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Are donations to Richmond's arts organizations suffering in the wake of Sept. 11? 

The Season of Giving

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Graham Sellors, director of development for TheatreVirginia, certainly didn't wonder, "Where does this leave the theater?"

But the aftermath of the attacks has created a quandary for those who raise money for Richmond arts organizations: How do you appeal for vital donations when people are being asked to give generously to the disaster relief effort? Perhaps a pricklier question: With so much money flowing to relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, are people giving less to their favorite Richmond arts groups?

"I think that the entire nonprofit sector is in for challenging times in the aftermath of Sept. 11," says Bruce Miller, artistic director for Theater IV and the Barksdale Theater. "The Greater Richmond population, along with the population of most of our nation, has been extremely generous, as we should be, in addressing the needs of those most directly affected by the terrorists."

"The consequence of that," Miller adds, "is there is less money available from the giving community to support other worthy initiatives. All of us understand this, all of us respect it, and all of us are trying to find creative ways to expand community support overall so that our organizations don't fall victim to the disaster of Sept. 11."

There's no question that Miller and other arts groups are at least worried about a decline in donations post-Sept. 11. Miller says gifts to Theater IV and the Barksdale have fallen 25 to 30 percent.

"We have been hearing nationally that some arts organizations have begun to be affected both in corporate donations and individual donations," says Stephanie Micas, executive director for The Arts Council of Richmond. "We haven't felt anything yet, because most arts organizations are just beginning their annual campaigns. I think we will know more in January … but we were beginning to hear of a decline in corporate giving even before 9-11."

Like so many other arts groups, TheatreVirginia is in the midst of its annual fund-raising campaign. Appeal letters were ready to go out to potential donors just weeks after Sept. 11. Sellors and the theater's governing board discussed whether sending them out would be appropriate. They decided to make some changes, Sellors says.

"We changed the letter and mentioned the tragedy," he says, "but we also said we had to raise the money, we had to continue, and to do that, we had to have everyone's support" in order to reach the theater's $1.2 million goal for the year. "That's important," he says, "without taking away from those groups that raise money to help those affected by the tragedy. But if these arts groups don't get money, they can't exist."

Pete Wagner, vice president for development at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, says it's too soon to tell whether the push for relief effort donations will affect the museum's $1.7 million fund-raising goal.

"I don't think it's a question of giving to the Red Cross or to the museum," Wagner says. "We're generous people. Hopefully, these series of events will stretch our generosity rather than limit it."

Like Sellors, Wagner sent out appeal letters that tackled the impact of the terrorist attack head-on. "We said, 'This is a difficult letter to write; we are in new circumstances,'" Wagner says. "Initially, you have to acknowledge the fact that these are different times."

The Richmond Symphony also began its gift campaign in the weeks after the terrorist attacks. So far, donations toward a $1.4 million goal have been steady, says Kathryn Fessler, the symphony's development director.

"Our donors are returning, and they're being generous," Fessler says. "Yes, 9-11 has affected a trend that had already established itself in this area with more modest returns than we had been having. It's hard to differentiate any reticence .… Are they holding back because they gave money to the Red Cross, or in general, because there's a feeling of less confidence in their overall [financial] standing and they're less free to give?"

Any potential decline in donations comes at a bad time for arts organizations in Richmond. Not only is the economic slump giving donors pause, but arts groups lost substantial and traditional taxpayer support when Virginia legislators couldn't reach a deal on the state budget earlier this year. Along with the flight of large corporate donors, the Sept. 11 tragedy added to what Miller calls a "four-point punch" to Richmond arts groups.

"Of the money out there to give," Miller says, "so much of it has been spoken for. I want to be certain arts organizations don't come across as whiners, because we are all joined hand-in-hand in our determination to combat economic repercussions, and we're more than willing to do our part.

"There's not a single arts organization that couldn't address the entire financial challenge if everyone in the Greater Richmond area would just step up and contribute a small amount to the arts organizations of importance to them."

Even if they're hesitating to open their wallets for the arts, people aren't staying away from the theater and the symphony. TheatreVirginia's "Bubbling Brown Sugar" sold out during its 10-day run, Sellors says. At the symphony, attendance has been on track since Sept. 11, says Bruce Cauthen, organization's marketing director. "From a ticket-sales perspective, we've been encouraged," he says. "We're going to our art and experiencing it with other people. It's communal in that experience, listening to music to ennoble your soul. … It gives you that sense of being part of a larger community and you're not facing all of these things by yourself."

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