Saturday, December 12, 2009

How ambitious, glamorous building projects ruin arts communities

The urge described in the article below - to prove that you are a hot-stuff community by building something bigger and glitzier than you can realistically support - happened in North Carolina in the 1980s. As touring artists, the Pratie Heads (Bob and I) saw this dreadful mistake made in many small communities:
  1. People get excited about their artistic community;

  2. They persuade civic leaders that a large performing arts building or larger home for their arts council will show the world what an up-and-coming town they are and will draw more business and investment money and tourists;

  3. They call on wealthy residents and businesses to give money for the new building, and they draw on the taxpayers, who are often very reluctant to pony up;

  4. They build the new building. The wealthy residents and businesses are happy to see their names on various rooms and doorposts;

  5. It turns out to be very expensive to run the new facility. There is a lot of overhead and more employees are on the payroll;

  6. They actually have to cut back on programs. They charge so much for the use of their space that artists who used to use their studios and musicians who used to rent their rehearsal spaces or performing venues - back when they offered shabby but cheap and modest-sized spaces - can't afford to use them any more;

  7. The place, predictably, goes into the red. Donors get tired of being hit up for more money just to keep the doors open, especially when they see that the fancy benefits they had been promised are not materializing;

  8. The arts councils can't afford to help out artists at all any more. The whole thing collapses.
We saw arts councils go out of business after moving from their shabby cheap spaces that were bursting with life to big sterile "impressive" buildings with not much happening. We saw new big fancy libraries built that then couldn't afford to buy new books to put on their empty shelves. We saw organizations that used to sponsor small and mid-size concerts now only willing to sponsor big country-western stars - or Andy Williams - because only huge crowds and huge ticket prices would pay for their new huge concert spaces.

What North Carolina really needs is more small and mid-sized venues, because our arts-loving communities are NOT huge. Just because you build a giant performance hall doesn't mean you can fill it.

Extracts from
In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better
By Robin Pogrebin December 11, 2009

Organizations were "blinded by the excitement of what it would be like to have this great new facility," said D. Carroll Joynes, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center.

"It's exposing poor management and poor planning ... nobody actually asked: 'Is there a need here? If they build it, will they come?' "

"What has been thought of as a short-term asset can be a long-term problem," said Jonathan Katz, the chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. "Facilities cost money to operate, and they deteriorate. The facility itself becomes a series of expenditures."

[An arts consultant:] "Cultural buildings ... were driven not by the artistic community but by a civic agenda." Now the economy is pushing organizations into ... a renewed concern about "protecting their capacity to take artistic risks."

"When you overexpand, you limit your ability to take those risks," Mr. Ellis said. "Although expansion is usually seen as a sign of health, it is not always a sign of vitality."

...the $461 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami ... whose vision statement promised it would transform the city into "the cultural capital of the Americas" — ended its first year, in October 2007, with a $2.5 million operating deficit, thanks to low ticket sales and high operating costs.

In Chicago, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies owes $43.6 million of the $51.6 million it borrowed ... the institute's galleries are now open only on alternate Sundays and the second Thursday of every month... [The CEO:] "We counted on a whole lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, private parties ... these have materialized with less intensity than anticipated." ... he tries not to dwell on what might not have been. "I wish my hair would grow back too, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it," Mr. Lewis said. "Now I've got to go on."


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