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Pittsburgh arts groups ended year in the red

| Monday, March 12, 2012

Gissa Weingartner says she is a great fan of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and has a suggestion for getting more people to attend.

"It would be lovely if people knew you can go in the same clothes as when you went to the movies. You don't have to get all gussied up to go the PSO," said Weingartner, 70, of Squirrel Hill, who attended Friday's world premiere of former music director Andre Previn's Triple Concerto at Heinz Hall.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is one of several arts groups in the Pittsburgh region say they finished 2011 in the red, largely because of cutbacks in state money, and that doesn't surprise the head of the Allegheny County Regional Asset District.

"When you look at nonprofits' financials, it's rarely cause for celebration," said David Donahoe, executive director of RAD, which supports libraries, parks, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds from an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

Although some groups overcame problems, financial reports filed with RAD recently show the symphony ended the year with a $1.3 million deficit and the Heinz History Center, a deficit of $200,828.

Symphony spokesman Jim Barthen blames cuts in public funding, noting the symphony received $1.7 million less from government sources in 2011. He said a new contract with musicians will help the symphony rebound. Its 9.7 percent cut in wages will save $1.4 million this year and $1.6 million next year.

Nevertheless, Ken McCrory, a board member for several nonprofits and principal with ParenteBeard, a Downtown accounting group, expressed concern.

"The problem with the symphony is their audience is just eroding," he said. "It keeps getting older and older, and I don't know how you stop that."

Debbie Krall of New Stanton and her fiance, Mike Sabatasse of Burgettstown, visit the Heinz History Center several times a year as they did on Saturday.

"Local history is fascinating, and it's all here in this place," Sabatasse said.

The History Center received from $500,000 to $600,000 from the state two years ago and not a cent this year.

Betty Arenth, its senior vice president, said it responded by cutting about 10 positions and delaying the opening of an exhibit, "The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are the Ship," from last summer to this summer.

She said the History Center saves taxpayers more than $300,000 a year through a contract the state granted it two years ago to run the Fort Pitt Museum.

"This is perceived by folks in Harrisburg as a pretty good deal to keep the Fort Pitt museum at less than half what it cost the state to operate it," Arenth said.

Mitch Swain, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, cited a common theme for groups such as the symphony, History Center and August Wilson Center.

"Owning and operating a facility just complicates the operations of these organizations," he said, citing the fluctuating costs of personnel, benefits and energy.

Two groups — the August Wilson Center and the Allegheny County Library Association — finished the year with apparent deficits that operators claim do not reflect the financial health of their organizations. The August Wilson Center reported a deficit of $321,706 and the library group, $106,684.

Andre Kimo Stone Guess, president and CEO of the August Wilson Center, said its expenses contain nearly $1 million for depreciation, an item that doesn't cost the center anything. Recalling the $1.5 million deficit in 2010, Guess said the center improved its finances by $1.2 million.

"I'm very proud of our results in '11," he said. Removing depreciation, "we balanced our books and put us in a stronger position to move toward sustainability and long-term viability."

Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the group of suburban libraries, said the group operates on a calendar year and many of its grants come during a different fiscal cycle, which obscures its financial picture.

Some groups such as City Theatre and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which experienced financial problems in the past, enjoyed surpluses. City Theatre finished the year $382,485 in the black and the Carnegie Library, $65,608.

"We are really pleased to be starting the year on better financial footing than we have in many years, but there is still a lot of work to do," said Karlyn Voss, director of external and governmental affairs for the Carnegie Library.

She said table game revenue from casinos and fundraising that exceeded expectations fueled the surplus. This marked the first year the system raised more than $1 million for operations from individuals, corporations, foundations and other groups.

In November, city voters approved a 0.25-mill real estate tax dedicated to operating the Carnegie Library. Officials expect that to generate $3.25 million a year.

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