Virginia Louloudes, Executive Director, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York: September 11 and the Impact on the Arts

June 1, 2002
Virginia Louloudes, Executive Director, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York: September 11 and the Impact on the Arts

The impact of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center had, as media outlets around the country reported in the weeks after the attack, a dramatic impact on the city's cultural institutions and tourism industry, including Broadway theaters. Less widely reported, however, was the impact of the attack on New York City's not-for-profit theaters and the potential longer-term consequences to the city's arts community. Almost nine months after the attack, many off-Broadway theaters continue to struggle with the effects of 9/11 as well as the falloff in contributions caused by a slowing economy.

According to a survey from the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, a service and advocacy organization representing more than 400 not-for-profit theaters and theater-related organizations, the direct loss of income from box-office revenues, space rentals, and cancelled bookings and fundraising events as of October 31, 2001, was nearly $5 million, with the projected loss for fiscal year 2002 expected to top $16.3 million. Indeed, the survival of several smaller downtown theaters, which were disproportionately affected by the disaster, is in doubt.

PND caught up with Virginia "Ginny" Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, in early April to talk about September 11 and its impact on her members and their prospects.

Louloudes has served as the ART/NY's executive director since 1991, during which time the organization's budget has nearly tripled and its membership has grown from 150 to 400 theaters. She conceived and developed many of ART/NY's signature programs, including the Nancy Quinn Fund and the Theatre Leadership Institute, which provides theater groups with long-term, one-on-one technical and administrative assistance. In the spring of 2001, thanks to a $1 million matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ART/NY launched the Bridge Fund, which offers low-interest loans of up to $25,000 to small and mid-sized theaters to assist with their immediate financial needs. The Fund became a lifeline for ART/NY members in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and has since provided $387,500 in loans and lines of credit to dozens of theater companies. In addition, ART/NY received $263,000 from the September 11th Fund and Philip Morris Companies to re-grant to the dozen or so theater groups located near Ground Zero. And in November, the organization was awarded $2.65 million by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide emergency relief grants to theaters impacted by the attack and subsequent falloff in tourism in New York City.

Louloudes currently serves on the executive committee of the New York City Arts Coalition and is a member of the board of advisors to the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. She also has served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and was an Arts Internationalmarketing consultant to performing arts organizations in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

She has a B.A. in humanities from Johns Hopkins University and an M.A. in performing arts management from American University.

Philanthropy News Digest: Hi, Ginny. Can you tell me a little about your organization? What kind of theaters do you represent?

Virginia Louloudes: The Alliance of Resident Theatres in New York was founded thirty years ago out of a frustration that the off-off-Broadway industry lacked political influence and legitimacy with the media. Elected officials from New York City and the state were not paying much attention to off-off-Broadway. In 1972, the New York State Council on the Arts had a conference on off-Broadway. But there was nothing at the conference about off-off-Broadway, so a group of off-off-Broadway producers stormed out and had a caucus, and at the caucus the Off-Off-Broadway Alliance, or OOBA, was founded. OOBA's founding mission was to promote the visibility of off-off-Broadway theater in the media and to collect some data that we could share with our members and with elected officials.

About fifteen, maybe twenty years later, many off-off-Broadway theaters had become off-Broadway theaters — in other words, they grew from ninety-nine-seat theaters to one hundred- to four-hundred-seat theaters. So the organization changed its name to the Alliance of Resident Theatres in New York, or ART/NY. But we're probably going to change our name again, because ART/NY sounds like a visual arts organization and people don't necessarily equate us with theater — and because Alliance of Resident Theatres seems like a mouthful. But we'll figure something out that distinguishes who we are.

We now represent about four hundred not-for-profit theaters or theater-related organizations in New York City. If you visit our Web site, you can view our annual report, which outlines every one of our programs, lists the major funders for those programs, and even has quotes from members who love our programs.

PND: Where were you on the morning of September 11? What was the most difficult thing for you personally in the immediate aftermath of the attacks?

