Fundraising in a recession isn't easy. Fundraising at the peak of summer, when potential sponsors have already determined their annual budgets, isn't ideal. And fundraising under both of these conditions and with only a couple of months to raise $125,000 seems like madness. That was the case this year for the Bitterroot Performing Arts Council (BPAC) as it sought funding for a world-class performing arts series hosted at what seems an unlikely place for such shows: The Hamilton Performing Arts Center at Hamilton High School.
But for BPAC, some key factors made an otherwise tough environment the perfect climate for success. Though the council is new, the series—previously funded by the school district and known as the Hamilton Performing Arts series–is going into its seventh season. The eclectic annual lineup has garnered steady crowds from the Bitterroot, Missoula and surrounding areas with metropolitan acts like Edgar Meyer, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and MOMIX dance troupe.
"A couple of years into the series I found out people were having dinner parties before the concerts and making a whole night of it," says Monica Grable, BPAC's new executive director. "That's sweet icing on the cake just to know that it has become that ingrained in people's lives."
The fact that people in the valley had already gotten a taste of the series meant that BPAC had an easier time finding supporters. In seven weeks, between July and August 2009, the council raised 90 percent of its goal just in time to secure its six-act programming for the upcoming season. In addition, the Council has sold 300 season tickets at the 700-seat performing arts center, a 20 percent increase from last year. The tickets are cheaper this year—$150 for six performances as opposed to $250 for 12 last year—but the point, Grable says, is people want to support the series.
"The truth is people were counting on that programming," she says. "They knew it was possible and they were quite used to having it. Not that they took it for granted, but it started to play an important role in their everyday lives and I don't think they could imagine our community without it. And, thankfully, we were fundraising from that point and not from scratch."
From the series' inception in 2003 up until last year, the Hamilton School District has provided funding through fees accrued from renting out the center. In 2008, after operating in the red, the school district decided it couldn't fund the series anymore. Jim Olson of Human Interactive Products (HipInc.), a Hamilton umbrella company that includes businesses in tech and groups like Great Bear Restoration, stepped in to give the series full funding for the season to save it from going dark.
Olson was a savior, says Grable, but she and others who helped put together the season lineup knew that they had to find a permanent solution—and quick. In spring 2009 the group quickly developed a board and received official nonprofit status in just six weeks. Record time, says Grable, and a good lesson for the board.
"We didn't spend a lot of hours wordsmithing a mission statement," she says. "It's very basic: We're going to present the arts to the community. And on we went."
One other surprising event happened during the creation of the new nonprofit. The council had expected to name itself the Hamilton Performing Arts Council, for consistency's sake. But the group's marketing consultant said keeping the name would ensure that people in Stevensville and Florence wouldn't donate any funding.
Mouths hung open, recalls Grable. And though the group knew it had some support from areas outside of Hamilton, the members took the advice to heart and went with the more encompassing "Bitterroot" moniker.
Though the series has sometimes operated in the red, it hasn't been for lack of attendance. Many of the shows sell out, says Grable, but as is the case nationwide, ticket sales can only support a third of performing arts budgets, so the rest needs to be funded by other sources like sponsorships and donors. The success of the series will rely on that funding every year, but it will also rely on other factors.
In the past, the series benefited from the fact that the University of Montana didn't host an entertainment series, instead focusing on Grammy-winning acts. The Bitterroot lineup, on the other hand, tends to book acts that are extraordinary within a certain niche—Celtic music, acrobatics, world music—but perhaps not mainstream. Now that UM has a performing arts series, Grable says it will be a little competitive but still not a concern. She explains that one requirement for future acts is that they're not also performing in Missoula.
Another factor the series benefits from is its setting. Artists want to come to Montana, says Grable. Even with direct flights to Missoula waning, entertainment acts seem interested in trying out a more rural audience—and often for half the fee they'd ask for in large cities.
This season's lineup demonstrates that top acts are willing to stop in western Montana. The season starts this weekend with Solas, a traditional Celtic music band. Kathy Mattea, who plays folk and roots country, performs in December. Billy Jonas, who's known for sing-along "re-precussionism," and renowned pipa virtuoso Wu Man, who's playing with the String Orchestra of the Rockies for their 25th anniversary, visit in January and February, respectively. In March, Cirque Mechanics brings its acrobatic spectacle inspired by Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals. The season closes in April with a show by the Punch Brothers, which includes Chris Thile of Nickel Creek.
BPAC hopes to raise its final $10,000 throughout the season to meet its goal, but for the time being, things are looking good. Grable says the first shows look like they'll be full houses and that grant money will probably come in to help fund next year's series. But in this business, she says, you need annual supporters.
"Every arts organization has to fundraise every year," she says. "They have to ask their supporters to continue making a statement about its importance in the community. The arts are a need. We need them now more than ever."
The 2009-10 Bitterroot Performing Arts series begins with Solas on Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8 PM,
at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center. $20–$25/$150 season ticket. Go to www.bartc.org for more info on the series.