Britt feels reality's bite

It's been a rough year for Southern Oregon nonprofits and maybe particularly for those whose mission is the arts. Now comes the news that Britt Festivals, the organization behind the annual summer-long music festival in Jacksonville, is hurting.

Attendance dropped 12 percent for the season that just ended, a reality that will have immediate consequences. Staff will go without compensation in December, and the organization will cancel its fall Listen Live tour, part of Britt's ongoing education program.

And that's probably not the end of the pain, say officials. They're clearly trying to reinvent their niche in the Southern Oregon arts scene.

"Are we going to shut the doors? Absolutely not. We're just trying to be creative about becoming sustainable," interim executive director Angela Warren said in a Mail Tribune story Thursday.

Warren offered quite a few suggestions about how that might happen: The organization will look at a smaller orchestra, more local acts and cheaper events such as this year's $8 movie night, put on with the Ashland Independent Film Festival. It will go after grants and other money in the community more aggressively, Warren said, and try to cut better deals with performers. It will try to book acts that appeal to different populations than Britt traditionally has drawn.

These all strike us as the right approach, but we think Britt could and should go even further in looking to reinvent itself. And we suspect that while Britt's immediate problems are a result of the region's trashed economy, longer-term issues also are contributing to its struggle.

The hill in Jacksonville is one of the most beautiful, satisfying concert venues in the region, a place fans speak of with reverence. They love the Britt hill, and they want to attend concerts there.

But the truth is that attendance has been trending downward at Britt since 2005, when it hit a peak of 80,500, even as the organization added a second venue at the county fairgrounds. This tells us that the economy isn't the whole story.

Our sense is that Britt needs to step back and thoroughly look at itself as others have done in recent years. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for example, now offers some $20 seats at most of its shows and a slew of community-education programs about its plays. It completely reinvented its pre-play Green Show a few years ago.

Some of our questions for Britt would be these: Can it do anything about ever-rising ticket prices? Can it achieve its mission — to bring performing arts to the valley — on a smaller scale, with a smaller paid staff or with a shorter season? Is $120,000 — the director's approximate salary as of 2008 — right for the organization? Is there an area of the arts into which Britt could branch profitably? Could it find a way to get last-minute tickets into the hands of would-be patrons cheaply, reducing its losses on shows that don't sell out? Can it find more opportunities to bring people to the site for free or for very little, so more people get hooked on the Britt experience? Can it do anything to improve the experience for those who already are fans?

Britt attributed part of this year's drop in attendance to issues outside its control: bad weather and a handful of concerts canceled by performers. That no doubt contributed to the final tally, but the truth is that a lot of how well Britt does in the future is firmly in its control — and, we believe, in its ability to recognize it may need to change to thrive.

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