VL: On the morning of September 11, I was getting ready to go to work when I heard the news on television. At first I thought, "Oh a small plane hit the WTC." Then someone called into Channel 4 TV and said that they saw the plane deliberately fly into the building. When the second plane hit, I knew it was a terrorist attack.

My first thought was to keep this away from my son, who was almost five at the time. Then I worried about my staff: I wanted to get hold of them and tell them not to come in. But all but one had left, either to go to a meeting or to vote. [Ed. note: the mayoral primary in New York City had been scheduled for September 11 but was called off after the second plane hit.] Three staff members were in the office, and they stayed until 3:00 p.m.

I think the most difficult thing for me, personally, was the uncertainty of things. I felt pulled in two directions: to be at the office for my staff and the theaters, and to be home with my husband and my son. I must confess, I didn't worry about cancelled performances. But I do remember thinking that the city budget would definitely be affected and that the funds promised for our capital project were probably at risk.

I feel lousy about that. People lost their lives, people lost loved ones. One theater manager — Laura Rockefeller of the Jewish Repertory Theatre — was at a meeting at the WTC and didn't survive. And there are times when I'm asked to speak about the eleventh and its impact on theaters when I start by reminding people that we were among the lucky ones.

PND: What was the funding situation like for ART/NYC member theaters before September 11?

VL: Prior to the eleventh, it was already shaping up to be a tough year for foundations and corporations because of the drop in the stock market and the dot-com bust and the fact that we were entering a recession. What September 11 did was to turn a longer-term issue into an urgent issue. Recession hit the city full force overnight. Jobs not only were lost, but, as one of my colleagues said, they evaporated. All those World Trade Center service-related jobs — the limousine drivers, the people who made food for the food stands, the deli workers, the custodians — all those jobs were lost, vanished. And we're still grappling with the economic impact of that in terms of the city budget and corporate funding.

PND: But prior to September 11, you weren't anticipating a rough funding period ahead?

VL: We were. I was one of the more naive people about the economy; I didn't even know we were in a boom economy. All I knew was that, all of a sudden, foundations were asking us to submit proposals! And then, as the boom was going bust, I suddenly realized what we had just been through and had to kick myself for not really reveling in it at the time. But to answer your question, we knew the economy was turning; we just didn't realize how fast.

PND: In what ways did September 11 exacerbate the situation? I know many off-Broadway theaters sent out their subscription renewal notices during the week of September 10, which no doubt had a serious detrimental effect on renewal rates. Did September 11 have the same effect on theaters citywide, or just those that were located downtown?

VL: I think the perception of what happened in the wake of September 11 is worse than the reality. The perception is that something horrible happened to those smaller groups below 14th Street, and for people whose focus is getting the show up, the inability to get the show up because the theater has to shut down by order of the mayor, or because you can't get to your building because the streets are closed, or your audience can't get there because the public transportation system's been disrupted or they're simply staying home because they're afraid — not knowing how to resolve all that created a sense that things were horrible. When you're powerless to fix something, that's the worst. I would say that the larger producers and people who are a little more worldly in their view realize that the immediate impact of September 11 is behind us, but that there are going to be systemic problems in the long term because of overarching economic issues.

PND: An issue that we're facing at the Foundation Center as we try to keep track and record the philanthropic response to the attacks is the question of what is September 11-related and what is related to the broader economic situation. Have you had the same experience while sorting through requests for assistance?

VL: That was the big challenge. By our definition, "September 11th-related" means that you were forced to close for x number of days and had to refund rental and performance income; that you had to pay your actors even though they weren't performing or in rehearsal; that you had to cancel an event — that's all directly related to September 11th. If you had a benefit three weeks later and you canceled it, it's still directly related to the attacks. We saw that it took about six to ten weeks for the box office to bounce back. The Mellon Foundation allowed up to January 1, because they felt the entire last quarter was shot. The harder thing to quantify is when a foundation says to a theater group, "You probably weren't going to get any money because the market was bad before September 11, and now you're definitely not going to get any money because of September 11."

