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Sept. 11: Clouds over NYC cultural life

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Sept. 6, 2002 at 5:07 PM   |   Comments

(Part of UPI's Special Package on Sept. 11)

NEW YORK (UPI) -- The terrorist attack that destroyed New York's World Trade Center towers a year ago was so injurious to the city's cultural life that the theater, museums, and other arts institutions are still feeling deleterious effects on attendance, ticket sales and planning for future attractions.

Although the commercial Broadway theater has shown good recovery and the 2001-2002 season closed in May with a box office gross of $643 million, down only $23 million from the previous season, the Off-Broadway and non-profit theater business suffered serious losses especially at theaters situated south of 14th Street.

A number of scheduled Off-Broadway shows were cancelled or had shorter runs than expected. Even the bellwether Public Theater put on only one production -- "Twelfth Night" -- instead of the usual two productions that make up its annual summer season of Shakespeare in Central Park, pinning the blame on financial setbacks last season.

There has been considerable financial aid given both Broadway and Off-Broadway by the city, which provided $1.5 million in promotional funds, and various foundations that have made grants to non-profit theater, museums, dance organizations, and musical groups. The most generous donor has been the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that established a $50 million fund for cultural institutions affected by Sept. 11.

Discounting of ticket prices both on and off Broadway has kept ticket sales from plummeting disastrously. Attendance for the current 2002-2003 season is off only about 5 percent so far, compared to last season. But the League of American Theaters and Directors reported that only 37 percent of theater patrons are buying their seats at least four weeks in advance, down from the usual 50 percent last season.

Poor advance ticket sales mean that fewer shows now in the planning stage will be able to open. "Hairspray," the first big Broadway musical of the season, opened Aug. 15 with little more than a $6 million advance compared to the $15 million advance enjoyed by "The Producers" when it opened two seasons ago. Weak advances means that more advertising must be paid for out of the show's budget, raising weekly costs for future advertising.

Broadway insiders blame the dwindling of advances in recent months to the slow recovery of tourism and the weakened economy. Foreign tourism is a piteous shadow of its old self and many American tour groups have cut back on theater reservations in the hope of getting half price tickets currently offered by three out of four Broadway shows after they arrive in the city.

Museums, most of which charged admission, are also suffering from lack of attendance due to the drop in tourism, down as much as 30 to 40 percent uptown and more than 50 percent downtown even a year after the attack on the Twin Towers. The Museum of Modern Art is open only five days a week instead of six, and other museums -- including the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- have had to close galleries on a rotating basis to cut security costs.

The Guggenheim Museum has chopped its budget from $49 million last year to $26 million this year, cancelled several scheduled shows, closed it SoHo satellite gallery, and virtually put plans for a Frank Gehry-designed museum on the East River at the foot of Wall Street on hold. It has laid off a fifth of its staff, and many other museums have made similar staff cuts in the face of reductions in city aid to cultural institutions following Sept. 11.

Big museums have reported a loss in annual giving by trustees as well as foundations, but they are being given a better chance of survival than many individual artists who lost studio space in the downtown area damaged by terrorism as well as galleries in which to exhibit. The New York Foundation for the Arts has raised $4.6 million and dispensed grants to 352 artists and 135 arts organizations, and the Andy Warhol Foundation has given $650,000 in grants to city arts groups below 14th Street.

Also leading the effort to meet artists' needs is the New York Arts Recovery Fund, a partnership of arts-services organizations started with a grant of $600,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This money is helping artists through the maze of relief red tape and develop promotional campaigns to draw the public back to some 30 nearly deserted downtown venues for the visual arts.

It is difficult to assess the damage done to the art market by Sept. 11 since individual dealers are unlikely to reveal the seriousness of their losses, but private sales are said to have suffered more than sales at the city's major auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's. They have been getting top dollar for items of quality, but lesser material is not doing as well or simply fails to sell.

A third auction house, Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, has been trying to challenge the Big Two but has withdrawn several important sales from its elegant new gallery in midtown Manhattan, preferring to concentrate on establishing itself as a leading European house. There were many reasons for these withdrawals, but Sept. 11 was certainly one of them.

--

(This article is part of UPI's Special Package on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks).

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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