EDITOR'S NOTE: This and another attached story concludes a three-story package examining the challenges and successes of Texarkana Regional Arts and Humanities Council's programs. Today's two stories explore TRAHC's way forward in reshaping operations and highlight the successes of TRAHC's educational programs, respectively. The main story explored the financial woes TRAHC has encountered in recent years with the series.
With the Texarkana Regional Arts and Humanities Council facing troubles with its Perot Theatre Series, organization officials acknowledge the time for change has arrived.
TRAHC's director and board say they are looking ahead for ways to retool how the series is shaped.
"The executive board met with Brian (Goesl, TRAHC executive director) and said, Brian, we're going to do something different. We can't sit there and lose money on these shows every time we put them around," TRAHC board president Ken Cowling said.
"I said you know, the main purpose of TRAHC is an educational concept to start with," Cowling said. Goesl said he's agreed that the Perot show lineup can't continue in the same way it has been.
TRAHC, says Cowling, is doing well with ArtsSmart, Arts on Main, spreading the idea of the arts across the schools. But they're "behind the gun" with series shows and TRAHC specials losing money like this.
"You can't continue the same route," Cowling said about the executive board discussion. They considered cutting shows out completely, but they opted instead to get a summer concert series going to help offset season losses. Country acts were lined up to perform.
It was moving forward positively, but TRAHC ultimately pulled the plug because they couldn't get the agency to commit. "We got within two weeks of the first concert we were going to have," Cowling said.
He said TRAHC's executive board and Goesl also instituted cost-saving measures to save nearly $50,000 in expenses for the rest of the financial year, which closes at the end of this month. They put a freeze on bonuses and travel.
"We decided the old Arts on Main building was in bad need of repair, so we decided to shut the Arts on Main building down and switch those classes to the RAC (Regional Arts Center) building in the basement," Cowling said.
The biggest expense Arts on Main needs is a roof, which would likely cost around $25,000 to $30,000, Cowling said. Part of the discussion, he explained, was whether TRAHC wants to put money into that — "and that only cures one of the ills."
What might TRAHC do with the building? Storage. Goesl actually co-owns an adjacent building with his wife. "That's an issue," Cowling said, but he doesn't think it's a conflict of interest. Goesl says water is coming from a different building next door through the Arts on Main wall. He said a goal is to gut Arts on Main and turn it into a more open space. Now it's all small classrooms.
Cost-cutting moves will also guide next year's thinking.
"At the same time we looked at next year," Cowling said. The same cost-cutting measures are being used for this coming financial year, he said, explaining these measures save an additional $65,000. Apart from any decisions on the series, the total savings should put TRAHC back on solid footing, the board director said.
Cowling puts the predicament this way: "It's kind of a scenario where you need series shows in order to sell memberships. But we can't keep losing money on series shows. That's the dilemma is how many shows." The executive board concluded that they needed to hold it to two or three shows.
"That's the plan," Cowling said. They'll have shows, but it won't be as many. They also won't spend "big money" on them.
"You can't bring in a $55,000 show. We just can't sell enough tickets, sell enough memberships, to pay for something like that," Cowling said about what was told to Goesl. So Perot shows will be cheaper to bring.
He said the board encouraged Goesl to talk with people in the community to mend fences if feelings are hurt. Some of the membership losses, said Cowling, are TRAHC's bigger donors.
"If there is a problem, then we need to see if we can solve that problem," he said.
Cowling said the way the bylaws read at TRAHC, the executive director "runs TRAHC entirely." "He books the shows, he hires people," he said, noting the board should be utilized to share responsibility if something goes wrong. But the board must be consulted and informed, he said.
"We came up with a revised set of rules and bylaws, and part of them are now on booking shows. Brian has to get approval from the executive board on his list of shows before he can actually sign a contract," Cowling said, but he added that it's not veto power. He said there's more accountability on issues like salary and raises. "That now has to be reported to the executive board."
Cowling said the board approached Goesl on how these issues could be addressed both short-term and long-term. About the TRAHC season selection, the board president said, "In defense of Brian, Brian tries to bring a well-rounded art education program to Texarkana." But Cowling says the bottom line is TRAHC needs to sell tickets.
"It really hasn't changed that much," Goesl said about his relationship to the board about the TRAHC Perot season. "I send emails out to people asking them about a show and what people think. And then those commitments are made and we discuss those with the board."
Goesl says in terms of advisory capacity, he has a list of 95 people he contacts about potential Perot shows. Then he presents information to the executive board. There's no other formal committee to work on series shows.
He said the board advises and that he presents what's available to them as possible Perot events. He said one person suggested the Whitney Houston tribute show last year wouldn't do well. "Everybody else said, that's a great show," Goesl said. It sold only 100 tickets.
Another factor with the Perot Theatre Series is the physical capacity of the Perot.
"We are extremely limited now as far as what kinds of shows we can bring in to the Perot Theatre because of our grid," Goesl said.
Show sets are heavier now. Even though TRAHC brought "Beauty and the Beast" here before, they can't do it again, he said. With a wooden grid, not a steel one, it puts too much weight on it. That means big Broadway shows can't come to the Perot until changes are made.
Then there's the role the Perot Theatre Series plays in membership. It's been what attract members, but if it's harder to get a big series together then getting people to buy memberships must change.
"Part of the thing is that we still have people who have been longtime members who are used to getting their seats," Goesl said.
Series tickets have declined, he said. "In past years, a 'series ticket' has been used as a tool to help reduce some of the risk, since it spreads those sales across multiple shows," he said.
