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July 9, 2007

Build it and they will come?

Joe Nickell

It's been going on since at least the 1980s and, judging from responses to a post I wrote last Monday, the debate rages on: Will new venues bring new art -- and new money -- to cities that currently suffer from outdated theaters and concert halls?

John Stoehr mentioned the controversy about plans in Savannah to spend $80 million in public money to build a new event arena. Deirdre Hanna mentioned the various capital improvement projects that city leaders in Toronto have been pushing, in hopes of making Toronto more of an architectural and artistic destination.

Here in Missoula, a group is pushing for an 1,800-seat multipurpose performing arts center smack in the middle of downtown. If completed, it would cost more than the last five major civic projects combined. Backers hope to convince taxpayers to fund this in part with a $20 million county bond.

As the arts reporter here in Missoula, I've followed the local story for several years. Heck, when I first started covering it, the people pushing the idea were saying they hoped to have the thing built by early 2007. But at this point, the group is facing an August deadline from the City Council (which has reserved one of the prime pieces of remaining downtown real estate for the project) to simply show that there is the potential to raise the money needed for the project. The group hasn't announced any actual, significant fundraising success to date.

The local performing arts center proposal has its own problems and challenges, some of which are unique to this place, some of which are unique to these people, and some of which are all too common for projects such as these.

But from what I can see, chief among the problems the backers face is that they haven't convinced anyone around here that a fancy new hall will really be supported, either by the ticketbuying public or by an increased quantity or quality of artistic presentations.

Missoula is still a long ways from nowhere. That creates a double-whammy for venues and promoters: It's hard to get shows here; and it's hard to get people to attend those shows. Unlike most American cities the size of Missoula, the population of the surrounding region is practically insignificant. My old haunt of Bloomington, Ind., may be about the same size as Missoula; but part of the reason it can attract a large number of major touring shows is that Indianapolis is just a hop down the highway.

I don't mean to get this conversation mired in the particulars of our local situation. But I do think Missoula is a somewhat extreme example of how the whole concept of "build it and they will come" is questionable in the world of the arts -- especially considering that, by the time we complete our "state of the art" performing arts center, some other community will be busy one-upping our achievement. In fact, groups in several Montana cities are engaged in the early stages of projects essentially identical to this one.

The whole thing begins to smell of an elaborate and expensive game of tail-chasing.

Posted by Joe Nickell at July 9, 2007 10:46 AM


Joe doubtless knows about this, but Bozeman, Montana went through a similar process a couple years ago of trying to decide whether to back a multi-structure arts center. Despite the smooth-talking west coast developer, most people decided we couldn't support the size of the project. Not involved or an authority myself, I think the right decision was made.

That said, the size of the hinterland may be larger than suspected. I've gone to Missoula (3 hour drive), Billings (2 hours), and Helena (1.5 hours) for gallery or museum shows. My kid goes several times a year with friends for Magic the Gathering card tournaments.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at July 9, 2007 1:35 PM

The point about money is well-taken and might be sharpened by a visit with the folks at the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. It's a huge building, promoted by the national board (one of the continuing problems is a double board system that pits locals against national interests). While very impressive, it is expensive to maintain and the endowment is so inadequate that for a couple of years there wasn't enough money to repair one of the stalls in the lady's room. The museum must raise money by renting space for elegant events, which upset one curator (because of the danger to the art due to smoking, careless champagne drinkers, and so on) enough to drive her out of her job. On this auction cycle (the museum is subsidized largely by the annual auction staged for the Great Falls Ad Club) several valuable Couse paintings from the collection were offered for sale. Couse is a member of the Taos 7 and very significant in terms of Western American art. The sale was suggested on grounds that "we are concentrating on our own region." In actuality they were paying for the building by de-accessioning the collection, a major national trend many deplore.

All energies are focused on money instead of quality or interpretation.

Mary Scriver

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 10, 2007 4:11 AM

I don't think you're too mired in the local situation, Joe. In fact, I think you've done a fine job illustrating the universal by way of the particular. A comment I would add is this: One of the problems in the Outback that we arts journalists face is the paucity of critical voices. What I mean is that in small cities and towns around the country there may be one group powerful enough to push for an idea, but no other group to voice opposition. Without a counterbalancing perspective to voice opposition, it's difficult for an arts reporter to illustrate to readers that such ideas (whatever they may be, in this case building multi-million dollar structures but they could be condo developements, parks, statues, etc.) are controversial. And if it's not clear that something is controversial, then there many be no debate on the merits of the idea untill it's too late. Often only in retrospect do the merits bear discussion, which is what happened to Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art. More than a year after completing a $25 million annex, its board of trustees faces the reality of paying for it. They have to raise $2 million from scratch every year just to survive as an institution while doing everything possible to get people through the doors and paying to become members. Even here in Savannah, where the arts are always tolerated and sometimes appreciated, that's going to be a challenge.

