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Big theater on campus

Think you can't fund arts in lean times? The Guthrie in Minnesota proved otherwise.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2003


The Guthrie Theater held a groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month. But probably the most groundbreaking thing about it was that it happened at all.

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The acclaimed regional theater company had known that state funding would be key to financing its new home on the banks of the Mississippi River. But like many states, Minnesota faced a huge projected deficit this year, $4.2 billion. Budget cuts meant that state colleges, universities, and public schools would be laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. Even aid to lowest-income single adults and medical coverage for the poor took a whack.

That the Guthrie could succeed in squeezing $25 million from the state for its $125 million project seemed improbable. "There were many days when we thought: 'This is not going to happen,' " says Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie. It had spent years trying to wrestle a bond bill through the state legislature only to see it vetoed last year by Gov. Jesse Ventura. This year, with a new governor in place, it finally passed.

In May 2006, the Guthrie - recently named one of the five best regional theaters in the country by Time Magazine - will move into a stunning three-theater complex designed by noted French architect Jean Nouvel.

Lean times for the arts

Times are tough for arts groups, who feel the strain of government and private funding cuts. According to a recent study, more than half the nation's nonprofit regional theaters ran in the red last year. (The Guthrie barely broke even.) But despite all the gloom, many theaters and performing-arts organizations around the country are also bringing to fruition major building projects, often first envisioned during the financially flush 1990s.

But arguing that Minnesota needed a great theater might have seemed elitist when put up against cuts in basic services, even though the Guthrie could point out that its audience was mainstream, not wealthy, that it served thousands of children, and that it provided low-cost ticket options.

So the theater turned to an economic argument, presenting a study showing that the new facility would generate about $80 million a year for the city's economy, as well as some 1,500 construction jobs over the next two years.

That argument for the economic, rather than artistic, benefits of an arts facility is sometimes called the "Bilbao Effect," after the boost that a new museum designed by Frank Gehry gave to tourism in Bilbao, Spain. But one recent book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," by Richard Florida, claims that the arts do more than just bring in tourists and create service jobs: Top-notch cultural amenities are a key to nurturing, attracting, and keeping skilled professionals, a vital "creative class" that will drive future economic development.

"It's a different kind of economic argument than we were singing five years ago, and it's now the more compelling," says Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, an advocacy organization for nonprofit professional regional theaters.

Though seeking government funds for arts facilities is "not an uncommon thing," the size and prominence of the Guthrie project made it nearly unique nationally, says Larry Redmond, a longtime lobbyist for the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, who follows the Guthrie's building effort closely. Beyond listening to the economic arguments, he adds, legislators became convinced that the Guthrie was a cultural icon, a "symbol of our state" that provided national and even international recognition.

The architecturally stunning new Guthrie on the River, as it's being called, may indeed have a Bilbao-like effect on the Twin Cities skyline. Its dramatic 150-foot cantilevered lobby (known as the "endless bridge") will extend over the Mississippi River. The main "thrust" stage (the audience on three sides of the actors), a hallmark of the old Guthrie, will be kept, but seating will be reduced from the current 1,300 seats to 1,100. The new complex will also house a more-conventional 700-seat proscenium theater and a 250-seat flexible-space studio theater for experimental productions. Other amenities include cafes for 500,000 visitors expected annually, and classrooms to help serve the more than 100,000 students who visit annually.