Arts Issues for Artists & Presenters: July 2007 Archives

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Monday, the debate rages on: Will new venues bring new art -- and new money -- to cities that currently suffer from outdated theaters and concert halls?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.

July 9, 2007 10:46 AM | | Comments (7)
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