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Ruth Eckerd Hall casts wary eye on budget

Cautiously, ever so cautiously, officials of Ruth Eckerd Hall are raising a financial warning flag over the 12-year-old performing arts center.

Stressing that "this is not a Florida Orchestra situation," executive director Nancy Sullivan Skinner sounded a low-key alarm about the hall's finances in an interview. (The Florida Orchestra has struggled, successfully, to balance its budget in the last two seasons.)

"The message here is that we're not immune (to financial problems), that we have needs, too, and the community needs to know that," Skinner said.

Today, Ruth Eckerd Hall announces the first half of its 1996-97 season schedule. Highlights include the Mark Morris Dance Group, an ensemble from the Paris Opera Ballet, Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing, and performances by Stanley Clarke and Sammy Kershaw.

It's the kind of something-for-everyone schedule to which patrons have become accustomed. However, the eclectic nature of the lineup may contribute to some of the problems emerging in the hall's financial picture. Skinner, executive director for a little over a year, was hired, in large part, to rethink the mix of presentations. Her aim is to hold onto the traditional audience while also attracting younger people to the hall.

"We have a core audience that is maturing," she said. "How do we replace that audience as it moves on? That's our challenge."

In the meantime, a number of financial issues are of concern to officials of the hall, which reported balanced budgets in the last six seasons.

Last season's ticket sales were "softer" than in the past _ from 10 to 15 percent off projections. As a result, Skinner said, "We have had to go back to our supporters and ask them for additional funding for this year. They have been forthcoming, and I'm projecting we're going to end the year in the black." The hall, with a budget of $8-million, closes its fiscal year Sept. 30.

Hall patrons last season raised "a hue and cry," Skinner said, over being charged for parking for the first time, a $3 fee. Also last season, the basic membership fee, which provides priority ticket ordering, was increased from $25 to $35. "We decided to take our lumps all at once," she said.

Ruth Eckerd Hall's arts grant from the state is being cut by as much as two-thirds, from $350,000 a year over the last three years to what Skinner estimates will be no more than $130,000 a year in the next three years. The reason: More performing arts centers are included in the next round of funding from the state's Cultural Institutions Program, but the amount of money in the program has not increased.

The hall is asking the Clearwater City Commission for $2-million from the city's share of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The money would be part of a $12.9-million expansion and renovation plan over the next decade.

Then there is the annual appropriation of $400,000 from Clearwater to the hall. Christian Coalition members threatened to challenge the appropriation in protest of Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS play presented last December. "I'm not going to tell you I'm not concerned, but my sources tell me that $400,000 is secure," Skinner said.

An ongoing concern is the stiff competition among Tampa Bay's three performing arts halls _ the others are Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in downtown Tampa and the Bayfront Center in downtown St. Petersburg. The competition is not just for ticket buyers, but also for what is presented onstage.

Exhibit A: Carousel, the acclaimed revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical now on national tour. The show was tentatively planned for Ruth Eckerd Hall as a centerpiece of its season, but it ended up at TBPAC instead. Judy Lisi, executive director of TBPAC, insisted that the dominant U.S. tour producer, Pace Theatrical Group, include the show in its Broadway series at the center. Carousel was switched from Clearwater to Tampa late in the scheduling process.

"I'm disappointed Carousel isn't coming to the hall," Skinner said. "It was headed here, but deals aren't done till they're done. We found out about it in rather circuitous fashion at the 11th hour, and we were very upset at the way we learned about it. Pace has tremendous buying power, and that makes it difficult for us on some shows."

What is Ruth Eckerd Hall doing to meet the financial concerns?

For one thing, Skinner has made top-level staff changes, bringing in new marketing and programing executives. The latest change was the departure of Thomas Giddens, the veteran development director who served as interim executive director. Giddens resigned to take a fund-raising post with the University of Tampa.

To hold down costs, the hall is booking somewhat fewer performances next season, about 10 or 15 fewer than in 1995-96. The Nutcracker by Miami City Ballet, for example, will be performed four times instead of six times over the holidays.

"We want people, in a sense, to compete for those seats, to make them more valuable by having fewer available," Skinner said.

There's a limit to how high ticket prices can go. The top ticket will be $75 for the Boston Symphony in March.

Skinner has a long-range planning study underway. She hopes to have the research completed soon. "I need it by the end of the calendar year, because that's when we begin booking for 1997-98," she said. "If there are going to be any shifts in strategy, then that's when we're going to have to start talking about them."