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Culturefinder Frees the Dot-org Trapped in the Body of a Dot-com

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New Yorkers who want tickets to a Broadway or Off-Broadway show simply visit the TKTS booth, or stop by the box office, or make a quick call to whatever number is listed in the Times or the Voice. For people living west of the Hudson, it isn't so easy. That's why Culturefinder.com has been an important part of the theatre community for the last five years.

As a website devoted to cultural events across America, from legit theatre to dance recitals to symphony concerts, Culturefinder.com has informed millions of Internet users about their entertainment options. Among them are tens of thousands of prospective visitors to New York, who log on to see what will be playing when they get off the train and the plane and the bus. Not only can they see the list of events, they also can-and do-buy tickets directly from the site. According to founder Eugene Carr, 40% of the tickets the website sold were for New York City events, and "a sizable proportion of that were to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows."

Unfortunately, Culturefinder.com has been plagued with the same wasting disease that afflicts so many Internet businesses these days: despite accolades, sterling demographics, and awards, it can't seem to make a profit. Until the end of last month, investors have been willing to play the waiting game to see if the situation would turn around, but finally, inevitably, the money ran out. And it happened during the holidays.

It looked like Culturefinder.com was toast. If that happened, the 4,000 groups whose events were listed there ("Everything from the biggest Broadway shows to the Amaryllis Symphony Orchestra to the Alaska Chamber Music Festival," in the words of Carr) would lose potential business.

Then Carr hit upon a solution. Instead of going out of business, he would turn Culturefinder.com into the somewhat revised Culturefinder.org. The old Culturefinder tried to pay for itself-and return investors' money, plus interest-by selling advertising on its site as well as tickets. That is the common mistake that has ruined scores of "new economy" businesses: there are far fewer advertisers than websites. The new Culturefinder would go not-for-profit to eliminate the need for investors' returns, and start charging for listing the groups and events it used to list for free. It would also, like any not-for-profit group, appeal for donations from the people who value its existence.

The plan is daring in its ingenuity, even if it raises the question of whether a business can be registered as a for-profit company one day and a not-for-profit institution the next. According to Carr, it can.

"There is no restriction on not-for-profit organizations participating in what would otherwise be for-profit activities," he told Back Stage. A good example of that would be a museum that has a gift shop. The way the tax code works, the costs of running these institutions far exceeds the money they would ever bring in by ticket fees or merchandise sales in their stores; consequently they're set up as not-for-profit institutions that can collect philanthropic money from any sources.

"Our ability as Culturefinder.org to participate in selling things, as we did before, won't change. It's just the legal structure will allow us to make up the difference between our expenses and our income by philanthropic contributions."

He also said he expects most of the organizations to continue their alliances with the website, even if they have to pay for it now.

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Of course we don't imagine 100% participation," he said, "but I think after five years of doing this, the nominal fee to be part of Culturefinder is something that most arts organizations will find worthwhile." He likened the fee to the dues and subscriptions that some arts groups pay to trade associations and publications.

"I'm giving myself 30 days to see whether this idea is going to work," Carr said, "and so far there have been some pretty good indicators, which is to say we've gotten hundreds and hundreds of pledges on the website. Individuals have made donations of anywhere from $10 to $100, and I have spoken with some very enthusiastic private foundations and people that have indicated this is something they would like to support."

Frankly, Carr said, speaking from the perspective of someone who not too long ago ran the American Symphony Orchestra, prefers the people to the foundations. "I am seeking a philanthropic angel, an Avery Fisher, an Alice Tully, someone who can recognize that what we're doing is worthy and valid; an individual who can make a difference," he said. "Raising philanthropic money has its own gestation period.

"Sitting across the table from an individual who can make a decision at the end of lunch is much easier than waiting for a foundation whose board meeting is in six weeks or 12 weeks."

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