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More help for Downtown Pittsburgh performing-arts groups

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which owns the Byham Theater, was among the recipients of $2.69 million in grants for Downtown arts groups. This photo dates to July 2021, during the pandemic shutdown, but attendance for most groups has yet to fully recover.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which owns the Byham Theater, was among the recipients of $2.69 million in grants for Downtown arts groups. This photo dates to July 2021, during the pandemic shutdown, but attendance for most groups has yet to fully recover.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh Opera announced it’s offering free ride-hailing vouchers to sweeten the deal for ticket-buyers to its remaining Downtown productions this year.

But it turns out that as far as grant-funded audience-building initiatives for Downtown performing arts groups go, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

On Monday, the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced it had distributed $2.69 million among a half-dozen arts groups “to support creative solutions to revitalize attendance, engage new audiences and improve financial operations.”

Besides Pittsburgh Opera, the recipients include Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Carnegie Mellon University. (CMU? Downtown? We’ll explain.)

In a statement, the foundation observed that Downtown groups are “under significant stress,” and not solely because of the pandemic. Yes, attendance and earned income cratered during the shutdown and have yet to fully recover. But costs are up, too. Then there’s the perennial plight of nonprofit arts groups: It always seems their most loyal patrons — and donors — are “aging out,” with too few younger folks replacing them.

While people have been ringing these alarm bells for years — and though the Richard King Mellon Foundation awarded Downtown arts groups $1 million in general operating support just last year — foundation director Sam Reiman called this a “critical moment.”

So what’s the new round of money for?

Symphony CEO Melia Tourangeau said the group will use its $500,000 share to market and continue recently launched programs to attract new audiences.

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One is its “evening Schooltime Concerts,” the weeknight, family-oriented version of its daylight programs for kids. Up next is the Mon., March 5, Pittsburgh premiere of composer Mason Bates’ “Philharmonia Fantastique.” It’s a live, 25-minute “mixed-media concerto” that includes an animated film whose sprite-like hero guides listeners through the orchestra’s instruments. “It’s like a modern-day ‘Fantasia,’” said Tourangeau. Tickets are pay-what-you-wish.

The grant is important because building audiences for new programming takes time. Another new series is PSO Disrupts, whose shorter concerts are augmented by things like pre-show activities, specialty cocktails, theatrical lighting and an on-stage host. “The whole idea is we just need to be evolving the entire concert-going experience,” said Tourangeau. Through four PSO Disrupts events over two seasons, the group has drawn about 600 per show to Heinz Hall — not bad, but “We have a ways to go,” she said. The new grant, she added, will help the PSO explain to the public “how is this different and why should I care?”

Another group singing new tunes is the Opera. Those ride-hailing vouchers will consume just a fraction of the troupe’s $500,000 grant. Spokesperson Chris Cox said other initiatives include a free outdoor concert Downtown this summer. And on the financial side, the Opera is working with a consultant to implement new software for automating and better tracking more of its communications with patrons and donors.

Nationally as well as locally, most performing arts groups report audiences remain down 10 percent or more from pre-pandemic levels. Exceptions here include Pittsburgh Ballet, whose executive director, Nicholas Dragga, said the group is selling only 1% to 2% fewer tickets than in 2019. And in fact, because ticket prices are up, the PBT’s 2023 production of “The Nutcracker'' was its highest-grossing show ever, while February’s “Beauty and The Beast” was its highest-earning show that wasn’t a “Nutcracker.”

Given that, Dragga said, the PBT’s plan for its $500,000 grant is simply to stage, and better market, more of what it’s already been succeeding with — what Dragga calls “familiar, high production value” shows for the whole family. These include, in May, the U.S. premiere of choreographer Jayne Smeulders’ 2011 take on “Cinderella” and, in October, the Pittsburgh premiere of Trey McIntyre’s 2002 “Peter Pan.”

Not all the money granted the six groups will show up directly on stage.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust received three business development grants totaling $475,000. One will allow the Trust — the region’s biggest performing-arts presenter — to improve how it uses patron and donor data to inform things like ticket-pricing and cultivating return audiences. Another will help it explore ways to provide shared services (in areas like finances, IT and human resources) to other arts groups without increasing its own expenses. And the third grant will let it take what CEO Kendra Whitlock Ingram called a “comprehensive look” at the best way to use the more than 1 million square feet of real estate it owns Downtown. (Besides theaters like the Benedum Center and Byham Theater, and galleries like SPACE, the Trust also owns structures like the Theater Square complex, with its parking garage, and mixed-use buildings with commercial tenants.)

Finally, the foundation gave $215,000 to Carnegie Mellon University to develop a strategic plan that could lead to more new theatrical works being developed in Pittsburgh. The idea, said associate professor of musical theater Rick Edinger, is for CMU to work with groups like Pittsburgh Public Theater and Pittsburgh CLO to bring professional artists to town to create new work in ways that would also enrich students at CMU’s esteemed School of Drama. Ideally, he said, a CMU-based center for developing such work would spark “a transformative shift” on Pittsburgh’s arts scene.

And in the arts, it seems, transformation is on most everyone’s mind.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: