Buffalo's Ujima Theatre Company is no stranger to dire straights. On May 11, the second production of its severely truncated season was about to open, but the county check that serves as one of its few funding sources was two months late.

"So we produced Ujima Theatre out of pocket," said the company's founder and Executive Director Lorna C. Hill, "and it's not the first time we've done it." Nor the second, nor the third.

Across town, the Buffalo City Ballet is having similar problems: participation is down, audiences are down, and funding is down. It's the same story at the African American Cultural Center, where the Paul Robeson Theatre's financial support has dwindled along with that of every other small- to mid-size cultural organization in town.

Make that almost every organization.

In the long and ongoing fallout from state, county and city funding cuts for arts and cultural groups over the past five years, at least three mid-sized organizations are thriving. Beginning just over two years ago, CEPA Gallery, Just Buffalo Literary Center and Big Orbit Gallery launched a successful collaboration that its participants say is the first

In the bustling shared offices of the three groups in the Market Arcade Building on Main Street, you can almost smell the synergy. These three previously struggling organizations - a photography gallery, a space for visual arts and music, and a literary arts center - have managed of its kind in the country and a model for the future of Western New York's arts community.

Now they're ready to start showing other groups how their struggles can be turned into successes through new collaborations.

Simple solutions

to increase annual financial contributions by more than 300 percent over the last two years and saved more than $60,000 per year in administrative costs.

Their programming, both individual and collaborative, has skyrocketed, and all three say their visibility and contributions to the communities they serve have never been healthier.

The organizations have done this by employing methods that seem deceptively simple, all while managing to maintain their distinct artistic visions: by pooling resources, sharing administrative expenses, and sponsoring educational programs

to make their boards and staffs more efficient, effective and profitable.

"I think the CEPA/Just Buffalo/Big Orbit collaboration has been a model example of how organizations can come together and, in a very planned approach, decide how they can work toward each other's mutual benefit," said Clotilde Dedecker, a program director at the Community Foundation, which provided CEPA with a $65,000 initial grant to explore the possibility of collaboration with the other two groups.

The end result -if such a collaboration is successful - is more art, more culture, and, as CEPA Executive Director Lawrence Brose put it, "the rise of the creative class."

That class, just counting the top 22 arts and cultural groups in Buffalo, represents at least 3,819 Erie County jobs and accounts for more than a quarter-billion dollars in annual economic impacts, according to a recent study by the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute. That same study also pointed out that the same 22 arts and cultural groups attracted 2 million visitors in 2005, more than that year's Bills, Sabres and Bisons attendance combined.

The Market Arcade group has already had significant influence in the community, partly serving as inspiration for the newly formed African American Cultural Arts Collective - a formalized group comprised of four struggling cultural organizations: Ujima Theatre Company, the African American Cultural Center (including the Paul Robeson Theatre), the Buffalo City Ballet and the Langston Hughes Institute.

The recently formed Buffalo Theatre Alliance - a group of 17 professional theaters - has also come together to share promotional expenses and similarly increase their collective visibility.

Planning for cutbacks

But as arts groups large and small continue to suffer stifling withdrawal from decreased government funding - despite recent tenuous proposals to increase it - what exactly does this new form of collaboration mean?

"These things we're doing, all organizations need to do," said Lawrence Brose, executive director of CEPA and a major impetus behind his organization's collaboration with Just Buffalo and Big Orbit.

Brose, along with Just Buffalo's Director Laurie Dean Torrell and Big Orbit's Director Sean Donaher and their respective staff and board members, were some of the few who took significant action to wean themselves off government funds before the 2004 Erie County fiscal crisis.

"It was in the air before the fiscal crisis occurred," said Just Buffalo Artistic Director Michael Kelleher, who added that the group was at the brink of closing its doors. "We were getting signals that this was going to come down."

Those signals came - and are still coming - from foundations responsible for issuing grants to arts organizations. They include the Community Foundation, the John R. Oishei Foundation, the M&T Charitable Foundation and a handful of others who saw that simply pumping money into individual organizations to make up for the loss in government funds was only a stop-gap measure for an arts community desperately in need of a new approach to financial stability.

Charles Franklin, who serves on Ujima's board, got that message loud and clear. "In a lot of ways, finances are as much symptomatic as problematic," Franklin said. "We just wanted to address everything rather than saying, 'Well, give us some money and we'll be fine.'"

The African American Cultural Arts Collective has been exploring the potential benefits of a collaboration similar to that of the Market Arcade group for about a year. It has formed an advisory council to raise money and ensure that the perennial problems that have plagued those organizations for at least the last decade can finally be addressed.

One of the biggest and most-cited problems reside with the boards of directors who run the individual groups. That, said advisory council chairman, Daryl Rasuli, is where the African American Cultural Arts Collective differs from the CEPA/Just Buffalo/Big Orbit collaboration.

"These organizations' boards need a lot of work," Rasuli said. "What we're working on presently is trying to get the boards to accept the modern responsibility that boards have to have in this day in age."

That responsibility includes fundraising, business decisions and a higher level of accountability than past boards, which have often simply acted as formalities that enacted the whims of an executive director and contributed little else.

The African American Cultural Arts Collective, like the Market Arcade group, secured a grant from the Oishei Foundation to explore the benefits of their collaboration, but it is in a much earlier stage and fundamentally different, so no one can predict whether it will result in the same level of success.

A differing opinion

For Hill of Ujima, the idea of administrative collaboration isn't a cure-all.

"Across the board, the assumption is that collaborations are easier and cost less money," Hill said. "It's not true, because collaboration automatically means doing something outside of what you already do, which means you have no infrastructure created for doing it."

Hill emphasized that collaborations have been going on among arts organizations locally for more than 15 years and that simply slapping the term "collaboration" onto a project isn't going to make the money roll in, as apparently has happened in the case of the Market Arcade group. As three groups in the Cultural Arts Collective are primarily performanceoriented, different considerations about venues and overlapping missions have to be made.

Dedecker agrees with Hill, at least on the point that a Market Arcade-style collaboration can't work for everyone.

"It is a major investment of resources up front, and it's never easy," Dedecker said. "It's not a silver bullet for nonprofits, nor is it always appropriate."

To determine whether a collaboration will work, Dedecker said, a thorough and detailed evaluation -akin to a cost/benefit analysis - must be made. The Market Arcade group did this by securing grants from the Oishei Foundation and others to hire a group of consultants from the external business program at Canisius College to formulate a specific plan of action.

The African American Cultural Arts Collective, on the other hand, received a similar grant from the Oishei Foundation to hire a single consultant, who has laid out a strategic plan that the group is now using to target areas such as audience development, board development, and perhaps most importantly, fundraising. According to Rasuli, they have raised $18,000 to $20,000 so far and are at work on hiring a joint administrative assistant for the groups.

For Torrell, director of Just Buffalo, the most important element in a successful collaboration is trust. "That's sort of the deal breaker," Torrell said. "People are still reluctant to share their financials and their development and their board information. That kind of stuff feels pretty proprietary and that's where the trust comes in."

And if the foundations aren't paying as much as they used to for additional staff salaries or individual creative projects, they are putting their faith - and money - into collaborations.

Dedecker, representing one of the most active foundations in the Western New York community, is cautiously optimistic about the role of these collaborations becoming the future of Buffalo's arts and cultural scene.

"I think it's one promising scenario," Dedecker said. "The community leadership needs to sit down and evaluate: What is it that we can do together better than we can do alone?"