Added to this mix is more competition, which isn't just arts agencies or performing arts venues; it's also casinos. "There's a huge amount of competition," Goesl said.
He said they're exploring big ticket country shows like the ones they envisioned, but which fell through, for this summer. They're looking at one possibly in January, but have to wait a couple months to confirm. That means it can't be part of the Perot Theatre Series. It may be a TRAHC special.
"This year it's like we've been snake bit," Goesl said.
They have, though, nailed down a few TRAHC 2019-2020 season shows with The Muses (an opera group returning to the Regional Arts Center in September), "Menopause the Musical" (February) and "Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular" (July).
"All of these shows are under $15,000," Goesl said. He calls it a significant reduction.
That's the plan moving forward: less expensive shows. The season may also have fewer series shows lined up ahead of time, and more specials added as they come in.
"We are actively looking for specials to add," Goesl said. "That's just a given." Specials can be advertised more easily with a big push right before the show, he said. TRAHC can also charge more per ticket with specials rather than a series show.
He said they're also promoting the Perot Theatre use for rentals more than ever. "We actually make money on our rentals," Goesl said.
In a sense, he said, by cutting back on the Perot Theatre Series this next year TRAHC will allow the shows to be more of a income generator while programs like ArtsSmart and the gallery bring the culture. He said for next year, the Perot series will be only 3% of the entire budget. Education takes on a more dominant role.
"When I came in, we saw these things happening, and the majority of what we do is educationally based now, whether it's ArtsSmart, whether it's Arts on Main, whether it's the ArtSpark, whether it's the outreach in partnering, the Pioneer Foundation, the Kennedy Center. Everything is educationally-based now. You can see this progression take place," Goesl said.
Goesl said 99% of the time, Party with Picassos funds are used for educational programming. An exception was $13,000 this year for a handicap-accessible ramp at the Arts Center.
In a limited survey to gauge perceptions of TRAHC, said Goesl, they discovered that people didn't understand what the education arm is doing in the community. "We sent it to all the members and we sent it to our educational folks," he said.
As part of retooling, TRAHC is looking at ways to change membership. "We started that in April, and we are changing the look of it," Goesl said, noting they're open to suggestions.
As for community input about what's included in the TRAHC Perot Theatre Series, he'd welcome more of it. "And more financial support from the community, more financial support from our board," Goesl said. "Yes, absolutely, because that's really what a board's responsibility is."
Travis Ransom, executive board member, said TRAHC has in the past reduced the number of Perot season events.
"That was a conscious effort to reduce the losses because we were losing our shirt on series shows," he said. As an arts organization, Texarkana is arguably operating in an "arts desert."
"This is not Dallas, this is not Little Rock," Ransom said. It's a smaller community, so TRAHC strives to bring arts to an area where it's not plentiful.
"If we wanted to make money, we would have Jeff Foxworthy, like the redneck comedy tour. We would have outlaw country. We would be competing with other venues like Scottie's or bars and places that have country music that's very popular with our constituency, because that's what the market wants," Ransom said. "But we're not there as an arts organization to really be a venue to please that market so much as we're an organization to promote and expose folks to the arts."
Some things are done for arts sake, he said, although they want events to break even. Some years, he said, they're at the whim of what's available in the marketplace that fits the budget and calendar.
"It's tough to do," Ransom said, noting as digital media becomes more available people are less likely to attend live shows. "Which is sad," he said.
He's been on the board a long time, he says, and board input on the Perot Theatre Series has "ebbed and flowed" over the years. "Different boards have had different dynamics," he said, noting a committee used to look at available touring shows and make recommendations.
About membership, he describes it as a slow downward spiral for years. "And that's troubling," Ransom said, noting a recommended staff and board retreat should discuss how to improve that situation. TRAHC has to appeal to a younger generation, he believes.
And about TRAHC's fiscal shape, Ransom said the executive board must hold Goesl accountable to this next year's budget. "And we need to ensure that we're refunding or paying back ourselves in those restricted funds," he said.
TRAHC's Don Morriss, another longtime board member, intends to leave the board, saying that he has other commitments and that it's time for fresh ideas to be brought forth there. But he's concerned.
"I am concerned that programming is not there, which will lead to fewer memberships, which will lead to continued financial problems, which is not good for the community. We need a strong Arts Council. We need a cultural support group that supports kids programming, if nothing else," Morriss said.
He suggests surveying membership and the community at large about Perot Theatre shows.
"And say, 'We need shows that will appeal to the community and will sell tickets,'" Morriss said. And as a byproduct of that, then get membership. Look for shows that at least break even, he suggests, if not make money.
TRAHC will never get big artists like Elton John or Paul McCartney, because they can't possibly earn that back in a 1,500-seat theater, he said. But they can scale it down to where they sell 75 % of house and budget about $40 a ticket, to be realistic, for a show that's $18,000 to $20,000 to bring in, he said.
How should TRAHC move forward? He suggests creative thinking and hard decisions must happen soon.
"I think probably the board and more importantly the executive committee needs to examine the future of the Perot Theatre performances and why we have fallen short and make some hard decisions," Morriss said.
Ransom would like the board and executive board to understand what they can contribute to TRAHC to make it a success going forward.
"On any nonprofit organization you have three types of people: You have people who pay for the door with their monetary contributions, you have people open the door with their social networks and you have people build the door with sweat equity and volunteer hours," Ransom said. "It takes all three types to make a successful organization."