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ARCHIVED  September 1, 1997

Arts community depends on businesses for survival

Flip through the pages of your daily newspaper, and you’re bound to find mention of upcoming cultural events. Whatever the art form – music, dance, theater, visual art – such events wouldn’t be possible without support from local businesses. Corporate sponsors play a crucial role in maintaining the health of Northern Colorado’s arts community. Federal support for the arts appears doomed, public programs can do only so much, and an increasingly sophisticated arts community needs more support than ever before. Companies with a philanthropic bent are besieged by a growing number of arts organizations in need, and many help out, filling requests for dollars, services or products. But more help is needed, and it is left to the typically paltry staffs of the arts groups to encourage more cooperation between the business and arts sectors. OpenStage Theatre has been courting corporate sponsors for 25 years and almost has it down to a science. Founders of the Fort Collins theater company, Bruce and Denise Freestone, have developed a two-tiered sponsorship system that accommodates companies of all sizes. “We’ve devised a way for corporations to contribute and feel like they’re getting something of real value in return,” Bruce Freestone said. “We have sponsors who give a $3,000 cash donation, and in exchange, they receive the tickets to the opening performance to give to staff, clients or customers. “In that way, we increase our visibility to new audiences, and the sponsor gets something tangible that they can use in a number of ways,” he said. OpenStage also has performance sponsors that contribute $500 in cash or services and in return receive 20 ticket vouchers, and various acknowledgments. Accounting services, printing services, media support and set building materials have all been provided by performance sponsors. Corporate support comprises about one-sixth of the theater company’s annual budget of about $120,000, and that pays for part-time staff the group wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise, Denise said. OpenStage has had better luck with sponsors than some groups, Bruce added, because of their visibility in the community. The company performs in the Lincoln Center Mini-theater 30 weeks out of the year and has earned a reputable standing in the community. One business owner who has supported OpenStage over the years is Cary Hewitt, owner of The Cupboard in Fort Collins. For the last 10 or 15 years, Hewitt has made it a practice to purchase an ad in OpenStage playbills. He said, he doesn’t consider it to be very cost-effective advertising, but his purchase helps produce a program without cost. “When the community supports your business, you need to respond however you can,” he said. “Whether that’s a large cash donation or a poster in your store window, it’s important to give something back.” Hewitt has given financial support to OpenStage, the Fort Collins Symphony and Canyon Concert Ballet for years. Though he can’t help every group, he tries to do a little something for as many as he can. He says nonprofit groups ask him for gift certificates at least 300 times a year, and nearly every other day he is approached by representatives of groups looking for support. He’s recently formed a committee to focus on contributions and how to distribute them. Hewlett-Packard Co. already has such a committee. In Loveland, public-relations manager Jim Willard oversees the Community Action Planning Team, a group of employees that meets monthly to review grant requests. The company shies away from general cash sponsorships, Willard said, adding, “We’ve found that we get more bang for the buck if we put it into a particular project or product.” H-P is known for its contributions of computer equipment to nonprofits. Each H-P site develops its own donation guidelines and budget and generally limits donations to arts groups to $1,000, more if the gift is in the form of equipment. “Our role in the arts is to look for unique opportunities where they have something unique to contribute and our service or product can make a difference,” Willard said. H-P’s philanthropic spirit is acknowledged as exemplary in the arts community. Other large regional employers that have given generously to the arts include Symbios Logic, Anheuser-Busch, Monfort of Colorado, Steele’s Markets, and many others. Still, some worry that traditionally philanthropic attitudes among businesses are waning. “Philanthropy is fading, and all arts tend to suffer as a result,” Denise Freestone said. “A lot of new wealth has come into Fort Collins, but the question has been how do you tap into it if that spirit of giving isn’t there?” Some would-be arts supporters might think public programs provide enough support, but they only meet a fraction of the need, Denise said. Fort Fund is a public grant program operated by the Fort Collins Cultural Resources Board, which reports to city council. Funds come from the city’s lodging tax revenue. At its last funding session in June, Fort Fund awarded $69,750 to various city groups for specific events ranging from golf tournaments to dance performances, said Evan Hyatt, publicity coordinator for the Lincoln Center. That is the most money the group has awarded to date, but it satisfied just more than half of the applicants’ total request for $113,000. Hyatt said applicants that get funding from other sources are looked on more favorably by the board. “I see arts groups getting more corporate support but more in the form of services or products rather than dollars,” he said. Some groups have had better success at landing corporate money that others. Art Espinoza, general manager of Canyon Concert Ballet in Fort Collins, said his fund-raising program hasn’t been as successful as he would like. The ballet company counts on about 8 percent of its budget coming from corporate contributions and last year fell short. “We were looking to receive about $8,500 from businesses and only received $330,” Espinoza said. The problem has been finding the time and resources to develop meaningful partnerships with the business community. “A strong partnership helps us know what to expect so we don’t ask for the moon or work with chicken feed when we could have the moon,” he said. Angela Brayham, executive director of OneWest Art Center in Fort Collins, has also had difficulty attracting corporate support. “Visual arts is a hard sell,” she said. The gallery collects rent from tenants, and some foundation support and regional grant money is available, but without corporate support, Brayham is forced to tone down the size and scope of her exhibitions. “This is a problem of almost global proportions,” she said. “If we want arts in society, we have to support them.” So why support the arts in your community? Arts people have strong opinions on that subject. “The arts give us a reason to be living in Northern Colorado, “Espinoza said. “When corporations are wooing employees here, they can be sure those people will want to know what the community has to offer. The ballet and the training we provide are shining examples of the cultural activity going on here.” “Arts are seen as soft business, but they’re a true economic factor,” Denise Freestone added. “A healthy arts sector contributes to the overall health of the community economically as well as socially.”

Flip through the pages of your daily newspaper, and you’re bound to find mention of upcoming cultural events. Whatever the art form – music, dance, theater, visual art – such events wouldn’t be possible without support from local businesses. Corporate sponsors play a crucial role in maintaining the health of Northern Colorado’s arts community. Federal support for the arts appears doomed, public programs can do only so much, and an increasingly sophisticated arts community needs more support than ever before. Companies with a philanthropic bent are besieged by a growing number of arts organizations in need, and many help out,…

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