Their Arts In The Right Place

September 6, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — They are the very model of a modern minor general arts organization. They eat, sleep and breathe the musical opera of William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. They are the West Michigan Savoyards.

And once a year, pulling props, building materials, scraps of fabric and books of sheet music out of the basements, attics and garages of Grand Rapids, the Savoyards unleash upon the public a spectacle of Victorian proportions: "The Mikado"; "Pirates of Penzance"; "H.M.S. Pinafore."

For one week the Ladies Literary Club echoes with the choruses of two dozen made-up and mustachioed Gilbert and Sullivan devotees. Then, they tear it all down, mothball the sets and wait for next year. They do all this on borrowed space, loaned materials, volunteer labor and an annual budget well under $10,000.

"As performing companies go, (the Savoyards) is pretty small and thrifty," said board member Art Lane. "It makes do on ticket sales, a small grant now and then, and the enthusiasm and generosity of performers, directors, set designers, costumer makers and organizations with rehearsal space."

But the Savoyards, named for London's Savoy Theatre where Gilbert and Sullivan's works debuted, are not alone. There are dozens of grassroots, penny-pinching arts groups throughout West Michigan. The fare varies among these organizations, but they all share a passionate devotion to their art and a willingness to make themselves seen and heard, despite a lack of funding from the major patrons of the arts community.

"Most of these groups are flying under the radar of the bigger funders," said Iliana Ordaz-Jeffries, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids. She has seen plenty of tiny, specialized groups in her past nonprofit arts experience — from Boise to Toronto, from Portland to Miami. But West Michigan, she said, is unique.

"The difference here is just how many of those small groups there are."

She said the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids reinvests nearly half of its $380,000 budget into the local arts community. While the council does provide grant funding for some of these small groups, she said, most rely on the time and funds of their members. Because the groups have such specialized niches, she said, the members tend to take their work very personally.

"It is the membership that makes them (survive)," said Ordaz-Jeffries. That is how a city of a few hundred thousand can support nearly 10 community choral groups, more than in many larger cities.

Many of these groups rely on just a handful of annual events to draw in most of their funding. The Schubert Male Chorus, for example, performs only two major shows each year. Those shows generate more than half of the $28,000 raised each year by the group, which has continuously operated in Grand Rapids since 1883.

John Pesano, business manager for the chorus, said that the rest of the funds come from Arts Council grants, corporate sponsorship, individual patrons and advertising revenue from the Christmas and spring concert programs.

Although only 40 or so members are in the chorus at any given time, its long track record helps with fund raising. Since the group's inception, more than 7,500 men have been involved.

"These are major names in the community — street names: Belknaps, Halls," said Chet Trybus, a Schubert Male Chorus member. He said that another notable name, Fred Meijer, was once a chorus member. At the time, his father Hendrik was one of the group's benefactors.

The group has always been able to hold its own financially, said Pesano. However, they have found increased competition from other arts groups in recent years. In each of the past two years, the organization was forced to dip into its reserve fund (though only about $2,000 was borrowed). This deficit has caused Pesano to begin to more actively market the group's money-making activities, such as for-hire, small-scale singing appearances at schools, nursing homes and the like. These performances now generate nearly as much revenue as the two major concerts.

Recognizing that glee-club-style singing has a limited draw, Pesano said that the group has been trying to arrange joint performances with other musical acts.

"What we're trying to do is get someone to sing with us who's a bit of a draw. That helps with the ticket sales," he said.

The Schubert Male Chorus has become more revenue-conscious because they have been forced to.

Costs continue to rise, along with the variety of competing arts groups. The public's taste in art and music shifts, leaving some groups struggling to make ends meet. As the meager budgets get spread thinner, the groups' members roll up their sleeves and crank up the volunteer spirit. That can mean simply writing a check, or, as is the case for Mike O'Neil, doing some extra shoveling and scraping.

O'Neil helps build the sets for the Savoyards' annual Gilbert and Sullivan galas. He volunteers his garage to use as the stagecraft workshop. Because the sets are built over the long, snowy winters, it means that O'Neil has to park his car out in the harsh elements.

After the show is over and the stage is struck, all the set materials return to the loft of O'Neil's garage. After several years of housing the sets, his garage began to sag under the weight of the stakes, beams, canvas and posts.

Always willing to pitch in for the sake of the team, O'Neil bought the lumber to shore up the garage. It was the least he could do to support the Savoyards.    

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