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

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

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.

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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.

The facility will also house all the Guthrie's rehearsal, production, and administrative space. The Guthrie's operations have been scattered at five locations, and this will save both time and money, Dowling says.

Though the state aid was crucial, private funds account for the lion's share of the building's funding - $85 million, of which $69 million has been raised. "We've had an enormously generous response from the private sector," Dowling says as he sits in his office in the old Guthrie.

Though the Guthrie is known for its outstanding stagings of Shakespeare and other classics, Dowling's ambition is to commission works by contemporary playwrights. "Very often, people don't write plays today for 1,300-seat thrust stages," he says. "So having those other two spaces to play with in terms of new writing, I think, will add greatly to the reputation of the Guthrie as a major theater in the US."

He comes to the Guthrie from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, which is "almost exclusively supported by the state," he says. For him, the Guthrie's approach is a balanced one, blending private and public funding.

Despite the economic woes of arts groups, a number of new theater complexes are being built around the country. New York's Carnegie Hall has just opened a new midsize (644-seat) underground space called Zankel Hall. At the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the $52 million Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center will open Sept. 27. In Boston, the Huntington Theatre, owned by Boston University, is building two additional smaller theaters.

Finding donors for these building projects is often easier than, say, funding an endowment, Cameron says, because the need for a new building is often easily apparent to the donor's eye. They're also attractive because "you can put your name on a theater and have a plaque in the lobby," he says.

Theater 'campuses'

Today's projects are more likely to be about gaining flexibility and space for new programs and activities than merely adding seats. Theater companies are creating "campuses" that they aim to fill with a variety of artistic activity nearly round the clock. "Many are producing extensive education programs" for both children and adults, Cameron says.

By 2005, for example, the Alley Theatre in Houston plans to reduce the size of its main theater from 824 to about 750 seats, while adding a 150-seat cabaret for late-night musical shows and lectures. It will also add amenities like a bookstore and cafe. Last November, the theater opened a state-of-the-art theater-production center in floors 14 through 18 of a parking garage adjacent to the theater, to be used for set building and rehearsal space.

The Alley, which sought no government funds for its $30 million project, envisions itself as an arts hub that's active from morning until well past midnight, "a town-center concept," says managing director Paul Tetreault.

Another major regional theater, the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, Calif., replaced its tiny four-decade-old second stage last fall with a larger modern one. Now "both stages here can do any kind of production" from an intimate one- or two-person show to a Broadway musical, says spokesman Cris Gross.

These regional theaters, Cameron says, are being driven by a set of new artistic directors who want to revamp their aging facilities to match their new visions. "What different-sized spaces and different configured spaces afford you are different audience dynamics and a different degree of intimacy," he says. "And a different degree of financial burden." In today's economy, he notes, a too-large auditorium can be "a terrible burden for a theater to carry."

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