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Music Feature Print

Arts Facilities - Raleigh Has a Problem

October 14, 2001 - Raleigh, NC:

A recent letter to Raleigh Chamber Music Guild subscribers concerning the aforementioned Eroica Trio's October 14 concert notes that "technical fees for Fletcher [Opera] Theater far exceed those for Meymandi [Concert Hall]" and conveys the news that the group's second event will be held in Meymandi, after which a decision concerning the series' permanent venue will be made. This set off alarm bells for this writer, whose advocacy on behalf of performing arts organizations in the capital is as widely known as his personal relationship with the RCMG's manager, who is his spouse.

Lee Hansley and I were the co-authors of the final draft of an operations plan for the second stand-alone performing arts center proposed by George Stephens. As it happened, Stephens' proposal was rejected by our City Fathers (and Mothers) in favor of the construction of saddlebags flanking Memorial Auditorium - a concept suggested years earlier in a report prepared by the C.W. Shaver consulting firm for the City's Arts Commission. The result is the present Big MAC (Memorial Auditorium Complex). Stephens' group's proposal would have placed control of the facility in the hands of a non-profit organization, the members of which would have had substantial performing arts management experience. Under the existing scenario, the management of the BTI Center is vested in the Raleigh Convention and Conference Center. Roger Krupa heads this operation for the City, and his efforts are motivated not by service to the arts but by a desire to make money. This approach should come as no surprise to informed readers; one of our commercial papers quoted his statement that arts groups that appear at the BTI Center should be geese laying golden eggs for Raleigh. This puts the aims of the RCCC in direct conflict with the aims of local performing arts organizations and ups the ante considerably when it comes to local groups using our new halls. The RCMG's challenges may serve as a case study in this regard, but the Guild is hardly alone in its problems with the Center's management - a "rib fest" with insanely over-amplified music and closed streets interfered with the National Opera Company's first performances in FOT, which theatre turned out as well as it did due to a substantial infusion of funds from the NOC's sponsoring foundation.

Last fall, the Guild agreed to move its Masters Series concerts from Ravenscroft School to the Fletcher Opera Theater at the start of the current season. Meetings were held during which costs were discussed. Tech fees were among the discussion items. 

The first concert is a week away, and as noted the Guild is already seeking other options. Why? Well, FOT is apparently viewed as a production theatre, so everything in it is stripped after each performance. There is no basic on-off switch for stage lighting. If one wants to present, say, a string quartet, one must pay for the re-installation of simple lighting. This runs counter to all the other auditoria in our region. The tech fees for the Guild may wind up being four times what were anticipated. In the wake of this, a representative of the RCCC suggested that the Guild shift its concerts to Meymandi, which seats 1700 people and is operated as a concert room. Its problem is its size for this kind of concert - chamber music is an intimate art form. In addition, the Guild's season subscription base is in the range of 250 vice 1700. FOT seats 600. Several hundred people in a smallish room look a whole lot better than the same number in a large hall. And FOT was, in theory, constructed for local performing arts groups to use. Indeed, its nickname during the evolution of the BTI Center was "the hushpuppy." This handle was given it by a former Chair of the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, who perceived that Fletcher was the room that was intended to make the local groups shut up and stop complaining about the scope of the rest of the project.

The evolution of the BTI Center's halls is worth recounting, for the need for accessible and affordable facilities for local groups has been an issue for at least eighteen years - on January 11, 1983, the leader of one of Raleigh's largest performing arts groups articulated the problem for the City's Arts Commission. (She later served on Stephens' first committee, sometimes referred to as Stephens I.)

Much more recently, the City wanted greater access to Memorial Auditorium for booking revenue-producing bus and truck shows and thus needed to get rid of the NC Symphony, the hall's primary tenant. Few in the arts community objected to the idea of the NCS having a proper concert hall, but it was widely perceived that the local groups had serious facility needs, too, and that those needs had to be addressed. We had one viable shot at facilities in the lifetimes of those who currently manage arts organizations in our community; the proposed Sanford Institute was merely a dream (and is, in the view of this writer, likely to remain no more than a dream, under its present leadership). The sop to the local groups, and the part of the proposal for the add-ons to Memorial that engendered support from the rest of the local arts community, was the second, smaller hall (plus the "black box" theatre now called Kennedy that was carved out of the old rehearsal room in the basement of Memorial Auditorium). Until the Fletcher Foundation stepped forward to make the little hall a room that some think exceeds Meymandi in splendor, the place was going to be a cheap, cheap undertaking. As it happened, the Fletcher money and strong advocacy by Carolina Ballet resulted in a theatre with a stage that is basically the same size as Memorial's. Elsewhere, however, it was limited in size - the limitations were driven by the need to retain access to the Memorial Auditorium loading dock and the architect's insistence on having the facility's facade be uniform with Memorial and Meymandi. 

The result is a technical miracle with a small orchestra pit that is turning out to be too expensive for most local groups to use and too small - in terms of seating capacity - to be economically viable without subsidy. The endowment recommended by Stephens II - an endowment that would have supported the use of the hall by local arts groups - was, along with the proposed arts-sensitive management team, lost on our City Hall's cutting room floor. We have what we have, however, so we must now figure out a way to make it work. Making the local groups pay tech fees that are considerably higher than other venues will discourage them from using the new Center. As it stands now, the City has greater access to Memorial for money-making bookings, the Symphony has a fancy new, state-of-the art hall, and the local groups, whose cooperation allowed these things to happen, may remain out in the cold with little real prospect for affordable access to our new facilities. Something must be done to address this.

The problem the City has would appear to be the RCCC and the problem's name may well be Roger. His philosophical approach works well enough for conventions and commercial meetings but doesn't cut it when it comes to non-profit arts groups. He has recently been in the news concerning a flap involving International Focus, whose management and volunteer leadership canceled its October 5-7 International Festival in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Some of its constituents were frightened, and few of the presenters felt like dancing. The City's reaction? Usurp the festival, use International Focus' "store fronts" (which the City stores for the Festival's presenter but does not own), and retain the "bookings" for October 5 and 6. It did this, and on the evening of October 6, the results were plain to see. Attendance was poor. Revenue was abysmal. Parking lots nearby, where the fee for the "free" event was $5 per car, were virtually empty. Meanwhile, the International Festival is going to be rescheduled - at another location. The City may or may not ever regain the popular event which, contrary to the opinion of one denizen of City Hall, the City does not own - it's International Focus' International Festival, not Raleigh's.

The issue of control exerted by the RCCC has impeded other, less well-publicized activities, too. The Meymandi Lobby is being named in honor of Ben and Maxine Swalin, and the group that contributed the half-million dollars for "naming rights" and a bronze double bust of the long-time NC Symphony Music Director and his wife ran into snag after snag with Krupa and the City. (I know about this because I have served as an advisor to the Swalin Lobby committee and the donors.) The sculpture is being placed in the lobby of Meymandi for one year only - its continuing presence will have to be renegotiated next season. Even the wording on the base prompted objection from Krupa's office - a statement by Governor Sanford was thought to be "too political" for use in a City-owned and -operated facility. Yep, Raleigh has a problem, and the problem's name is Roger. Something short of trying to build yet another performing arts center here must be done, and pronto. At the very least, Fletcher must be equipped with basic, permanently-installed lighting, available to users at the flip or turn of a dimmer switch. (It sounds simple enough. Why should it cost $2000 to equip a stage with two music stands, three chairs and a piano?) Beyond that, the City must devise a way to involve potential users in discussions leading to a new approach to doing business - one that will accommodate our budget-limited local arts presenters for whom - in theory, at least - Fletcher was constructed.