PND: Following the eleventh, the city made a major push to shore up attendance at museums and Broadway theaters. As a result of those efforts, the New York Times reported on March 12 that attendance had rebounded so strongly that several large theaters and museums expected to reach or exceed their pre-September 11 attendance predictions. Off-Broadway theater, on the other hand, relies more on patrons who live in or around the city. Is off-Broadway enjoying the same kind of rebound as the large theaters?

VL: Those bigger theaters promoted themselves in a different way. They really came together and did what's called a "sale." They put together a booklet, they printed sixty-five thousand discount coupon booklets and dropped them into newspapers up and down the East Coast, they spent millions of dollars on promotion, and it was brilliantly done. You have to understand that they've been sort of spoiled. The tourists would come in from out of state and see their shows. But when the tourists stopped coming, they had to market themselves to the locals. And what may have happened — although we don't have the data and may never know for sure — is that people who were going to off-Broadway felt it was their patriotic duty to go to Broadway, and off-Broadway suffered as a result.

PND: And off-Broadway relies on a local audience of theater enthusiasts. People don't generally come to New York to see an off-Broadway show....

VL: Some do. And if we had the money that Broadway does, more people would, because I think we have a very healthy and vibrant off-Broadway scene. It's just not well known, and we're not able to market it. If we had those resources, boy, we could do a great job and bring more people into town and extend their stays, so that they might see a Broadway show and two off-Broadway shows, or two Broadway shows and one off-Broadway show. But we just haven't been able to do the marketing.

PND: According to a recent report commissioned by your organization, New York City's nonprofit theaters represent a $140 million industry and serve an annual audience of six million people — more than attend the home games of the Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers combined. Obviously, those are pre-recession numbers, but in what way does nonprofit theater benefit New York City?

VL: That wasn't audience, that was the economic impact. When Mayor Giuliani heard that, he couldn't believe it. I explained to him that we have two baseball teams and one hockey team, but we have four hundred theater groups. Just think of that! And we're performing eight times a week, and they're doing what, three times a week, tops. But at the time, it was just so late in the game and we didn't have the tourist numbers. Broadway did. The mayor backed Broadway because he saw what it did for the tourist industry. The issue was really about tourism — attracting people and money into hotels, restaurants, theaters, everywhere.

PND: Has the importance of the nonprofit theater industry to New York City's economy been adequately figured into the economic recovery plan?

VL: I reported to one of the economic recovery subcommittees for arts and culture and tourism that I sit on, and one of the recommendations I made is that they give money to provide two years of free membership for downtown arts groups in NYC and Company, the city's official tourism marketing agency, so that those groups can benefit from the agency's tourism packages. One of the things we say in the report is that we've got to rebuild facilities, and when we do, downtown arts facilities should be part of that. Clearly, people are most concerned about what kind of memorial will be built and dealing with the widows and children, as well as the businesses that suffered. That's top of everybody's mind, and that's going to be a huge undertaking. But I think the arts will be factored in. I just don't know how. It's too soon to tell.

PND: You said earlier that Rudy Giuliani couldn't believe that nonprofit theaters were a $140 million industry. Is Mayor Bloomberg's attitude different?

VL: It's tremendously different. First of all, he ran a private foundation for years and sits on the board of Lincoln Center. He's also given to theater companies because he likes the arts, he likes theater. So you have somebody who is as passionate about the arts as the previous mayor was about baseball. And Bloomberg has people around him that he trusts, as opposed to people whom he sometimes challenges. So when Kate Levin [Ed. note: Ms. Levin heads New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs] came to him and said, "These groups are hurting," he hired her and said at her swearing-in, "I hired her because she cares about the small and mid-size organizations, which don't get a lot of play." That was a powerful statement for the mayor to make, and everything that she's done since she's been in office have proved that statement to be true.

