Long-standing community arts organizations like PASA are adapting to Lafayette’s evolving cultural landscape with a ‘less is more’ approach.
By Heather Miller
As the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana wraps up its 23rd season of world-class performances and community outreach programs, the local nonprofit arts group finds itself at a turning point. Though donations and fundraising efforts have increased, ticket sales this year have been declining. It’s a reality that board members and PASA Executive Director Shanna Higginbotham attribute to the ever-changing and rapidly growing performing arts scene in Lafayette, where arts patrons can choose from 125 performances a year at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, multiple showings from Acadiana Symphony Orchestra and a slew of smaller stages like Cité des Arts, Theatre 810 and more.
But in a city that’s famed for all things culture, a rise in performance venues and cultural outlets is no surprise, nor is it a deterrent for the arts groups that co-exist amid Lafayette’s performing arts landscape. Like any product or business, Higginbotham says, you must evolve to survive.
“Some would say there is too much going on in Lafayette,” says Acadiana Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Jenny Krueger. “In some cases I would have to agree. As much as I would love to be able to attend everything that is happening in Lafayette, my energy and/or my pocketbook won’t allow me the freedom.”
Coupled with the feedback PASA sought from the community it serves, the increased options in performing arts have prompted a new direction for the organization, which has fewer performances in store for next season and a search for a new leader starting soon. Higginbotham is slated to leave the organization at the end of June.
“The direction we’re going to take is less is more, not more is more,” Higginbotham says. “Our community is sometimes confused on what PASA does. Opera, dramatic theater, ballet, classical musicians — we bring world-class performing arts, not big name appeal but huge in the performing arts world. But that’s going to change. Our shows next year will not be such a niche market. They’ll have more mass appeal.”
The current PASA season ends in May with the conclusion of PASA’s singer/songwriter series at AcA, bringing the total number of PASA performances to 11 — five more shows than PASA has traditionally presented, Higginbotham says. Next year’s PASA season will include four performances at the Heymann Center, one special event at an undetermined venue and PASA’s singer/songwriter series at AcA.
With fewer performances and a new model ahead, Higginbotham, who says she was hired to examine PASA’s overall state and “poke holes in how we do business,” has laid off two full-time employees and a part-time staffer.
“With all three of them, they knew for some time that it might happen. They knew there was re-organization taking place,” Higginbotham says. “They all know they can reapply. It was not a burnt bridge by any stretch of the imagination. I recommended that the new person look at next season and the needs of our staff. As we have ‘less is more,’ we may not need as much of a staff that we’ve had this past year. Summer is the perfect time to bring in a new executive director and hire the staff back. The executive director will get to pick what types of positions he or she wants to support the mission.”
The growing number of theaters and arts groups has also brought with it an awareness and collaboration from the arts community that many say has been largely nonexistent before. City officials have been coming together with nonprofit performing arts groups for discussions on partnerships and other ways to stretch resources and make the most of what everyone brings to the table. PASA board president Dr. Ronnie Daigle says similar arts coalitions in the private sector are also in the works.
“I believe that some consolidation of organizations, some coming together as a consortium will be inevitable and beneficial for all — concentrating resources and streamlining cost,” says AcA Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann. “As a community we should look at the creation of a cultural campus, perhaps including a smart replacement for the aging Heymann Center. All arts nonprofits are experiencing lean times, and we have to constantly reinvent ourselves to stay relevant. I believe that’s not all together a bad thing. AcA is no different: Our new facility is a great asset but also a big liability. We need to raise [$1 million] every year just for basic staffing and overhead, and only one-third of this comes from public sources. In the end it is always about understanding your community’s need and producing quality programs to serve that need.”
Former PASA Executive Director Jackie Lyle, who served in her PASA leadership role from the group’s inception until her departure at the end of 2010, believes “there can never be too much” when it comes to performing arts in Acadiana, but as the scene changes, so must the “unsung heroes” who work to bring performing arts to the Hub City.
“Look at what’s going on with local theater, then music, resources of performing arts academies, resources of the university,” Lyle says. “There’s strength in collaboration, and out of it comes new creativity and new models for distributing a product. If we can find everybody at the table and find the strengths, then we can maximize our purpose.”
For Higginbotham, the coalitions of arts groups offer a way “to figure out how we can all play nice in the sandbox.”
“We’re all so important. These conversations are important,” Higginbotham says. “We have to make sure we have world-class performances, and a symphony, and the AcA. If any of us went away, the community would feel it.”
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