Houston's new performing arts center a monument to self-help

The inauguration of Houston's $70 million Wortham Center for the performing arts next month will solidify the growing place of the arts in the nation's fourth-largest city. It will also provide a much-needed morale boost to a community just beginning to pull out of what many consider Houston's worst economic depression ever. But it will be even more than that. As what is said to be the largest complex for opera and ballet ever built entirely with private funds, the Wortham Center will be a red-brick monument to the self-help style that has made Houston the sprawling, up-from-the-bootstraps giant it is.

``It took coming up with a lot of gimmicks,'' says Harris Masterson III, a Houston philanthropist who is considered by many to be the father of the two-theater center. Standing on the stage of the larger Brown Theater, Mr. Masterson says that everything from real bricks to candy bars shaped like bricks were pushed to bring in the donations - ranging from $1 to the $20 million the local Wortham Foundation gave - to make the center a reality.

``We knew the necessity,'' says Masterson, referring to the cramped quarters the city's symphony, opera, and ballet occupied in nearby Jones Hall. So in 1976 the native Houstonian corraled a small group of wealthy arts patrons ``to discuss the possibilies and figure out how this great thing might be accomplished.''

Figuring out how to bring possibilities to fruition has been a Houston trait ever since two brothers from New York envisioned a village on a swampy, mosquito-infested bayou in 1836. Part of that trait is a willingness to look away from government to oneself to get things done.

``I'd say this project reflects the independence that one perceives is growing as one moves in from both coasts,'' says Robert Cizik, chairman and president of Cooper Industries, co-chairman of the Wortham Theater Foundation, and a former Easterner. While the Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington were built with substantial public money, he notes, the Wortham's private funding ``is more in line with what you would expect from Houston, and from the heartland.''

Mr. Cizik adds that the project's financing took on some clever gimmicks when the whole plan appeared to be bogging down.

In 1983, for example, the theater effort had $40 million in pledges. But many of those pledges were restricted to funding only after a construction contract had been written and ground broken. Yet no contract could be written, nor could ground be broken, until about $60 million had been collected.

The impasse was broken after the theater organizers went to three of the city's largest foundations - all of which had already given large amounts to the project - and they agreed to come up with half of the remainder needed, if a strong grass-roots campaign could match them by the end of the year. A list of guarantors then extended the theater fund a line of credit for the second half of the matching grant.

That allowed construction to get under way, and the grass-roots effort was so successful, Cizik says, that the guarantors were soon told they were off the hook.

The Wortham Center, which covers two downtown blocks donated by the city, opens as many Houstonians and outside analysts see the city beginning to recover from the economic free fall that followed the oil price collapse. For several years the ``Energy Capital's'' unofficial motto has been ``diversification,'' and the arts have been looked upon to play an important role in Houston's new economic order.

``We've faced some tough challenges, but the Wortham opening highlights a Houston eager to look to the future,'' says Mayor Kathy Whitmire. ``This demonstrates that the arts and tourism are just as much behind our economic diversification effort as medical technology, international trade, and aerospace.''

Less than a month after the Wortham Center opens, the highly regarded Menil art collection will open in a new privately owned museum not far from downtown. The private collection of Jean and Dominique de Menil (an heiress to the Schlumberger fortune), which includes 10,000 pieces ranging from primitive to modern art, had been aggressively sought by both Paris and New York.

In addition, Rice University's respected Shepherd School of Music recently announced plans for a major expansion. And the city's new Brown Convention Center, which just missed landing next year's Democratic national convention, comes on line soon.

The Wortham Center will be a state-of-the-art home for the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, both of which are internationally recognized companies, but which have suffered from a lack of performing and growing space. ``This will rank with the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers,'' says Wortham Theater Foundation co-chairman Rusty Wortham III, ``and it has a lot of new technology that has come of age since those [centers] were completed.''

If there is a worry as Houston prepares for its new center, it is that the philanthropy that made the Wortham possible may have been exhausted just as the operating needs of performing arts companies are expanding.

``That so much money has been taken out of the private sector already just as we take on new commitments with the move is very debilitating,'' says David Gockley, director of the Houston Grand Opera. Adds the ballet's artistic director, Ben Stevenson, ``There's a big concern about the well coming dry right at this time.''

Still, both men say the excitement of a new home with expanded possibilities far outweighs the immediate financial burdens their companies face. And if a new home means more performances and a higher profile for the arts, they add, that should lead to larger audiences, increased sales, and greater financial contributions.

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