Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL's gain is arts groups' pain

Walk-up attendances down with entertainment cash, time tighter

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All of Winnipeg's major arts organizations are suffering at the gate during the first fall season in 15 years to see the likes of opera, ballet and theatre face off against the National Hockey League.

In what's being described as an unprecedented situation, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Manitoba Opera, Winnipeg Art Gallery and Royal Winnipeg Ballet are experiencing disappointing fall seasons as walk-up attendance falls short of expectations.

While season subscription sales remain solid, arts administrators surmise it's no coincidence walk-up sales are down during a season when their organizations are suddenly competing with the Winnipeg Jets for a limited entertainment dollar as well as limited leisure time.

"Across the board, we've noticed drops in attendance," said Stephen Borys, executive director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, whose walk-up attendance is down more than 10 per cent this fall.

The WAG is not alone. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre saw a drop in sales of roughly 10 per cent for Grumpy Old Men, the opening performance of its 57th season, general manager Camilla Holland said. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's fall walkup is also down 10 per cent, said executive director Trudy Schroeder, while Manitoba Opera only sold slightly more than half the seats for the opening night of its season opener, Salome, said general director and CEO Larry Desrochers.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet also experienced a disappointing gate for Svengali, its season opener, the administrators said, although RWB executive director Jeff Herd could not be reached for comment.

While the arts administrators do not draw a direct correlation between soft sales and the return of the NHL, they said it would be foolish to ignore the attention devoted to the league's heavily anticipated return to a city desperate to watch hockey again.

"We're all thrilled the Winnipeg Jets are back, but the entertainment dollar is the entertainment dollar. There is only so much of it," said Manitoba Opera's Desrochers.

In addition to slow sales, his organization has lost at least one corporate sponsor who acknowledged it could not afford to support both the Jets and the opera, Desrochers said. Given the benefit of hindsight, he said he may have programmed a more commercial and less challenging work than Salome, whose central plot element involves a decapitation, as a season opener this fall, despite the production's critical acclaim.

At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, sales of season-ticket packages were strong until the end of May, when True North Sports & Entertainment announced the NHL would return this fall, Schroeder said.

"There's a very positive mood in the community and that's a wonderful thing. But there's that law of physics: For every action, there's an opposite reaction," she said. "We have felt a certain amount of community attention has gone in other directions, both in terms of corporate contributions and ticket sales."

In the WSO's case, a 10 per cent drop in sales amounts to approximately $100,000 worth of revenue, said Schroeder. But the financial considerations of attending both an arts performance and NHL game may not be the only factor at play this season.

Rather, given the choice between attending the arts and watching hockey -- either on TV or at the MTS Centre -- consumers are choosing the new game in town.

"In a town of 700,000, you're not going to have a great divide between sports and entertainment fans," said Holland at the RMTC. "The Jets are a real energy focus in the town right now. We have a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of press focus and that's understandable, given how much this town wanted them to come back."

The NHL team acknowledges the effect it's having on the arts in Winnipeg, although more in terms of competing for leisure time.

"There's a time pressure you can't deny. People have an offering now that wasn't there before," said Kevin Donnelly, True North's vice-president and general manager.

"I've personally had the challenge of 'Do I stay at home and watch the remainder of a very exciting Boston-Winnipeg game or do I use my MTC tickets for Saturday night?' " he said. "If you're wondering, I went to the theatre."

Donnelly surmised arts organizations will make some form of adjustment, in terms of programming or marketing. Schroeder agreed, noting fans are just getting used to the Jets being back in town and may need to be reminded of Winnipeg's unusual status as a medium-sized city with a 67-member orchestra as well as professional ballet, theatre and opera companies.

All the major arts organizations have recognized the challenge of competing in a Winnipeg market that includes the NHL, Holland added.

"We're working as a group to ensure we're still on people's radar," she said. "What the arts offers people is not dissimilar to what's offered at a hockey game: You are transported in time to a wonderful place."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2011 A4

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