In the performing arts space, every decision is intentional. From talent and donors to ticket prices and venues, everything is curated to maximize accessibility for the Omaha community.
If you’ve purchased a ticket to an event that supports the local performing arts, such as a play or performance, you’d be correct to assume that your money supports the organization. However, ticket sales, for many organizations, only represent a small portion of the budget.
Film Streams Executive Director Deirdre Haj said if you picture the stub ripped off by the ticket taker at one of their showings, that’s representative of what your ticket has paid for.
“In film, [ticket sales] represent 20% of revenues, and that is the pre-pandemic percentage,” she said.
For the Omaha Symphony, the margins are only slightly higher with about 30% of its annual $9 million budget coming from ticket sales. That means the remaining 70% comes from contributed income, such as endowments, sponsorships, trade partnerships and individual donations.
“Contributed income is absolutely vital to our fiscal health and artistic health and our ability to serve the community,” said Omaha Symphony President and CEO, Jennifer Boomgaarden Daoud.
Contributed funds not only help pay performers and keep facilities running, but it also helps maintain accessibility. For example, Danna Kehm, president and CEO of Pottawattamie Arts, Culture & Entertainment (PACE), said areas of Council Bluffs are considered a third pocket of poverty in the metropolitan area.
“High admission costs exacerbate the effects of “income as a barrier” for families looking for arts and cultural experiences,” she said. “We rely on donations and sponsorships to keep tickets affordable and to allow us to provide complimentary passes for families that normally wouldn’t be able to see a show due to cost.”
Without contributed funds, tickets would likely be more expensive and programs that are currently offered for free, or at a discount, would be more expensive.
“The actual cost of a single ticket is much, much more than what we charge the public thanks to this nonprofit model,” said Matthew Gutschick, artistic director for The Rose Theater.
Youth, in particular, would be affected by increased prices.
The Rose Theater was able to offer over 28,000 students from 71 schools with at least one theatrical experience in 2021-2022. Some of those costs were lowered for students who met income eligibility guidelines.
Film Streams, which celebrated its 15-year anniversary in 2022, has been able to introduce thousands of students to film literacy through its free School to Screen program.
Opera Omaha continued to expand its digital community engagement during the pandemic.
“The annual Poetry & Music Project, which connects student poets with professional composers who set their words to music, expands each year, receiving poem submissions from across the entire state,” said Shannon Walenta, interim general director.
The Omaha Symphony was able to not only continue employing 42 local musicians full-time with benefits, but it launched new programs to connect students and musicians during the pandemic.
“We created a virtual classroom that has digital versions of our education concerts,” Daoud said.
“It’s got a learning library of videos in it for everything from posture for your fifth-grade cellist to advanced techniques. If you’re a high school flutist, it’s got a leadership series by our former music director, Thomas Wilkins. And then we had virtual visits.”
And those are just the programs that bring experiences to youth. There are dozens of other programs that are geared towards adults, like Opera Omaha’s Opera in Conversation program, or for families, Omaha Performing Arts’ Summer Sounds.
Part of what makes programs like these successful, Daoud said, are the musicians, performers, and support staff’s dedication to the community.
“Our musicians live here, they work here, and they raise their families here,” she said. “In many respects, they form some of the backbone of the musical community because not only are they on our staff, but they are teaching private students, many of them are teaching at UNO or in public schools.”
Similarly, The Rose, which has been a staple in the community since 1995, relies on teaching artists to help students explore theater.
“Our mission scope is so large and our schedule so full, that we have 7-10 full-time jobs dedicated to being an artist/teacher at any given day,” Gutschick said. “This team of creatives bridges our classroom work to our mainstage work.”
Finding the right team members is a universal challenge for all organizations. Not only do candidates have to be qualified, but they also need to exemplify the organization’ss mission.
“When we hire new employees at the Omaha Community Playhouse, we look for people who share the organization’s values, in addition to being skilled and experienced in the area for which they are applying,” said Katie Broman, executive director.
Those employees also need to be multi-faceted and nimble, as many organizations have a limited budget for staffing. This was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when creativity became key to functionality.
“We worked especially closely with our local artists and formed new relationships and strengthened relationships with others,” said Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires. “New initiatives included our free outdoor concert series at Miller Park, Voices Amplified — our new series on arts and social justice — and more.”
The pandemic pushed every organization to consider who their audience was, and how to meet them. Many organizations are taking what they learned during those uncertain times into the future.
For Film Streams, the pandemic gave the organization another opportunity to re-focus on the community and its mission.
“We’ve focused more time on DEI, diversity and inclusion training, and installed major upgrades to our sound equipment, which has allowed us to provide better OCAP screenings and sound mitigation for those who need it,” Haj said.
The Omaha Symphony, for example, was part of the 23% of orchestras nationwide that continued playing for live audiences in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.
“We approached the pandemic with a research and development mindset,” said Daoud. “One of the good things that came about was a spirit of innovation and a nimbleness that serves us today, because orchestras are inherently inflexible.”
In general, the pandemic sewed a thread of gratitude and flexibility into everyday life.
“Like many companies that integrated work-from-home policies during the pandemic, we see our team members achieving greater work/life balance these days, even with our busy schedule,” Gutschick said. “Most of all, the pandemic made us grateful to even have the opportunity to provide live entertainment.”
While donations and partnerships are important, Daoud stressed that the best way to support artists is to simply check out a show.
“What we really want is for you to experience the orchestra, and then we want you to be so excited about it that you bring your friends,” she said. “Come enjoy. Come experience.”
Events and performances can be found on each organization’s website.
Ruth Sokolof Theater: 1340 Mike Fahey Street, Omaha, NE 68102 • 402-933-0259 x15 Dundee Theater: 4952 Dodge Street, Omaha, NE 68102 • 402-933-0259 x30
Administrative Phone: 402-933-0259