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Will Dance for Food

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Local arts groups received unwelcome financial news in December when the ArtsFund offered a dreary forecast for the second half of the fiscal year. Last year the fund raised roughly $420,000 for its 15 member groups. This time it may be closer to $340,000 when the fiscal year ends June 30 -- a 20 percent drop.

The ArtsFund raises corporate money exclusively for operating budgets — electric bills, roof repairs — for affiliated arts groups. ArtsFund members include many of the major arts and cultural groups in Richmond, including the Richmond Symphony, the Virginia Opera and the Richmond Ballet — "SOBs" to insiders.

"We're hearing from corporate donors that their gifts may be smaller this year," says Larry Moffett, the unpaid, interim president of the Arts Council, which oversees the fund.

Even in a good year, distributions from the fund represent only a small fraction of any group's budget, but arts-related nonprofits must constantly juggle long-term programming with uncertain fundraising.

It's too early to tell how the anticipated shortfall will affect individual groups, but a low payout from the fund limits their options for drawing makeup money. As a condition of joining the fund, the arts groups agree not to approach the same corporations and ask for money separately.

This recent development comes as the latest in a series of financial disappointments for the arts. In December, Gov. Tim Kaine revealed that his budget contains no arts money in 2008 and only names a few groups to receive cash in 2009. Wachovia Securities announced in August its plan to move its headquarters to St. Louis, an even more troubling development for arts fundraisers.

"One of our key corporate partners was Wachovia Securities," Moffett says. "Last year we had a very successful employee campaign there. This year, there's no employee campaign because their employee base all left."

Taking a hit in the workplace campaign sector is particularly disappointing. Unlike corporate donations that come from the company's budget or an affiliated foundation, employee fund drives come from bank tellers, janitors and the like who designate part of their paycheck to be withheld and donated, which companies often match. It's an example of something the fund can manage more effectively than individual arts groups can on their own.

"If the ArtsFund was going to bring new money, it was through employee campaigns," says the symphony's executive director, David Fisk, "and that has been the part that has been slower than hoped."

For the fund itself, it's another unsettling development after a fleeting discussion this summer about merging with the funding arm of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation's Richmond CenterStage.

David Fairchild, the chief executive of First Market Bank, serves as chairman of the ArtsFund board. He says though the projected dip is unfortunate, the money the groups got last year was still 60 percent more than they collectively attracted from corporate donors in 2002, before the fund started.

Grant Mudge, artistic director of the Richmond Shakespeare Theatre, says it's too early to be alarmed. "No one's trumpeting the death knell of the ArtsFund," he says, "but it's not quite meeting the goals. We're trying to help get its fire stoked."

Privately, some members of the ArtsFund are critical of the group's management, saying the projected shortfall may be a sign of poor leadership.

Despite the money troubles, many arts groups are having a banner year. The Richmond Ballet just finished the most-attended run of its new "Nutcracker" show. The Visual Arts Center opened its renovated facility in December, and the Richmond Shakespeare Festival launched a new youth outreach program, Will Power, last summer. Moffett is optimistic that the fundraising slowdown is just a hiccup.

"It's unfortunate," he says, "but it may be a fact of corporate life this year." S



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