Changes to the Script

Academy of Music, WGBY Collaborate to Improve the Big Picture
Rus Peotter and Andrew Crystal

Rus Peotter, left, general manager of WGBY, and Andrew Crystal, president of the Academy of Music’s board of directors, say the new partnership between the two entities will improve fundraising, marketing, and community outreach efforts.

Rus Peotter says that, from a technical standpoint, it’s a “short-term investment.”

But the $50,000 loan from WGBY, the Springfield-based public television station he manages, to the financially challenged Academy of Music in Northampton is something he believes will bring long-term benefits to those cultural institutions — and the communities they serve.

The loan, made possible by an extension of the so-called ‘digital deadline’ — the date by which all analog stations must make the transition to digital broadcasting — from 2006 to 2009, thus freeing up some cash for WGBY, is the linchpin of an intriguing collaborative effort between the two non-profit entities.

In a nutshell, the academy gains some financial stability in the form of cash to pay down some debt at a time when the 800-seat theater has cut back on its schedule of movie showings and is struggling to meet fundraising goals. The station, meanwhile, gains some rent-free office space at the academy, some event space there for up to 10 uses per year, also rent-free, and, in the process, a bigger presence in a community that sits at the center of its coverage area and represents the station’s most supportive region per capita.

“Many people think of us as a Springfield station instead of a regional station,” said Peotter, “and this is an opportunity to get in front of a larger number of people.”

Beyond the visibility, however, the collaborative effort gives WGBY a chance to improve the long-term health of two cultural entities, he said, adding that he and others and at the station view this as an investment well worth whatever risk may be involved.

“Collaboration is really important for non-profits today, and it’s one of the primary reasons for this alliance,” he said. “It’s a move that we hope will allow two cultural organizations to enhance their core missions by bringing on more resources and by adding some horsepower.”

Andrew Crystal, vice president of O’Connell Development in Holyoke and chairman of the academy’s board, agrees.

“Our board thought very carefully on this decision, and it was approved to move forward with the goal of becoming a more community-based arts venue,” he said, adding that the partnership, unique among non-profit agencies, represents an imaginative effort to advance common goals.

This issue, BusinessWest looks at how it came together, and what it means in terms of the big picture.

Staging a Comeback

The agreement comes a month after the academy, opened in 1891, announced it would end regular showings of films, timing that prompted many to wonder if the landmark would be closing its doors to the public altogether due to financial constraints.

But Crystal said the move was made to help create a firmer financial future for the theater as what he called a “cultural hub,” and in turn to better brand the academy as such.

Programming is still relatively robust at the theater; in the coming weeks, for instance, the theater will host the Pioneer Valley Ballet’s rendition of Cinderella and the Pioneer Valley School for Performing Arts’ spring musical, Little Shop of Horrors.

Films with a foreign, art, or independent thrust will also continue, but on a less frequent basis, said Crystal, including showings of the acclaimed British documentary Young at Heart this month. The Jewish Film Festival has also been scheduled at the Academy this month, as well as the Northampton Independent Film Festival in November.

Still, Crystal added that financial pressures are in fact a reality as the academy moves forward. Fundraising has long been a struggle for the theater, which is governed largely by an 11-person board of directors who volunteer their time.

“It’s partly a manpower issue, and partly perception,” he said. “Our board includes the mayor of Northampton and the president of Smith College — these are obviously people who have many other things to think about. Plus, people still think of us as a movie theater, and it’s hard to translate why we need to raise money.”

Because of those issues, Crystal said the academy failed to reach its most recent fundraising goal, set forth in 2005, to generate about $200,000 in unearned income, or a third of its operating budget.

“We raised about half of that last year,” he said. “The norm for a non-profit arts venue is to have about 30% to 40% of its budget represented by unearned income, and we have never come close to that.”

He said neither he nor his fellow board members saw the academy’s fundraising woes as prohibitive to moving forward with new plans, but understood that it was a problem that required some outside assistance.

The contractually specific agreement that came about with WGBY is not common to the non-profit sector, and Peotter said it’s a model he hopes will be examined by similar outfits across the country, and possibly emulated.

“When a community’s arts and culture organizations have so much common ground, as do those in this region, they’re less inclined to collaborate,” he explained. “People go after the same pieces of pie because they don’t believe that pie can be grown — but it can.”

Next-stage Development

An 11-page description of the agreement details its many aspects, including the alliance’s mission to allow both entities to “provide each other with increased opportunities to carry out their respective goals and objectives … thereby enhancing the ability of WGBY and the academy to carry out their respective charitable activities.” The agreement will remain in effect for five years.

With fundraising such a large part of that philanthropic picture, Crystal said talks with WGBY began revolving around that topic, but soon expanded to include many other concerns.

“Increased, effective fundraising was the need that initially jumped out at us,” he said, noting that the academy would like to reach that elusive $200,000 mark and also increase its annual operating budget by as much. “But as we spoke, we began to see many other opportunities.”

To foster those developments, a number of cooperative measures were put into place through the partnership’s formal agreement, the biggest being that $50,000 loan.

It was this bullet point on which Peotter said he received the most questions from his 36-person board of directors. However, he explained that the funds were available due to the postponement of the digital deadline, which requires that all analog televisions and, subsequently, analog programming be phased out of use. The three-year extension left the station with an unexpected amount of previously earmarked funds held in short-term securities.

“That’s where most of the questions centered,” he said, “and the other question I heard often was, ‘why Northampton?’”

The answer can be found by looking at a map detailing the station’s coverage area, and in those demographic stats on donations to the station per capita, he explained, noting that agreement between the entities allows the station to host a greater number of live screenings or fundraising events of its own.

“As a public television station, we have access to a number of independent films that we often like to premiere prior to broadcast,” he said. “But beyond that, this is an opportunity for a greater number of face-to-face events in more places than we already do.”

The accord also stipulates that WGBY provide fundraising assistance to the academy, including help with the establishment of annual fundraising plans, to be drafted in conjunction with the academy’s newly formed fundraising committee.

The partners’ first foray into this area has already begun — a grant application from the Academy to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which WGBY staff will assist in completing.

“That help will make for a more professionally prepared application,” Crystal said, “and in general I think it will strengthen our grant-writing capabilities.”
WGBY and the academy will also work to develop ‘co-branding’ opportunities, for the joint promotion of events and initiatives the two parties deem “consistent with their charitable purposes,” according to the formal agreement.

“The individual brands of both institutions are quite strong,” Crystal told BusinessWest.

“We each have a level of respect in the community,” he explained. “But through co-branding, fundraising, and promotion together, we can increase our visibility and the sense of goodwill we already generate separately.”

Waiting in the Wings?

As the partnership between the Academy of Music and WGBY moves forward, Peotter said he hopes to bring other cultural organizations on board — perhaps not to the same contractual degree, but in a way that creates a greater sense of community among like-minded groups and venues.

“That way, opportunities will continue to present themselves,” he said. “It’s always helpful to have non-profits look at challenges together, instead of as competitors.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]