As new year starts for arts groups, a backstage look at CMT’s finances gives cause for worry — and optimism
KC. Rutiaga of Children’s Musical Theaterworks received some good news last week. She learned that the non-profit theater company, which has been struggling financially during the pandemic along with most other arts organizations, nabbed a $13,500 grant from the City of Fresno. The money was part of more than $1.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funding under the CARES Act that went to local arts groups and artists.
Funny story: Rutiaga, CMT’s board president, didn’t find out about the grant until she read about it in the Fresno Bee. The email from the Fresno Arts Council announcing the news wound up in a spam folder. Oh, and she found out on Christmas Eve, which added to the “sudden bonanza” feel.
“So very exciting!” she texted me. “Merry Christmas!”
So, yes, the holiday season deserves an exclamation point of positivity for local arts groups, even though they can still use all the help they can get. Although pandemic news is still dire, the government good news came in a clump of three:
1) The local CARES Act dollars (which is different from the recently enacted federal stimulus act) went to 146 local artists and 46 arts institutions. (Full disclosure: I was one of those recipients, having been given a $2,500 award.) You can look at the complete list in the Bee article. The Top 7 institutions by amount received:
• Arte Americas: $82,500
• Fresno Art Museum: $79,706
• Fresno Discovery Center; Fresno Philharmonic; The Fresno County Historical Museum; Youth Orchestras of Fresno: $66,000
• Good Company Players: $56,000
2) The comatose Measure P (the 2018 parks and arts sales-tax initiative) is registering much better vital signs these days — and is, perhaps, this close to being able to run the loop at Woodward Park without breaking a sweat. An appeals court struck down the two-thirds threshold required for passage. The initiative — which was approved by 52% of voters — will take effect if the California Supreme Court upholds the ruling (or refuses to hear the case). If that happens, Fresno’s cultural scene could be funded to the tune of $4 million a year.
3. The federal stimulus act contains $15 billion in Covid-relief funds specifically for the entertainment industry and the arts. President Trump delayed signing the bill into law, but his eventual approval set things in motion.
Still, government funding isn’t enough. CMT’s finances are wobbly. Its story is similar, I suspect, to most arts groups in the greater Fresno area (and the nation). Rutiaga agreed to give a backstage look at CMT’s financial year. Given the challenges of 2020, it’s fitting that the first arts news story I post in the new year is about money struggles.
“It has been tough,” Rutiaga says.
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CMT relies on its summer season for the bulk of its annual income. That makes sense because it’s when children are out of school. Some of the productions have 100 children or more. (All CMT participants pay tuition. Some shows sell out the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Although the company does a big holiday show (often an all-ages community production) and has a spring offering, the summer season is critical.
The pandemic changed all that, of course. The company had planned to offer productions of “Les Miserables: School Edition” and “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” (“Les Miz,” in particular, is an immensely popular show in terms of performer interest and ticket sales.) After it became apparent that the pandemic would wipe out not only the summer lineup but also the holiday performance slot — which was supposed to be the all-ages musical “Matilda,” directed by Julie Lucido — CMT scrambled financially. The year has resulted in an 84% loss of income compared to prior years, Rutiaga says, “even though we adapted to other means of income such as small classes on Zoom.”
Drilling down into the books a little, average monthly income March through September of 2019 was $25,000. For the same period in 2020, that figure was $4,000. That’s a drop from $125,000 to $25,000.
Then came a bit of a scare.
For several years, CMT has received an annual $15,000 donation during the summer from the Leon S. Peters Foundation. Last summer, the foundation increased that donation $25,000, which “was a huge blessing,” Rutiaga says. “This donation has been critical for us, as it always helped bridge the gap between what we made and what we needed to keep the curtain up.”
This summer, due to scheduling issues (and presumably the pandemic), the foundation board didn’t meet as planned, so the donations weren’t disbursed at the usual time, Rutiaga says.
“This was very difficult for us, because we do really rely on those funds. I got to work applying for all of the available grants that I could find.”
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Even with the financial challenges, Children’s Musical Theaterworks has managed to excel creatively during the pandemic. CMT was at the cutting-edge of the socially distant performance genre in July with “Music in a Climate of Change,” a cabaret-style production presented by nine masked actors. Eyebrows in the arts community might have been raised at the thought of a live stage production, indoors, with an audience, even if everyone was masked and at least 6 feet apart, but CMT’s safety protocols were scrupulous, including individual cubbies for each actor (to avoid cross-contamination), rehearsals in segregated “pods” and lots of hand washing and disinfecting. (This was before COVID-19 tests were readily available.)
Directed by Catriona Fray and with acting direction by Julie Lucido, the cabaret was the first time in months I got to applaud a live performance with other people. (Now it’s been so long I barely remember how.)
Keeping performance alive, whether live or by Zoom, is something that Lucido, a self-described “Non-stop Type A theater lover,” has been prodigiously exploring during the pandemic. She is president of the Junior Company Foundation and UR Here, a newly established local theater company with big plans, and creator of the invitation-only Backyard Readers Theatre Lab, which has allowed local actors to keep up their craft in an outdoors, socially distant environment.
Lucido’s upcoming big project with CMT is directing a fully staged, socially distant production of “Matilda.” It’s been bumped several times from its original December date and is now scheduled to run April 30-May 9 in the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Lucido has put enough planning into the endeavor to invade a small country; she oversees an operation that includes 10 on-site staff members (separate stage managers for separate casts), 58 kid cast members, and 19 adult cast members. The cast members rehearse in small pods. Blocking, including choreography, is socially distanced. If regulations require it at the time, performers will be masked during performance.
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“The job of scheduling in pods with very little to no mixing was daunting, but Julie did it successfully,” Rutiaga says. “Rehearsals began (in person) in October, with small pods meeting and rarely intermingling with other pods. This kept our potential for Covid spread very low.”
For now, with Fresno County in the most restrictive COVID tier, all rehearsals are on Zoom.
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Rutiaga’s effort to find alternate grants for CMT paid off later in the year. The company received a Fresno Arts Council Safety Fund grant for $500, which went toward set-storage rent and other overhead expenses; and a $5,000 grant from the Clovis Community Foundation. (CMT’s rehearsal space is in Clovis.) Another longtime supporter, The Bonner Family Foundation, once again came through with a generous matching grant in December.
In the meantime, delayed word arrived — by snail mail — that the Peters donation did, indeed, come through. (Judy Stene, CMT’s executive director, who had been out of town visiting family, didn’t learn the news until she was able to physically make it to the post office. You might say that CMT hasn’t had the best of luck this year learning about important grants.)
“The good news outweighs the bad, Rutiaga says. “Between these three donations, CMT is able to survive another year.”
Yet there’s a difference between survival and flourishing, which is why she is hoping that as 2021 unfolds, more donations materialize. One way people can help is to buy season tickets. A good way to boost the company’s cash flow and make an investment in live, local theater for young people: Buy season tickets.
Because “we will have a season,” Rutiaga says.
I like that confidence.
Thank you, Donald. It’s gratifying to start the year with good news, even though we must stay vigilant and supportive. This just may be the year for significant resurrection of the arts here! Lots of exciting possibilities!