This holiday season, things are looking up for performing arts organizations

Jordan Mangi Dec 16, 2022
Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Photo Credit Todd Rosenberg

This holiday season, things are looking up for performing arts organizations

Jordan Mangi Dec 16, 2022
Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Photo Credit Todd Rosenberg

“Gangbusters!” is how Mike Schleifer, managing director of Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, described turnout for this year’s run of “A Christmas Carol.” Despite subscriptions being down and inflation raising production costs, Schleifer said Alliance has already surpassed their ticket revenue goal for the holiday classic.

Just like malls and the Hallmark Channel, nonprofit arts organizations around the country are in full-on holiday mode. Theaters, symphonies and ballet companies frequently make a bulk of ticket revenue this time of year with well-known work people return to year after year. These performances were largely canceled in 2020 and had unusual runs in 2021, but in 2022, they’re finally seeing a return to (mostly) normal. 

In some ways, this is a Christmas miracle for arts organizations that haven’t yet seen full recovery from pandemic closures.

In Ohio, The Cleveland Orchestra will do 13 holiday concerts this year — 12 of the usual holiday hits and one where “Home Alone” is screened with live soundtrack accompaniment by the orchestra. The concerts, said Chief Brand Officer Ross Binnie, are an intergenerational tradition.

“You get the little ones and you get the grandparents and you get, presumably, some great grandparents,” he said. “A lot of repeat customers.”

So far, ticket sales are “15% better than last year and 15% short of where we want to be,” Binnie said. The series has seen its third-best revenue year ever, and makes up nearly 20% of the nonprofit’s ticket revenue for the year.

Binnie said since the pandemic, he’s seen an increase in concert-goers purchasing tickets late and sticking to the recognizable.

“(Patrons) are buying things they know,” he said. “They’re not looking for adventures.”

The Joffrey Ballet knows all about the selling power of a familiar Christmas classic. 

As of Wednesday morning, the Chicago company is almost $300,000 ahead of their box office goal for the year. The 2022 “Nutcracker” will bring in an estimated $5 million in ticket revenue, said CEO Greg Cameron — revenue that supports all the other work they do throughout the year.

That money, combined with corporate sponsorship and philanthropy (which keeps most arts nonprofits afloat), allows Joffrey to not just keep the lights on, but make performances more accessible to community members. This year, for example, over 5,200 Chicago public school students came to see “The Nutcracker” for free — an effort that was a careful choreography of its own.

Joffrey’s new “The Nutcracker,” set during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. (Cheryl Mann)

On top of great turnout, “The Nutcracker” is a pretty sound financial deal for the ballet company. Six years ago, they commissioned a new version of the ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and set during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. For years to come, Joffrey can reuse the sets and costumes which, Cameron added, have gotten more expensive to produce thanks to inflation. 

Back in Georgia at the Alliance Theatre, they made a similar bet on a repeatable, re-imagined holiday classic during the pandemic. During 2020, the company was able to keep staff employed by creating a whole new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” That version premiered last year. 

“After a lot of the other programming has not seen audiences return, it seems like the family tradition in the event of “A Christmas Carol” is back,” said Managing Director Mike Schleifer.

Good news, since revenue from the show makes up about 45% of Alliance’s yearly single ticket sales.

But aside from possible decreased COVID worries and the allure of a nostalgic tradition, Alliance has another force driving ticket sales: the weather. 

“If we have a really good cold snap in Atlanta early on, like late November, very early December, it will really boost our sales,” Schliefer said.

And this year, it’s been unseasonably cold.

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