SPAC Holds True to Mission

Ever since the New York City Ballet christened the Saratoga Performing Arts Center amphitheater in July 1966 with a performance of George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the core mission of the center has remained unchanged.

SPAC, that pastoral venue in the middle of a state park, was created to promote and educate people about the performing arts, especially classical arts such as ballet, orchestra and opera.

The mission hasn’t changed, but the climate for classical arts appreciation has, with a shrinking and graying audience. That factor — and the faltering economy — has led to a malaise felt by arts organizations nationwide.

Still, SPAC perseveres. While SPAC is by no means flush, it managed to practically break even last year, putting it far above the panic mode and hemorrhaging many arts organizations have experienced in recent years. Administrators and program coordinators have focused on avoiding “mission creep,” the term for when a nonprofit has strayed from its mission.

“You have to have a balance between what you need to be and what you need to stay,” said Marcia White, president and executive director of SPAC. “It’s always been about world-quality art and about bringing families good value.”

Since the 1960s, SPAC has been the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This summer, the ballet will perform for two weeks, down from the usual three, because SPAC and City Ballet lost a combined $2.3 million on last year’s summer residency. The move to a two-week program is expected to reduce that deficit by approximately $800,000.

“If you don’t change, change happens to you. You have to be ahead of the curve, so that’s what we’re doing,” White said. “The quality of the programming we have this summer is incredible.”

It is a season punctuated by big names and familiar pieces. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma will headline SPAC’s Saratoga Chamber Music Festival; Alec Baldwin will narrate the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Aaron Copland’s 1942 work “Lincoln’s Portrait”; and there will be three performances of the full-length ballet “Coppelia,” which was partially commissioned by SPAC in 1974 and premiered on the main stage.

With ticket sales covering about 45 percent of programming costs, SPAC is dependent on its members and donors to keep the organization afloat.

“There’s a lot of public ignorance about how SPAC is supported. There is a public perception that if you go to a Dave Matthews concert, you are supporting SPAC, but that’s not the case,” said Sally King, a member of the SPAC Action Council. “If the ballet and orchestra are to survive, it has to be supported through its membership.”

According to White, membership is at about 3,000, down slightly from previous years.

“In this economy, people are often holding onto revenue and ordering tickets later and buying memberships later,” she said. “That’s why we announced this season that tickets will be available online electronically.”

So this year, SPAC has tried all sorts of new avenues to draw in crowds. They have a crew of interns hawking performances on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and are offering a 10 percent discount to members of all arts organizations.

“We have to be a part of the new technology age,” White said. “It’s the audience we’ve got to reach now.”

By some measures, it has worked. Jazz Fest tickets are selling twice as fast as they did last year, and the Yo-Yo Ma chamber performance has already sold out.

“We’re trying so hard to get kids here who would otherwise never hear this kind of music,” SPAC marketing director Shane Williams-Ness said.

Much of the losses of the ballet and orchestra are also offset by SPAC’s contract with Live Nation, which books all the rock and pop summer shows at the venue. The first one is Coldplay next Wednesday. Concertgoers often misunderstand the relationship between SPAC and Live Nation, or assume that SPAC puts on all the concerts itself. That can be a problem when audiences are upset with what they say are poorly controlled traffic and parking, an overcrowded lawn and exorbitant concession prices.

But since 1999, Live Nation has also delivered a minimum of $1 million a year to SPAC.

“It would be very difficult for us” without the partnership with Live Nation, White said. “We need them to fund our classical programming.”

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