Politicians, Theater Capacity and the Edifice Complex

The Auditorium Theater in Chicago. (To which one can say yes.)

This is Part 1 of a series. Read Part 2 here.

The Auditorium Theater in Chicago
The Auditorium Theater in Chicago

I came into this business some 25 years ago, and the work (giving advice on developing and operating performing arts facilities) was all about building big new performing arts centers. “Big” in that context meant lots of seats, and that large scale was significant, as it implied a project of importance. I remember sitting in the office of the Speaker of the House of a certain Southern state, making a presentation in favor of a new 1,200-seat hall. His response, punctuated by his fist pounding on the conference table, was “That city’s got an 1,800-seat hall. This other city’s got a 2,000-seat hall. I want us to have a 2,200-seat hall!” (He actually named the cities, but I’m going to be a bit more circumspect with these examples to protect the innocent.)

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These days, our work is more about developing and improving smaller facilities, the development of cultural districts, cultural planning and traditional strategic planning for existing organizations and facilities. But we still keep running into the scale problem. And we still get in trouble whenever we resist the pressure to add capacity.

We have one project in the West right now where there’s a tired 1960s hall with 2,200 seats that the mayor would like to replace with a shiny new hall with even more seats. The problem is that except for the 10 weeks of Broadway and two weeks of The Nutcracker, there’s not much demand for a larger hall, let alone a large hall. The symphony and opera in this city, which used to perform in the venue, are just barely hanging on. And the ballet in this city wants to produce shows other than The Nutcracker in a venue with a capacity in the 500-seat range. It also turns out there is a large and fascinating set of emerging organizations that reflect the energy and diversity of the community. And what they need are small, flexible, affordable facilities.

The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto
Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

Then there’s another project we recently completed in a midsize Southern community. We’d done some work there a decade ago that led to the development of a new amphitheater. Last year we were hired to come back and assess the need for additional indoor facilities. We determined that with three existing halls having a capacity of more than 1,000 seats, the market could not support a new large hall. The key existing facility is a 2,400-seat auditorium built in the1960s, located some two miles from the downtown as part of a complex that includes an arena, ballroom and conference center. The theater presents a range of mostly popular entertainment with some local graduations and school events. It probably should be improved (lobbies are tiny, seats are old, equipment is dated and looks grim), but it’s not bad for what it is.

Our analysis led us to recommend the development of a downtown arts district anchored by a new 500-seat theater. This community has some great older structures in the downtown that already support a range of cultural programs. So our proposal was to add facilities (both new construction and adaptive reuse of existing structures), brand the area as a district and promote the heck out of it to achieve the economic and community development goals so important to this particular city.

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But our plan did not sway a local politician who’s convinced that the only thing to do is to build a big new hall in the downtown area. So he hatched a new plan — suggesting that the renovation of the 1960s auditorium should be scrapped in favor of a shiny new building. Other consultants have suggested that a new building might cost $58 to $65 million — as opposed to spending $35 to $39 million on the existing auditorium.

The Dodge Theater in Phoenix
The Dodge Theater in Phoenix

There’s some fuzzy math here, as I’m dubious about the high renovation costs and low construction costs. (The new Western theater referenced above has a preliminary capital budget some four times greater than these numbers.) But even if the estimate is accurate, the larger question is why a large new building would be better for the community than a downtown arts district?

There is basically no local demand for a large capacity venue, and virtually no demand on the part of regional performing arts organizations. So the hall would simply be a roadhouse for various commercial entertainment programs — from Carrot Top and Kathy Griffin to The East Coast Step Show. Then there are scale challenges: how to fit such a large venue (with parking) into a quaint two-story downtown with limited on-street parking. The prospect will thus exist that the community’s scarce financial resources would go toward a massive building project — along with the significant costs to maintain the venue — rather than serving artists, organizations and educators who are committed to advancing the cultural life of that community. It just doesn’t make any sense, as least not according to recent research on arts facilities.

Maybe that’s the problem — I keep trying to make sense of the nonsensical world of politics and politicians. But we’re not going to stop fighting this fight, as there’s too much at stake. All that money going into big projects means less money for good projects — those supporting artists and groups that express their creativity and cultural heritage in a meaningful and authentic way.

Our challenge is to turn rational arguments into political ones. I was resisting this, but I guess it’s time to start binge-watching House of Cards. I’m sure Frank Underwood has the answer. I just hope there’s no blood involved…

This is Part 1 of a series. Read Part 2 here.

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Duncan Webb
Duncan M. Webb, President of Webb Management Services, Inc., has been a management consultant for the development and operation of performing arts facilities for 25 years. Mr. Webb entered the theatre profession as a lovesick maiden in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience in 1969. Since then, he has completed degrees in economics and business; worked in international banking; produced commercial, industrial and experimental theatre; and has been teaching for New York University’s graduate program in performing arts administration since 1990. He worked for Theatre Projects Consultants from 1989 to 1995 and founded Webb Management Services in 1997. That practice has completed over 300 feasibility studies, business plans and strategic plans for facilities, organizations and districts. Mr. Webb is also the author of Running Theaters: Best Practices for Managers and Leaders, published by Allworth Press in 2005. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.