Nonprofit theater audience down

NEA reports on increase in theater companies

Resourceful nonprofit theaters have emerged stronger from past economic downturns, but their flat or declining audience numbers are cause for concern.

That’s the good news/bad news from a report from the National Endowment for the Arts on the growth and finances of U.S. nonprofit theaters since 1990. Titled “All America’s a Stage,” the study chronicles a recent increase in professional nonprofit legit orgs, especially in geographic areas where theaters traditionally haven’t thrived.

According to the report, in 2005 there were 1,982 nonprofit theaters with annual budgets of at least $75,000, double the 991 theaters in 1990. Sharpest growth occurred in states with small numbers of theaters such as Nevada, Arkansas and Colorado.

Yet the figures are complicated by a “significant and persistent problem facing American theater,” said NEA chairman Dana Gioia. “Since 1992, the percentage of the U.S. adult population attending non-musical theater has declined from 13.5% to 9.4%. The absolute size of the audience has declined by 16%.”

Attendance trends are not primarily related to ticket prices, according to the study. The convenience of other forms of entertainment such as iPods and TiVo also are strong contributors.

Data sources for the report include a member survey of the Theater Communications Group, IRS filings from tax-exempt theaters, the Census Bureau and NEA studies.

Report mainly spans the years 1990 through 2005 — too soon to serve as a bellwether of the fallout of current economic turbulence.

Bill O’Brien, the NEA’s director of theater and musical theater, said the report demonstrates that theaters have weathered economic challenges in the past and emerged revitalized.

It also shows that auds for musical theater from nonprofits have grown to 37 million people in 2008, up from 32 million in 1992.

In other findings:

  • Nonprofit theaters generally have maintained a healthy balance sheet. Between 1990 and 2005, real assets such as land grew by nearly 60%, while liabilities remained flat.

  • Nonprofit theaters have achieved a more equitable balance between earned and contributed income. Earned income made up 52% of all nonprofit theater revenue in 2005, while the remainder was mostly contributed.

  • NEA funding is a likely catalyst in drawing sizeable contributions from other sources. Each dollar in NEA grant support is associated with an additional $12 from individual donors, $1.88 from businesses, and $3.55 from foundations.

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