Who's jetting in Joel Gray now?
Fly away funding? Continental-dependent Houston arts groups worry over merger
Can Houston arts survive without corporate sponsorship from the airline formerly known as Continental?
For years, not a single charity auction roster has been printed without a package of donated airplane tickets, some offering smooth sailing all the way to Paris. Season after season, productions performed in the Theatre District and exhibitions mounted within the Museum District have come together with Continental as the chief benefactor. But with the merging of United and Continental and the relocation of the headquarters to Chicago, Houston organizations may suffer a loss.
Like many local organizations, Society for the Performing Arts receives in-kind airfare for visiting performers from all over the world. "It would certainly impact our budget," explains SPA executive director June Christensen.
"With Continental, we were able to bring in composers like Marvin Hamlisch and Joel Gray, among other international artists that we present on our roster," Christensen adds, "It allows me, as artistic director, to visit artists directly. Continental is critical to our operating budget for both performers and administrative staff."
Continental was recently named "No.1 U.S. Airline among World's Most Admired Airlines" by Fortune magazine — fitting, since it is the official airline of 18 local arts and cultural organizations, including the Contemporary Arts Museum, Children's Museum of Houston, Da Camera of Houston and Houston Zoo. The corporation also offers elite "inside sponsorships" to the Alley Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Symphony.
Priscilla Larson, development director at Society for the Performing Arts, has worked in fundraising for countless Houston non-profit organizations. Regarding the merger, Larson says, "It could make an amazing impact on nonprofits because of Continental's generosity, especially in the performing arts. Museums have also benefited — curators that need to view outside installations and bring in visiting artists depend on Continental."
Alley Theatre's Managing Director Dean Gladden agrees: "Continental's support has helped us to bring in artists from around the country and around the world to work in Houston."
"Because Houston will remain a hub," Larson says, "hopefully the combined United will realize the importance of the logo visibility in Houston as well."
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is determined not to jump to conclusions. "We have had a long-standing relationship with Continental as the 'Official Airline of the MFAH,' and we await further news," MFAH spokesperson Dana Mattice e-mailed. "It’s too early to tell how the museum would be affected."
Although Continental has been based in Houston, its corporate culture has never turned a blind eye to the arts in its other hub cities. In Cleveland, the airline offers similar inside sponsorships to the Cleveland Opera, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Play House — the oldest, continuously producing theatrical company in the nation. New York cultural heavyweights Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center also bear the Continental logo.
The combined airline will have 10 hubs, including hubs in the four largest cities in the U.S.: New York/Newark, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. The combined company will also have hubs in Cleveland, Denver, Guam, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington D.C. It's unclear whether Guam has an equivalent of the Alley or MFAH, but splitting funds between 10 hubs may mean fewer dollars for Houston organizations.
Similarly to Continental, United also donates transportation to many nonprofit organizations that have limited resources. In 2008, United contributed over $4 billion in in-kind travel and in excess of $1 billion via the United Airlines Foundation to non-profits.
"I can't even imagine not having Continental Airlines," Larson adds, "but I'm going to maintain optimism."