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financing the arts:

Recession puts crimp on culture

Facing budget squeeze, Philharmonic considers canceling youth program


Leila Navidi

The Las Vegas Philharmonic’s bass section rehearses last year in a session led by music director David Itkin at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall.

Fri, Dec 5, 2008 (2 a.m.)

The Las Vegas Philharmonic is the second Las Vegas cultural institution to face serious challenges because of the nation’s economic crisis.

Its holiday programs will go on as planned but unless the orchestra finds additional funding it may cancel its popular youth concert series.

The economic problems began this summer when corporate sponsorships were seriously cut, sources say. Revenue was lost when the Fourth of July concert brought in half of its usual crowd of 3,000.

Across town, the Las Vegas Art Museum held a special board meeting Tuesday and drastically reduced its budget, causing its executive director to resign.

Board members of Las Vegas Philharmonic have been discussing a bailout to meet its $1.7 million budget. Board President Barbara Woollen has offered to make a sizable donation if other board members agree to contribute.

Keith Neel, who was the orchestra’s director of operations and special events, was let go.

Jeri Crawford, vice president of the board and longtime donor to the Philharmonic, says there is no need for alarm. “Everything is on track,” she said. “There have been no official cancellations of anything.”

Peter Aaronson, the orchestra’s new executive director, confirmed the orchestra’s youth series is at risk of being canceled.

The Youth Concerts in January cost more than $75,000 and serve about 18,000 fourth and fifth grade students in the Clark County School District. The Las Vegas Philharmonic performs for the students in UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall.

Richard McGee, the orchestra’s associate conductor, organizes the educational programs. Part of McGee’s agenda is to inspire students, who have the option to play an instrument in sixth grade. The program, a partnership with the School District, is so popular that it has to turn away students, most of whom have never been to classical music concerts.

The orchestra is “acting responsibly by cutting costs, eliminating unnecessary expenditures and in turn, expanding the responsibilities of our current executive staff in the most efficient way possible,” Aaronson said. But the orchestra still needs financial backing from the community.

The 10-year-old orchestra had been soaring in the past few years. After founding musical director Hal Weller stepped down, the board and musicians selected the vibrant and scholarly David Itkin as music director.

Itkin, who leads the Arkansas Symphony, intended to move to Las Vegas this year, but was appointed director of orchestral studies for the prestigious music program at the University of North Texas. He now lives in Dallas. He also heads the Abilene Philharmonic and the University of North Texas Symphony.

The Las Vegas Philharmonic has been working to double its budget, expand programs and build an endowment. Those measures would help it prepare for its move to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, scheduled to be completed in 2011.

All of this has been taking place as the orchestra is sounding better than ever, offering stellar performances and high-quality programming.

Frank Leone, president of the local musicians union, who heard the Philharmonic is having financial challenges, said it would be terrible to see this orchestra grind to a halt. “This orchestra has come so far,” he said.

Orchestras throughout the country are worried, he said. “The arts in America rely on board members who can contribute. In times of economic crisis, there are people who have withdrawn or reduced their ability to contribute.”

The Las Vegas Philharmonic faced other struggles this year with infighting on the board over the summer and musicians’ chiming in with concerns over how the orchestra is being operated. Sources said those problems have been resolved. Now the group is doing what it can to stay afloat in this economy.

“We have our challenges as are lots and lots of organizations throughout the country,” Itkin said. “The board and others in the community are coming forward to help. We’re going to have meetings as everybody is having to make sure we are properly responding to the problems.”

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