Another thing that's impressed me is what the mayor did with the $1 million returned to the city by the League of American Theatres and Producers [Ed. note: the $1 million was money left over from a $2.5 million grant to the city from Empire State Development, the state's economic development agency, to purchase unsold Broadway theater tickets]. I'm sure that Giuliani would have taken that million and said to Broadway, "Keep it." Or he would have given it to NYC and Company, or he would have given it to the Yankees. He would not have given it to not-for-profit arts groups, which is what Bloomberg did, and if he did, it wouldn't have been to small groups — it would have been to the Met, the Museum of Natural History, et cetera. But there were small organizations up on the stage with Mayor Bloomberg and represented in the audience. Laurie Tisch Sussman of the Center for Arts Education said she felt like Halle Berry at the Oscars. What she meant was, she felt like small arts groups had arrived, that the groups that were not in the paper every day, that did not have the blockbuster shows, that weren't on Broadway, were finally being recognized. And she was right. We could feel it. Bloomberg had broken through a sort of symbolic barrier. To give a community like ours, a community that in good times doesn't do very well and in bad times faces the possibility of closures, cancelled productions, et cetera — to give them hope at a time like this was a huge achievement.

PND: We all witnessed the unprecedented outpouring of contributions in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. On September 13, the Lilly Endowment pledged $30 million for relief and recovery in New York and Washington, D.C. A day later, the Ford Foundation, the Starr Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation announced pledages of $10 million each. By September 18, pledges of $1 million or more by U.S. corporations had surpassed $170 million....

VL: And then Mellon announced a $50 million fund just for the arts. And a lot of the reporters who called me were asking, "Where's all this money coming from? Why would this foundation give money to the arts?" We received $2.65 million from Mellon — $150,000 for the administration of the program and $2.5 million to give out to small theaters.

PND: Did Mellon put any eligibility restrictions on the money? You said in your talk today [Ed. note: at a Women in Development luncheon] that you told theaters, "Show us how you suffered and we'll help you."

VL: They trusted us. They pretty much said to us, "We want you to give it to people who suffered because of September 11; we don't want this big production. It should be about restoring people and helping make them whole again." We actually worked with them on guidelines. They knew us and our process, and they felt really comfortable with us. And I think they're very pleased. How we helped some people get more than what they asked for, and how we helped people understand why they were getting less than they asked for — all of that was a learning process for both Mellon and us and our members.

PND: In February, the Carnegie Corporation of New York announced $10 million in grants to small and medium-sized arts and cultural organizations that have been struggling since September 11. According to Carnegie Officials, the Corporation studied how the Mellon foundation planned to disburse its $50 million to similar institutions before releasing its own funds. Nonetheless, there seems to have been some overlap and confusion when the grants were actually awarded. Did the grants from Carnegie affect how ART/NYC regranted the funds from Mellon?

VL: Well, we shared with them the names of the hundred and thirty-one organizations that applied to us for funding, as well as how much they requested. They saw what we had in terms of what we defined as allowable; it was all there. But in many cases their grants did not jibe with what we received in terms of a theater's expressed needs. Some theaters got less than what they needed, some got much more than what they claimed they needed, some that weren't even on our list got money, and some that were below Canal Street didn't get anything.

PND: And as a result you had to go back and reconsider the grants you planned to award?

VL: We had to factor the grants from Carnegie into our gift allotment, so that if we were giving a grant to, say, the Vineyard Theatre and the Vineyard had $300,000 in allowable losses and, let's say, for the sake of discussion, they got $75,000 from Carnegie, we assumed that that $75,000 went toward the allowable losses, which left them with $225,000 in allowable losses. Actually, we took 60 percent of the Carnegie grants across the board. So whatever sixty percent of $75,000 is is what we subtracted from the allowable loss.

PND: What was the most difficult thing about the whole process?

VL: The proposals. I don't think people gave enough time to the proposal, certainly not as much as they would have liked. They rushed to meet the deadline, even though we tried to give them enough time. But we had to rush the application process so that we could get money into their hands before it was too late to do any good. And it was tough, it was exhausting to read a hundred and thirty-one applications in two weeks.

PND: You sound like a very busy person! Thank you so much for sitting down with us today.

VL: Thank you.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's managing editor, interviewed Ginny Louloudes at a luncheon sponsored by New York's Women in Development on April 1. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@fdncenter.org