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Audiences used to pack Gillette’s Cam-Plex Heritage Center for the Powder River Symphony’s Christmas concert. A community choir performed in the lobby as the the crowd buzzed in anticipation of the orchestra’s most popular show of the year.

Last Christmas was different. From the stage, symphony director Norman Gamboa saw that about a third of the theater was empty as the orchestra played a live soundtrack to an animated Christmas film.

The atmosphere was festive, but not as joyful as previous years. During the intermission he mingled with concert-goers and noticed that people were more tense and reserved than usual.

“I think it’s because of that ongoing concern about the current economic climate in the city,” Gamboa said. “It was quite a different feel than it’s been in other times.”

The empty seats highlight how Wyoming’s economic downturn is affecting the arts in one of the state’s hardest-hit areas. The downturn may not be as visible in other places less dependent on the energy industry, but many art organizations are bracing for leaner times as funding dips.

Meanwhile, organizations are finding creative ways to draw audiences and generate the money needed to keep their operations going. They’re also urging continued support for the arts, reasoning that people now, more than ever, need entertainment and culture.

“Things might look a little grim right now, but the important thing is that a community should always have its identity, and of course, social programs are a top priority at this point,” Gamboa said. “But also, you don’t have people come to a city because they have perfectly paved streets. It is what it has to offer to its residents, and I think that arts are part of that identity that makes each community different.”

Tickets and money

Falling tickets sales are only one problem facing the Powder River Symphony as it prepares for its 30th season this fall. Grants and donations have been down for the past year, and the city of Gillette declined its usual funding for the first concert, Gamboa said.

Less money means the symphony is making do with about 19 fewer musicians this season. Several longtime concert-goers have told the director they can’t attend because of financial concerns, he said.

He knows some of them depend on the region’s struggling mining industry, which has shed more than 1,000 jobs this year. He’s given away tickets when he could.

One hundred thirty miles to the south, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra is enjoying a slight increase in ticket sales, said its executive director, Rachel Bailey. But the Casper-based symphony recently lost a couple of key sponsors, and a Wyoming Arts Council grant to support operating costs dropped by about half.

Bailey can’t be sure the economy is to blame for the lost sponsors. And it remains to be seen whether the downturn may affect the nonprofit’s fundraising and ticket sales this summer and fall, she said.

At risk are the symphony’s school and community programs, including the “Music on the Move” program that features interactive music demonstrations at schools.

“Those are things we try to do to give back the community that supports us, but those have the most impact in these down times,” Bailey said.

The symphony has weathered booms and busts for its first 66 seasons, though, and she’s confident the community will continue to support it.

“I truly believe now, more than before, people need to continue supporting what they love about Casper,” Bailey said. “I think it’s really important to have those things, especially in a downturn, because music and visual arts helps a lot with the anxieties or emotions people are going though if they are falling on hard times.”

The Nicolaysen Art Museum’s executive director, Mary Koernig, also has faith in Casper’s support though lean times. The Nic is one of Wyoming’s largest museums, serving as a cultural hub for artists, musicians and even the city’s Tuesday night summertime farmers market.

Still, the downturn threatens programs at the Nic. Layoffs would be likely if a grant supporting the museum’s partnership with the Natrona County School District’s Discover Program is cut significantly, Koernig said. The museum over the past year has experienced drops in grants and private donations, though a few strong donors remain.

“Everybody is kind of hunkering down and being very cautious right now, because there are so many unknowns,” Koernig said.

Cuts to the arts

As revenues from energy plunge, state leaders have been forced to make deep cuts to government agencies. The Wyoming Arts Council has not been immune.

The council, which distributes state and federal money to a variety of arts programs throughout Wyoming, suffered a 10.7 percent cut for the current two-year budget cycle. The Wyoming Legislature historically has supplied two-thirds of the council’s approximately $1.8 million budget, though the ratio is down a little because of the cuts. The rest comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the council’s director, Michael Lange said.

Many groups were disappointed when this year’s grants were announced last month, Lange said. They were smaller than normal.

Arts council grants can account for only 30 percent of an organization’s budget. But other funding sources – including other grants, private giving and corporate donations — also are down across the state.

“If you think of some of the major donors to the arts that have been in the extraction industry, many of them are hurting right now,” Lange said.

While cuts are unavoidable, art funding should not be disproportionately hit, he said. Cutting arts more than other areas is counterproductive to the state’s goals of diversifying its economy, attracting workers and preparing students, Lange said.

For example, studies show employers increasingly look for creativity, he said.

“They say one of the first things they’re looking for in an individual is their ability to think creatively about different subjects, and those skills are found inherent inside of the arts,” Lange said.

Arts also are a big part of tourism — Wyoming’s largest economic driver after the energy industries, he said. An Americans for the Arts study indicated people who travel for arts events are likely to spend almost twice as much as those who travel for other reasons, he said.

The council is stepping up efforts to help arts organizations grow through the downturn, including a pilot program that uses experienced leaders to mentor others, he said.

Moving forward

Wyoming’s arts community recovered from the Great Recession better than the nation as a whole, as measured by studies like the SMU Meadows School of the Arts’ National Center for Art Research Arts Vibrancy Index. Casper, Jackson, Sheridan, Cheyenne, Buffalo and Laramie are especially hot with a variety of activity, from theater groups to indie bands, arts advocate Bruce Richardson said.

Richardson has served on many local, state and national arts organization boards. He believes activities may cool as arts organizations feel the effects of the downturn, particularly in areas hardest hit by the energy slowdown, he said.

He’s optimistic, though, that organizations will find ways to survive — even with the down economy.

Many of the arts efforts in Wyoming run on donations of time and elbow grease, he said. Examples include volunteer efforts at Stage III Community Theatre in Casper, the Actors Mission in Rock Springs that puts on free plays or an international film festival a small group started in Lovell.

The success of many art organizations and projects has more to do with leadership, support and robust programming than booms and busts, he said.

“Why that is, I think, has to do partly with just the civic energy of the place,” he said. “There are people in these areas who want to make their towns more interesting.”

One way arts organizations are responding to the downturn is by finding creative ways to draw more audiences and funds. The Nicolaysen Art Museum’s efforts, for example, includes reinventing its winter Nic Fest as an affordable art event where vendors offer all items for $100 or less, Koernig said.

The Powder River Symphony hired a professional grant writer last year to find more funding sources outside Wyoming, Gamboa said. He’s also mixing the repertoire of its traditional classical musical to appeal to a wider audience. Upcoming shows include a sing-along “Messiah” and a silent film the symphony will accompany, he said.

Communities need the arts to hold them together, he said.

“I always say that Gillette has a privilege of having a city that is behind arts 100 percent,” Gamboa said. “There’s plenty of art everywhere you drive in Gillette, which is wonderful, and they’re always encouraging things to happen. There are all these things that make Gillette stand out from other communities, and I think it’s important for people to realize there are things to do in Gillette other than just go to work and go home.

“I think that’s the true soul of every community.”

Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @econner.

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