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 10, 2007 7:43 AM

I'm back with reflections on Helena where I think I have a dog in the fight but officials think I do not -- at least they would like to keep me out.

First, the Montana Historical Society is crammed into what is basically an office building, so close to the state capitol building that it would be FAR more valuable as an actual office building. There is no parking. Exhibits have no room to change so everything has been pretty much the same for the last decades. Though they are technically an "historical" museum, they have the Sid Richardson collection of Charles M. Russell paintings which skews their focus. Eight years ago they acquired the estate of Bob Scriver, to whom I was married in the Sixties. They had no room to store this huge collection of bronzes, Western paraphenalia, and papers and the legislature has declined to allot money for personnel to sort or exhibit it, though it is housed in a big steel warehouse with a display area in front, specifically built for visitors. Bob's will provided for millions of dollars to go to whichever institution ended up with the estate, meant to pay for building either a wing or a free-standing building to house the collection. That money has mysteriously disappeared. The director of that time period left abruptly with a $70,000 golden parachute.

In a separate issue, an old mall, strategically placed next to the main interstate highway with lots of parking, has become available for sale. Its location is ideal for tourists, though some Montana people think only a ranch-type setting with grounds is acceptable. The argument is skewed by people seeing potential profits -- as much focused on preventing enemies from profiting as on making a profit themselves.

The mall building could be adapted but isn't as grand as some think it should be (esp. contractors). Helena is notorious for earthquakes -- little tremors go through all the time and an occasional major shift has in the past destroyed major buildings.

A social earthquake potential is represented by a software millionaire who has inserted himself into the scene and onto the board. He will write big checks so long as things are done his way but this will snuff citizen contributions and involvement. Software millionaires are not noted for their fine aesthetic sense.

The public, which tours the exhibits, has no consciousness of the archives which are the real heart of the institution. Workers are crammed into a basement rabbit warren and all materials must be brought up to the small library (no AC) via an old elevator after being specified by the researcher (if they know what exists -- things are often mysteriously unavailable or unknown.) Staff is too small and underpaid, so there is more at stake here than a building.

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 10, 2007 9:58 AM

In Lansing, this same misguided tribute to Field of Dreams continues today.

The proponents of an arts center project fail to recognize that it isn't penny pinching by the community, but a lack of support for the project. That lack of support stems from a failure of the arts agencies to build a connection to community and to demonstrate a value to the community. Artists will always believe that they contribute value to a community, but until they demonstrate that value to the community, they shouldn't expect financial support and shouldn't demand it because "it's for the community's own good."

Until arts organizations demonstrate their community connection and build a strong value proposition, they shouldn't and won't receive the community support necessary for large projects.

Posted by: Jeff Croff at July 16, 2007 1:05 PM

Great point, Jeff, and a salient one that's often hard for arts groups to swallow. But I agree. The burden of proof, so to speak, rests on the shoulders of arts organizations to make the case that they are valuable to their communities.

It's not enough to do good work, though that is of the utmost importance. Good work has to be complemented with something else, something unique, because, frankly, people can find quality art-making any time and anywhere.

You want music? Get iTunes. Want to see dance? Go to YouTube. Want theater? You can see all the theater you want, and the best of the best, with a premium subscription to Netflix.

I'm being slightly facitious but only slightly. There is substance to this. And arts groups need to convince communities that they offer something that iTunes, YouTube and Netflix can't offer. And let's make no mistake: That certain something has to be more than just the "magic of the live arts experience." That ideology holds a lot of water with arts folks but little with everyone else.

Examples I can think of right now are two groups here in Savannah, Ga. One is called the Savannah Children's Theatre. The other is the Savannah Actor's Theatre. The first has succeeded in setting foundation of a community rallied around the act of creating theater with children. The other has gotten a following by doing theater that no one else would touch -- plays by Clive Barker, for instance. Sometimes you walk away scratching your head but that's a good thing, mostly.

Each has succeeded in establishing a "brand," as it were. Though the branding has yet to yield financial dividends, Savannah residents, even people beyond the dependable theater crowd, beginning to recognize what they are and what they do and they are starting to build expectations. The theater companies have built reputations, mostly for the better. If they can just stay above water for a good amount of time, say three years, they might be able to sustain themselves.

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 16, 2007 3:50 PM

Hey Jeff! Good to see you here. I thought of you when I read this post of Joe's.

I would argue that the arts here do contribute value to the community, however, they have yet to figure out how to make that case. The attitude is that people should know, but few people seem to have the skills to articulate what that value is.

I do think ArtServe of Michigan is making some strides in that direction--in finding out what language should be used to communicate in a way that is meaningful to non-artists. (If there is such a thing as "non-artists," but that's another post.)

Getting that message across will also require far greater collaboration amongst the art groups, something that right now is often met with suspicion or outright hostility.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at July 16, 2007 4:56 PM