At this time last summer — even without the dramatic heat — Botanica's parking lot was pretty empty.
This year, with the opening of the Downing Children's Garden — and despite the scorching temperatures — the place is hopping.
From the garden's opening on July 2 through July 14, 4,842 people visited Botanica — a 191 percent increase in attendance over the same time last year. Seventy-two percent of the visitors were not members, "which is wonderful, to get Botanica exposed to new people," Mia Jenkins, director of marketing and communications, said.
And that was one of the main purposes of the children's garden — to bring in new visitors who will help sustain Botanica into the future. But Botanica is an exception among Wichita's cultural attractions this year. Many struggle in a bad economy to maintain what they have, let alone add exhibits, even if stagnant attendance numbers cry out for something new. Extreme weather only adds to the battle.
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For Wichita's attractions that receive city money, "we've seen some growth this past year, but not at the rate we were hoping," said John D'Angelo, arts and cultural services manager for the city of Wichita.
"I think we're seeing all organizations across the board having the same issues that every business has. The recovery's not coming fast enough, donations are less than maybe they were a year ago — at best they are flat.
"The good news is... people are attending things. It's probably less than we would hope to help offset the downside of it."
Old Cowtown Museum is seeing an increase in its attendance this year, as did Exploration Place in its fiscal year that ended in June over the previous year. The Sedgwick County Zoo, on the other hand, is running behind last year's numbers. While attendance is up 8.4 percent, memberships are down 11 percent, Mark Reed, executive director of the zoo, said. And the Wichita Art Museum's numbers are down this year, which was expected, since the museum celebrated its 75th anniversary with special events last year.
When the zoo opens a new exhibit or Botanica a new garden, the attractions see an uptick in attendance, and then it levels out in about a year, D'Angelo said. The zoo, for example, saw a huge jump in attendance when its tiger exhibit opened in 2009. The numbers have dropped since then, and there is no money in the budget to allow for any new exhibits, Christan Baumer, marketing and public relations manager for the zoo, said.
Some bright spots
But there are definite bright spots in the cultural landscape.
D'Angelo said the city wanted to see Cowtown diversify its programming, and it is working. Between January and June, Cowtown's attendance was up 21 percent over the same time last year.
"We've introduced several new things — both what people would consider traditional Cowtown and some untraditional things — which has built our audience, and we're seeing excellent results from that," executive director David Flask said.
New offerings have included stage shows, burlesque shows, the Frozen in Time event when Cowtown observed a day in the life of Wichita from 1872, and, especially, the Steampunk Expo, which celebrates a blend of the Victorian era and science fiction, Flask said.
Visitors dressed in elaborate costumes featuring goggles, jewelry from watch parts, and cogs and gears, came out for the event, Flask said. Some of the same visitors returned for the traditional Victorian Christmas at Cowtown, he said.
New programming and initiatives at the Wichita Art Museum also have diversified its audience, executive director Charles Steiner said. For example, the art museum and the Kansas African American Museum had a membership exchange this year.
"I think frankly that paid off because at our ice cream social on July 10 we had quite a diverse audience. I was very pleasantly heartened," Steiner said.
The art museum thought it might have to furlough staff this year, but a surprise inheritance and a grant plus the support of the city avoided that, he said.
"We're cautiously optimistic, but it's a much harder year this year" because regular donors have cut back, he said.
Cuts in funding
Government money given to the institutions also is being cut in some cases. Sedgwick County is proposing cutting 6 percent of what it gives the zoo, Exploration Place, the African American Museum and Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum next year.
The city of Wichita, on the other hand, is looking at keeping the amount it gives major attractions level, with an anticipated 3 percent increase to pay for increases in the costs of employee benefits, D'Angelo said.
The Mid-America All-Indian Center ran at a bit of a deficit last year, D'Angelo said. But "they're doing very well" with a bequest that will build the museum's reserve, he said. The center has seen an increase in attendance, and the American Indian Festival earlier this month was moved from Indian Center to Century II in part because of growing crowds.
Apart from the constant of the economy, the variability of the weather exerts a great influence on outdoor attractions.
"We literally live and die by the weather," Baumer said of the zoo.
May is the biggest month for the zoo, but there was no weekend in May that had decent weather this year, director Reed said. Attendance was 10,000 less than expected. June attendance was down even more — 15,000 off projections.
Effects of weather
But people can only take so much air-conditioning. Baumer is surprised at how many people come out in the morning, and Reed is surprised to see the parking lot more than half full on Wet-n-Wild Fridays, when the Fire Department hoses the kids down and there are giveaways and ice cream.
"If people are brave enough to leave the house, we'll keep them cool," Baumer said, pointing to the presence of more misters throughout the zoo this summer.
The other good news is that once the weather breaks — either from being too hot or too cold —"people come out in swarms," Reed said.
The zoo experienced what Cowtown did — more visitors in the winter. The zoo had 6,000 more people than expected in January once the bitter cold subsided, and 4,500 more in February.
Exploration Place is second to the zoo in attendance in the county and is doing well, Christina Bluml, director of marketing, said.
"Everybody loved Megaladon," an exhibit about killer sharks that spanned spring break and brought in the most people since the Titanic exhibit's record-breaking run in 2007.
Another feature that has drawn people in is the Boeing Dome Theater and Planetarium, relaunched in March with a new name and its own advertising. People can attend it for $5 without having to pay Exploration Price admission.
"We grew our percentage of the dome audience 24 percent since the launch in March," Bluml said.
Another revenue-maker for some attractions is rentals, which have picked up considerably both at Exploration Place and at Botanica.
"The community has just stepped up and supported us," Bluml said.