When the economy started sinking last year, what did you cut out of your budget?
Renting from Redbox instead of going to the movies? Saying no to concert tickets, even for bands you really like? Staying home on evenings you might otherwise have gone to see the ballet or the symphony?
In hard times, we all cut down on luxuries -- and the arts, alas, are too quickly considered a luxury.
Arts organizations in Utah have certainly felt the pinch in the current recession. Consider these recent stories:
» In April, the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera announced it was facing a $1.3 million shortfall in its fiscal year 2009 budget. The organization's president/CEO Melia Tourangeau and music director Keith Lockhart took 10-percent pay cuts, musicians voted to give back 11.5 percent of their salaries and benefits (donating two full weeks of salary), and eight administrative jobs were eliminated from the 60-person staff.
» In May, Ballet West cut $1.2 million from its annual operating budget -- from $7.5 million to $6.3 million -- by cutting four non-dancing jobs, freezing salaries, requesting furloughs and reducing pension contributions.
» Also in May, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts laid off three of its 15 staffers, and put the remaining 12 on 32-hour work weeks.
» And in May, Michael Ballam, the founder of Logan-based Utah Festival Opera, asked the Cache County Council for a $400,000 cash infusion to keep UFO going past this summer's season. Last week, the county council announced that it voted to give UFO only $150,000. (As the chairman of UFO's board of directors, David Coppin, told the Tribune , "There are an awful lot of people who have no appreciation for the arts.")
Arts groups are getting hit directly and indirectly by the economic downturn.
Some groups get money from government, and there's less to go around. State revenues were down $1 billion, leading the Utah Legislature made cuts to the University of Utah (where UMFA is based) and other programs. Likewise, Salt Lake County's Zoo, Arts and Parks -- a resource used by many arts groups, including the Utah Symphony, Ballet West and UMFA -- saw its tax receipts fall in the last year.
Charitable foundations, which donate to arts groups, are also hurting. Not only were many foundations' investment portfolios hit when the stock market tumbled, but many companies were short of cash and couldn't make their usual donations to those foundations.
Direct corporate giving has also dwindled. Take the recent example of documentarian Ken Burns, whose 22-year relationship with now-struggling General Motors -- going back to "The Civil War," and encompassing "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War" and this fall's "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" -- is coming to an end. (Burns' people have said other sponsors are being lined up for future projects.)
When people try to defend the arts, they always trot out the tangible benefits. Listening to Mozart supposedly makes your kids smarter. Teaching arts in schools helps math scores. One major arts event, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, pumps $92 million into Utah's economy.
But the intangible benefits of arts are, in the grand scheme, even more important.
As Nick Hornby wrote in his novel High Fidelity , "what you like is more important than what you are like." Your personality is shaped by your tastes -- a favorite movie, a much-listened-to CD, a well-remembered book -- as much as it is by your upbringing.
The arts make you a more interesting human being, and make the world a more interesting place to live. That's not a luxury, but a necessity.
Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture