Often cited as the way to do the arts right in Madison, the Bartell Community Theatre racked up a deficit of $104,791 in 2009.
"Part of the reason I'm not panicked that we operated in the red last year is we actually do have the cash to cover that," says Tara Ayres, Bartell president and artistic director of one of its member companies, StageQ.
The deficit would be a crippling blow to any community arts organization, but it was made up in 2010 thanks to a $180,000 bequest, which is being held by the Madison Community Foundation. The venue expects to draw funds from it slowly.
Ayres says that the 2009 deficit is largely due to the loss of another funder. "For a number of years, the Bartell had a very large donor whom we lost when the stock market took a hit a couple years ago," she says.
However, the underlying problem remains. Not counting the bequest, donations to the theater have been steadily decreasing year by year. On Dec. 8 the Bartell's board of directors approved the concept of a major donor campaign, the first since it opened.
The Bartell was incorporated in 1994 and opened in 1998. Unlike Overture Center, the Bartell Theatre, just off Capitol Square at 113 E. Mifflin St., presents only the work of its four community-based member companies: Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players, StageQ and Strollers. Except for an awards event, it does not produce programming itself, though the facility is available for rental.
The theater is operated by the Bartell Community Theatre Foundation. A related foundation owns the building. The theater has long been lauded for the cooperative spirit shown by its member companies, whose representatives serve on the Bartell board.
The Bartell ends its fiscal year July 31. Tax records show that it closed 2008-09 with total revenue of $101,955. That includes $25,369 in contributions, gifts and grants. Total expenses were $206,746.
The theater did better in 2010, thanks to the $180,000 bequest. However, subtracting that one-time gift, there was still a drop in contributions to about $19,800.
That's part of a pattern of decline. In the fiscal year ending on July 31, 2005, the Bartell earned $122,977 in gifts, grants and contributions. In 2006, that figure was $119,435. In 2007, $75,215. In 2008, $58,937.
The figures could be far worse. In 2008, property taxes were shifted from the theater foundation to its building corporation. That removed a heavy expense from operations.
Gross receipts (not counting contributions) ranged roughly between $96,000 and $112,000 during those years.
In a way, the Bartell's challenge is overdue. Nonprofits nationwide have been struggling with fundraising since 9/11. The recession merely made things much worse. In the last few years, Madison Theatre Guild and the Madison Ballet have both faced economic difficulties. So did the Madison Repertory Theatre, which closed in 2009. The Overture Center's debt problems have been widely reported.
"Obviously we need to be raising money like every other nonprofit so we're not in dire straits," says Ayres. "So we're becoming proactive about that."
For information on the Bartell Community Theatre Foundation, including how to donate, visit www.bartelltheatre.org.