How 'Bout a Refill? 

It's tough times for Ashkenaz and other half-full nonprofit venues.

The Bay Area may be a mecca for displaced lefties, homosexuals, and academics, but it's also quite the happenin' joint for that societal oddity known as the Nonprofit Organization Professional. If teaching in public schools is truly the noblest of professions, than working for a nonprofit is second. These folks are dedicated and sincere -- there's no disputing it -- and that's probably why the burnout rate is so high, especially when it dawns on the participants that about 70 percent of what they have to do is raise money. Yuck. All you wanted to do was save the indigenous mountain slug, and now you spend all your time chatting up suits and filing paperwork.

For nonprofits to persevere, they need a major "can do" attitude, something that the Nonprofit Organization Professional has in spades -- for about eight months. They're glass-half-full people, constantly reassuring themselves that things will work out, enough money will come in, and the good citizens will come through. In actuality, their coffers tend to exist in a semi-permanent half-empty state, but in order to rally the troops and not lose hope, most nonprofits try to focus on the positive, constantly trying to refill the glass despite its leaks.

Consider, for instance, the metaphorical art glass that is the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center -- bejeweled with gray-ponytail peasant folk art, dancing skeletons wearing Rastafarian hats, and the omnipotent countenance of its slain founder, David Nadel. The fledgling nonprofit venue has been slapped by faltering attendance, cuts in government funding, and a drop in foundation grants, and yet its artsy tumbler -- at least in the director's eyes -- is still decidedly half-full.

With a hairline fracture.

Last week Ashkenaz sent out a new call for donations: It's hoping to haul in $100,000 by January. Raising money is nothing new for the venue; because of Nadel's courthouse skirmishes with the UC Regents, it was even scrimping for cash back when it was a for-profit. But this is the first time Ashkenaz has targeted an end-of-year lump sum in the kind of drive KQED holds several times a year. It's looking for a little green padding in these hard times.

"The community has responded wonderfully every time we've asked," says Sue Schleifer, the venue's executive director. "Since 9/11 and the downturn in the economy, our ticket sales have been down ... that's also true for all nonprofit organizations, especially arts organizations. That has hit us pretty hard."

La Peña, another of Berkeley's several nonprofit performance centers -- and one of the only places in the East Bay that showcases hip-hop -- also reports reduced ticket sales and funding. "The general scene out there is that everyone is expecting huge cuts," says the center's director, Paul Chin, a bit more half-empty. The California Arts Council, he says, is cutting its grants to the venue by 20 percent. "With the recent election, there's going to be signs of more cutbacks from the federal level as well," Chin adds. "Things don't look too good right now."

But neither Schleifer nor Chin is giving in to a doomsday prognosis. "If we don't reach the $100,000 goal, we're going to keep at it," Schleifer says. "We're hoping that the economy will improve. We also want people to come back. Come back to Ashkenaz! Enjoy the programs."

"La Peña is going to weather this," says Chin. "A lot of people work at La Peña because of the mission of the organization."

Down the way, another nonprofit Berkeley music venue, Freight and Salvage, reports a glass half-full of pricey single-malt Scotch --even though it's a booze-free venue. Everything's just hunky-dory. "We had a slight dip after 9/11, like everyone else," says director Steve Baker. But ticket sales have come back strong and have not declined in the last year. That's a bit weird. Then again, good things always seem to happen to folkies: Chickens have no bones, cherries have no stones, and everyone lives in a misty land by the sea with a big, happy dragon.

On the whole, though, things are still tough. "It's a hardship out there," says Adam Gottlieb, chief spokesman for the California Arts Council. "Theater companies are closing their doors, arts directors are paring down their staffs. ... We've lost $12 million, 41 percent of our funding. When we have less money, that means we dispense less money to the field."

The CAC gets much of its funding, in turn, from the National Endowment for the Arts, which, after the recent elections, could be in some serious shit. But the council -- unlike most of California -- loves Gray Davis and is dang happy he won. (Hmm. Wonder if that's because nine of its eleven members are appointed by the state's top dog?) "The governor and the first lady have been very supportive of the arts," says Gottlieb. "His administration is focused on arts education. I would hope that when the national economy turns around. ..."

Turns around? It seems even Gottlieb has the half-full syndrome. Face it, people, things are only getting worse and our arts programs are going to be the first to suffer, along with social services, libraries, and everything else people without money depend on.

One way La Peña and Ashkenaz could offset costs is by raising ticket prices -- entertainment is a business, after all, even when it's nonprofit -- but both clubs are resistant. "It's a double-edged sword," says Chin. "Unfortunately there is a general attitude about arts that are community based that they should be discounted. We have arguments with patrons who argue about paying $8 for a performance, when they'll pay $9 to see a Hollywood movie."

It's true; people hate paying higher covers regardless of the club, even though the money goes mostly to the bands. It's psychological, really, because if a club puts up a sign that reads "Sliding scale $5-$10," most people will pay higher than they normally would. Sheesh.

The moral of the story is this: Go out. Spend money. Donate. Bitch about the Republicans. And fill up that glass with a pleasant microbrew from your neighborhood community venue while we wait for the economy to, um, get better. Right.

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