nonprofit Downtown Community Television Center.

Strength in Numbers

Indeed. Individually, some members with budgets as small as $100,000 are barely on funders' radar, but as a group the members generate around $14 million in economic activity per year and employ roughly 1,200 people full- and part-time, according to the league's estimates. After years when none of the groups were able to score a grant from American Express, for example, the consortium applied together in 2009 and was awarded $100,000. They divvied up the money according to the size of each budget.

Such camaraderie is nearly unheard of in New York's competitive cultural universe, especially now, when dollars for the arts are scarcer than ever before. But it has paid off: The members of the league have thrived in the aftermath of the recession, while other larger, better-known institutions like the New York City Opera and the American Museum of Folk Art have struggled.

“It's a very unusual collaboration,” said Fran Smyth, manager of arts services at the Arts & Business Council of New York. “Their model is an excellent one for people to follow. Cooperation is the key to survival for a lot of arts groups today.”

The league was started by Kevin Cunningham, artistic executive director of multimedia theater company 3-Legged Dog, in early 2009 because his own company was starting to suffer from the effects of the recession. Mr. Cunningham said the members decided to keep the number of groups under 12 so it would be manageable, and all groups had to be within walking distance of each other. In addition, only top-level executives with decision-making power were allowed at the meetings.

There have been times when an organization has had to recuse itself from a lobbying effort because the request was against its own interest at the time, Mr. Cunningham said, though he declined to offer details. But overall, there has been little friction between the groups.

“These are all busy folks, and we don't have time for internal bickering or silliness,” he said. “This has been one of the easiest groups I've ever worked with.”

Best Year Ever

Tania Camargo, executive director of Soho Repertory Theatre Inc., said it's the best thing to come out of the recession. In fact, her 35-year-old theater is having its best year ever.

It was forced to cut its operating budget to $500,000 from $600,000 in the 2009-10 season, but it has been growing ever since, with this season's budget at $900,000.

The league's joint festivals have helped Soho Rep bring in new audiences through joint marketing and subscription efforts. In fact, in the last three years, the theater's audience has tripled to 9,000 per year, and most of the plays have sold out and have been extended. Tickets for the theater's first show this season, Elective Affinities, went on sale last Monday at noon, and the six-week run was sold out an hour and a half later.

“The past three years have been a real breakout for us, and the league has been really instrumental,” Ms. Camargo said. “It has created an awareness among locals that these companies exist.”