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Region's arts season defies economic chill

The credit markets may be in a state of collapse, the Dow convulsing, and factory orders in sharp decline. But by one important measure, there's a sector of the economy that's pumping along just fine: the arts in Philadelphia.

The Brandywine River Museum says its Christmas exhibitis as popular as last year's.
The Brandywine River Museum says its Christmas exhibitis as popular as last year's.Read more

The credit markets may be in a state of collapse, the Dow convulsing, and factory orders in sharp decline. But by one important measure, there's a sector of the economy that's pumping along just fine: the arts in Philadelphia.

Bucking trends in consumer spending, holiday-season shows here are selling out.

The Arden Theatre Company has a hit on its hands with

James and the Giant Peach

. The family-friendly show, which doesn't even start previews for its two-month run until Wednesday, is on track to become one of Arden's biggest draws ever.

The Philadelphia Orchestra expects its


to sell out. Three of Philly Pops' 10 holiday shows are sold out. Ditto Anonymous 4's annual holiday pilgrimage for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and two of Piffaro's four "Christmas in Renaissance France" performances.

In fact, even as some organizations report declining donations, a sampling of 20 groups in the region puts ticket sales generally ahead - in some cases way ahead - of last year.

And while this bright spot might be fleeting, it comes at an especially critical period. Orchestras, ballet troupes, theater companies, and other cultural organizations pay for large portions of their annual budgets with their



Snow Queens

and Yuletide Tours. Pennsylvania Ballet's

The Nutcracker

, for instance, accounts for 51 percent of the company's annual ticket revenue.

So when the economy headed seriously south just as groups were rolling out holiday tickets, an anxiety attack gripped the arts community. Now the receipts are coming in, and the effect on ticket sales in the Philadelphia arts world appears to be nil.

In other U.S. markets, early results for holiday shows are more depressed than not. Target Resource Group, a national arts consultancy, is tracking the holiday ticket sales of two dozen groups. Sixty percent are lagging behind sales goals, with the rest slightly ahead.

"The situation seems to change daily with headlines in the news," said Joanne Steller, a TRG vice president whose clients include orchestras, dance companies and theatrical groups in the United States and Canada.

"Coming into the holiday period we were feeling pretty encouraged, and even in some markets in the Midwest, where we have clients in industrial economies, early sales were pacing pretty well.

"Then, right around Nov. 1, right around the election, when the economic news continued to get worse . . . we saw a lot of organizations where pacing stagnated and then began falling behind."

Steller attributed the healthy sales in Philadelphia to a "robust arts community" with diverse offerings, and to astute arts professionals here who responded to challenges they saw coming early.

While the Pennsylvania Ballet reduced the average cost of a ticket by $3 to boost sales on Cyber Monday last week, no arts group surveyed has slashed its prices with the kinds of deep discounts to which retailers are resorting.

Moreover, one of the ballet's more expensive packages - an $85 to $100 ticket that includes tea and sandwiches with the Mouse King or Sugar Plum Fairy before a performance - has sold twice as well as it did last year.

"People still want to make sure their children have great holiday experiences," said Shawn D. Stone, the ballet's marketing director.

"I read that during the Depression people gravitated toward those things that brought them close to the important stuff in life . . . and I think the arts are part of that," said J. Edward Cambron, Philadelphia Orchestra marketing vice president.

"After 9/11 we had one of our largest Christmases ever, which we attributed to people not wanting to travel," said Patricia Evans, spokeswoman for Longwood Gardens, which expects to top last year's attendance of 200,000 holiday visitors.

Yuletide Tour numbers at Winterthur are slightly behind the rate a year ago but are expected to catch up to the 20,000 visitors of 2007, "which was a very good year for us," spokeswoman Victoria T. Saltzman said.

"A Brandywine Christmas" at the Brandywine River Museum, an exhibition that includes snowy-scene paintings by N.C. Wyeth, a Victorian dollhouse, and model trains, is "on par" with last year, a spokeswoman said.

Though the Kimmel Center has no year-to-year holiday offerings that would indicate sales trends, marketing chief Charles Croce said holiday-season shows such as

Legally Blonde


A Chorus Line

were selling pretty much as usual.

"The Chronicles of Narnia" show at the Franklin Institute is meeting attendance goals, though officials declined to release specific figures. Though not holiday-themed, "Narnia" straddles Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas and offers a vaguely winter-wonderland immersive experience - and the power of experience is one of the concepts many groups have embraced.

Piffaro's Christmas concerts - which bring in more than a third of its annual ticket revenue - weave in more than just music. The concerts, based on a 16th-century manuscript, will also feature singers, actors and dancing.

"All of Piffaro's concerts try to put the music into context, so they are not so much scholarly [as] having people experiencing what it might have felt like to have heard the music at the time," administrative director Matthew Smith-Soley said.

The full impact of the economy on holiday tickets won't be known for weeks, and many groups say year-to-date statistics are less meaningful because ticket buyers are waiting longer than ever to act.

Before Thanksgiving, Rebecca Bolden, executive director of the Philadelphia Singers, was growing nervous. But last week, sales picked up for the group's "Christmas on Logan Square" concerts this weekend.

"Over the past few years people are more last-minute, and we tend to see a lot of volume the week prior to a concert. I think we'll do a very healthy walk-up business," she said.

Last-minute buying is one trend that Philadelphia shares with the nation, but many arts leaders were surprised to learn that in holiday ticket sales, the region is firmly in the smaller pack of markets doing paricularly well.

"It's an expression of the strength of arts and culture in Philadelphia. In good times or bad, the arts are something people turn to at the holidays," arts consultant Steller said. "All I can say is: Gotta love Philadelphia."