ARTS San Antonio Closes; Organization’s 2020 Performances Canceled

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Flaco Jimenez (center) performs “Las Golondrinas” with Yo-Yo Ma (right).

Courtesy / Anh-Viet Dinh / Trinity University

Yo-Yo Ma (right) and Flaco Jimenez (center) perform “Las Golondrinas” at an ARTS San Antonio concert at Laurie Auditorium in April 2019.

ARTS San Antonio has closed its doors. The performing arts presenting organization was in the midst of its 27th season when board chair Joanne Dawson sent out a letter dated Jan. 3 to donors and subscribers announcing the closure as of Dec. 31.

Initially, the fate of performances remaining in the 2020 season was uncertain, but a new letter later appeared on the organization’s website stating that that due to the organization’s insolvency, all events were canceled with no refunds possible. Dawson could not be reached for comment.

The Jan. 3 letter cites the departure of the organization’s executive director and “a significant shift in charitable funding and increased competition in the city for arts dollars.” Those changes caused the group “irreversible financial hardship and has made it impossible to continue operations.”

John Toohey was executive director from 2009 until his resignation Sept. 27, to care for his wife, Judy, during breast cancer treatment. Toohey said the board had already been considering the fate of the organization, which he said had been in a relatively sound financial position thanks to the success of an April 2019 sellout concert by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but had struggled since.  

“The success with the Yo-Yo Ma engagement gave us a real lift in spring, but there was a downturn in foundation giving,” Toohey said. “We saw that if we were going to get through the year, we’re going to have to figure that out.”

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation had been a major annual donor, but had shifted its priorities in recent years away from annual operational support of ARTS San Antonio, Toohey said.  

In 2016, the annual operating budget of ARTS San Antonio was $1.5 million, with revenue of $1.46 million, contributing to a carryover deficit that had reached more than $250,000.

“Operating a performing arts organization is challenging from day one,” Toohey said.

“And it’s a daily and constant challenge to keep the plane in the air.”

The organizational deficit mounted despite what Toohey described as a relatively high level of earned income, with ticket sales generating more than 40 percent of annual income.

ARTS San Antonio celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. At the time, former marketing manager Amy Blessing-Hernandez was quoted saying, “We’re still standing after 25 years, which is a big deal for an arts-based nonprofit.”

The organization had been working to expand its donor base since 2011, when the Kronkosky foundation issued a challenge grant of $25,000 to match the contributions of new donors.

Under Toohey’s direction, ARTS San Antonio programming was deliberately diverse, from The Hot Sardines music troupe of New York City to the Yamato Drummers of Japan, and the Soweto Gospel Choir. Repeat performances included the Peking Acrobats, and the Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, which performed during San Antonio’s Tricentennial season and became an annual mainstay of ARTS San Antonio programming.

Star performers included the Joffrey Ballet in 2013, Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes in 2018, and Ma. ARTS San Antonio arranged a free livestreamed presentation of the Trinity University Laurie Auditorium concert for an audience of 900 at the Mission Marquee outdoor theater, then traveled with Ma to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo the following day for his border-crossing Bach Project free concerts.

That experience was a highlight for Jason Irle, former director of marketing and artistic administration from 2017-2019, when he became executive director of the Mid-Texas Symphony in Seguin. Beyond concerts and stage performances, though, Irle said ARTS San Antonio performed a different function in the community.

“I really learned that the arts is more than just selling tickets. It’s really about impacting people,” he said.

ARTS San Antonio’s ArtsTeach education program annually reached more than 5,000 area students and senior citizens, including more than 200 workshops for economically disadvantaged students in 2018. In the same year, donors paid for more than 2,000 students to attend performances, and 300 students attended ARTS San Antonio master classes with visiting performers.

The Department of Arts and Culture had placed ARTS San Antonio in its mid-size organizations category, with annual grant of $296,250 for fiscal year 2020, the maximum allowable under the current three-year budgeting cycle.

Of the closure, Department Director Debbie Racca-Sittre said, “This is all the more reason why we need to do a performing arts strategic plan, and really focus on the performing arts.”

The plan, currently in formation, will hopefully “strengthen the performing arts in San Antonio in a more specific way than we have in the past. … It just indicates that we really did need the performing arts plan – it’s very important.”

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