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The price of art: Raising county fees could kill symphony, opera, ballet

Published June 8, 2006 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Timing is everything. Salt Lake County's plan to increase the ticket fees and rents for the Utah Symphony & Opera and Ballet West to use Abravanel Hall and the Capitol Theatre does not appear unreasonable. But, for these performing companies, it could not come at a worse time.

The US&O and Ballet West both are fighting to emerge from financial intensive care. The symphony/opera is struggling to trim its operating deficit to $415,000 this year against total expenses of $16.4 million, and balance its budget next year. If it has to pay an additional $161,000 to the county, the patient could go back on life support.

Ballet West recently eliminated its fall production and cut its dancers' contract to save money. Adding $59,000 in county fees to its $6 million budget would kill the swan.

County Mayor Peter Corroon is right that the arts always live hand-to-mouth, so there will never be a good time to raise their rents and fees. But, the mayor adds, the new fee schedule would reduce the costs of the smaller companies that use the county's arts facilities.

It's part of a county effort to bring "clarity and parity" to rents and fees. In principle, we applaud that effort.

Part of the latest plan would place a patron ticket fee of 50 cents and a $1 preservation fund charge (to help pay for building upkeep) on each ticket sold to Abravanel Hall and the Capitol. Both would help reduce tax subsidies to the facilities that have risen from $1.7 million in 2000 to $2.9 million in 2005.

None of those fees apply now to season tickets, the bread and butter of the arts companies' budget.

The new fees could be passed to patrons. But to climb out of its financial pit, the US&O already has raised subscription prices by as much as 12 percent (for the most expensive seats). For a patron who is paying $750 for a full season ticket in the most pricey seats, another $27 (for the new county fees) may not seem like much. But every time the organization raises ticket prices, it loses some subscribers. For an outfit struggling to maintain its audience, that's suicide.

If the county must have these new fees, we recommend that they be phased in slowly. Because if the companies die, there won't be much need for a concert hall or a theater.