Shiny Nebraska Arts Center Gropes for a Winning Lineup


ARTS funding may be shrinking in the United States, but the boom in new arts facilities seems as robust as ever. Several elaborate complexes are under construction or in the design stage, and after the long, dramatic process of planning, fundraising, and building, they will all face key questions: How will these new halls be occupied? What attractions will be presented? How will they be supported? Who will be their audience? Like similar municipal and private projects, the Lied Center for Performing Arts, which opened in February here on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL), will have to serve many masters. An initial bequest of $10 million from the estate of alumnus Ernst Lied was matched by individual, government, and corporate grants, with the Nebraska state legislature, kicking in an additional $5 million for a permanent maintenance endowment. Former governor Robert Kerrey called the Lied ``the most important building to be built in Nebraska since the construction of the state capitol.''

Designed by the Omaha architectural firm of Henningson, Durham & Richardson, the Lied has one handsome 2,278-seat auditorium, plus lecture rooms, warm-up studios, offices, and a large, high space that will be used as a ``black box'' theater and named after UNL alumnus Johnny Carson. The main hall, wide and rather shallow so that all seats can be fairly close to the stage, is outfitted for excellent acoustics and is equipped with soundproof viewing rooms for latecomers and school groups. There are sweeping staircases and multileveled lobbies. The box office boasts an elaborate computer system, which had already been in operation for several months by the time the hall opened, to take care of orders for this spring's events.

Programming for the Lied's initial season lines up high-art attractions like opera, ballet, and symphony alongside musicals, pop, and non-Western spectacle. An exclamation-studded subscription brochure coaxes readers to indulge in their fantasies as they sample the arts: an office worker in front of a computer has kicked off her high heels and is tying on toe shoes; a kid in sneakers and baseball cap plays the cello with one foot on his boom box; a farmer sits on a bale of hay playing the piano, with a rooster perching attentively by his side. One Lied Center staffer explained to me that Nebraska could still be considered a frontier state; just getting folks into a theater could be breaking new ground.

For the first season the Lied Center's mission, ``to present the widest range and highest quality of performing arts for Nebraskans,'' translates into an eclectic mix: international celebrities (Isaac Stern, the Philadelphia Orchestra); homegrown talent (Opera/Omaha's ``Madama Butterfly'' and the Lincoln Symphony); classical art (the Joffrey Ballet's ``Le Sacre du Printemps''); Broadway (``Les Mis'erables''); and exotica (the Grand Kabuki and the Kodo drummers from Japan).

``We're going to try to provide a wide range of sophisticated artistic choices for people in Lincoln and Omaha, as well as the state of Nebraska,'' says incoming Lied Center director Robert Chumbley. Definitions of sophisticated art started to crumble long before the likes of Marie Osmond and Doc Severinson took possession of the opera house, but these glamorous new halls are expensive to run, and middlebrow entertainments sell a lot of seats.

Mr. Chumbley, an artist himself - he is currently composer-in-residence at the North Carolina Symphony - has been director of cultural affairs at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and is conscious of the diverse publics a state-run cultural institution has to serve. But although the pop stuff may be an economic and political necessity, Chumbley's personal criteria will stress classical forms and a glimpse of the cutting edge as the mainstays of the Lied. He will present avant-gardists in the small Carson theater, and he plans two mini-festivals a year where professional artists will create new dance, music, and theater works during residencies in Lincoln.

The Lied Center arrives on a campus that already has a good grip on the arts. It is situated opposite the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, which houses an excellent collection of 20th-century paintings. It stands adjacent to Kimball Recital Hall, the site of regular music department events and a very successful series of small professional dance companies. Series producer Ron Bowland decided 14 years ago to import every dance company that grew out of New York's famous experimental Judson Dance Theater, in addition offering a range of styles from the Joffrey II and mainstream modern dance to the Japanese Butoh artists Sankai Juku. The series built a loyal subscription audience.

While attention is being focused on the initial season at the Lied's mainstage house, the Kimball Hall series has lapsed to only a couple of events. Chumbley sees the dance component of the Lied in terms of big ballet and the few former avant-gardists who have made international names, like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, both of whom he envisions playing the mainstage. He thinks the ``smaller creative companies, whether they be dance or theater or chamber music,'' will have ``their place'' in the center's programming, but he hopes the audience that already exists for them will eventually be attracted to things in the main theater.

An important outreach program is already in operation, offering schoolteachers the opportunity to study with professionals in the arts, to enrich their classroom teaching. Kids get bussed in to performances. Education director Kit Voorhees expects that the mini-festivals will spin performers off into communities across the state of Nebraska. And Chumbley hopes the artists on these festival residencies will contribute to university life with lectures and master classes. So it's mainly as audience that the center will interact with citizens. And the message will be that the arts are, in the words of its sales pitch, ``Enchanting! Awesome! Sensational! Dazzling! Boundless!'' The next few years will tell what lies behind this hype.

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