March 27, 2009 at 10:37 am

Chrysler pulls plug on funding for arts

DSO, Music Hall, Opera Theatre already reeling from loss of other donors' support.

Three of Detroit's leading arts organizations took another financial hit this week when the Chrysler Foundation announced it would not renew its annual gifts in 2009.

In a series of personal visits on Tuesday, Chrysler Foundation Vice President Brian Glowiak carried the bad news that the foundation had lost its funding from the automaker and could not make this year's anticipated contributions of $300,000 to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, $150,000 to the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts and $100,000 to the Michigan Opera Theatre.

Rather than delivering the unwelcome news by phone or e-mail, Glowiak spent Tuesday visiting the executive directors of affected institutions to explain Chrysler's position.

Chrysler's decision to suspend its arts philanthropy comes as Detroit organizations are still working to fill gaps created when the GM Foundation canceled its major arts support in January.

One popular event, the annual Arts, Beats & Eats festival, will continue. In the past, Glowiak said Thursday, the Chrysler Foundation and Chrysler's marketing division have shared the cost of the title sponsorship. This year, the entire cost of sponsorship will be borne by the marketing division alone.

Glowiak said the foundation's distribution budget, which is funded largely by revenues from the automaker, is "significantly less" this year than the $20.5 million level of 2008. Glowiak would not disclose the current level.

The Chrysler Foundation has no endowment, but does maintain reserve funds, Glowiak said. Money from the reserve this year will not be used for the arts but will provide some support in areas such as human services, homeless shelters, food banks and education.

"I understand and appreciate Chrysler's situation," said MOT General Director David DiChiera.

"They have been faithful in their support over the years, and I believe firmly that when things turn around and they are able, they will be there for us again."

Chrysler has been the principal supporter of MOT's annual dance series, which this year operated on a budget of $1.6 million. DiChiera said he already had begun exploring alternatives after Chrysler sliced its contribution from $250,000 in fiscal 2007 to $100,000 in 2008.

MOT's fiscal year begins July 1. DiChiera said the loss of Chrysler's annual gift would have a greater impact on dance than opera.

"We must now appeal to individuals who love dance to step forward and help us preserve the level of our dance season," said DiChiera.

One immediate cutback, he said, will be to limit the presentation of major companies like American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet to every second year.

Vince Paul, president of Music Hall, described the impact of the Chrysler loss -- combined with the GM Foundation's recent elimination of $350,000 gifts -- as "massive."

Late last year, the GM Foundation also canceled pledges of $250,000 to MOT and $100,000 to the DSO.

While MOT and the DSO had been expecting Chrysler to follow GM Foundation's lead, Paul said he had planned on Chrysler's backing.

"It does come as a surprise and in my darker moments I feel like I'm left holding the bag," Paul said. "When somebody sits across your desk and tells you to your face that the money will not be there, that's definitive. You have no hope. But contracts have been signed, so we're aggressively exploring alternative sources of revenue."

DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons said the orchestra has prospects for new foundation grants to fill the budgeting holes created by the sagging economy.

"This isn't easy; in fact, it's scary," she said. "But our goal is simply to stay in business and be the best we can be for this community. We're all in this together, and I'm sure that one day Chrysler will be back."

Unlike MOT, DSO and the Music Hall, the Detroit Institute of Arts does not receive annual operating support from Chrysler but rather works out subsidies for special exhibits.

Staff Writer Michael Hodges contributed to this report.