Friday, June 11, 2010

Portland's arts facility study: Let's build a big concert hall!

By Barry Johnson

Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas
The Regional Arts and Culture Council released a study of Portland metro area arts facilities last week that, by rough calculation, justified several hundred million dollars-worth of new concert halls, theaters, community centers and incubator spaces. Mostly, I think, it was met with a shrug, even by the arts community. I barely detected a ripple of response to the study on Twitter, for example, and no one was inspired or agitated enough to bring it up within my hearing range the last two weeks, unless I brought it up myself.

The reason is money. It's hard to imagine the region passing a bond measure to spend 20 bucks on a sophisticated new hall for the Portland Opera or Oregon Ballet Theatre, let alone the $88 million in 2010 money that Webb Management Services cited as the cost of a somewhat comparable facility in Fort Worth, Tex., the Bass Performance Hall. 
In its report, Webb cautioned that we shouldn't take its comparable cost estimates too seriously, which is exactly what Pat Harrington, a principal at BOORA architects, told me. 
BOORA's Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, Calif., was built for $57 million in 2002, around $450/sq. ft., including a 250-seat studio theater along with an acoustically advanced 1800-seat hall. But nailing down a real cost depends on the program of the building and the site, among other things. Still, if the public wouldn't cough up a double sawbuck for a new hall, parsing the difference between $60 million and $88 million or $100 million makes little sense.

So, the arts community can be forgiven for moving on to other things. Apparently, The Oregonian concurred -- I didn't see a story on the report. In fact, the only mention of it Google could find was in the Portland Business Journal.
Practicality aside, what about the suggestions Webb came up with? Nothing crazy, really. That 2000-seat hall for opera, ballet and other events. A 600-seat technical marvel for all sorts of multi-media stage productions (the similar projects cited for this one cost a mind-boggling $130 million and $200 million, but they ARE marvelous). A scattering of art centers and incubator spaces in the neighborhoods. A space for the administration and production units of various arts organizations to share. That sort of thing.
I was encouraged that Webb mentioned that a Portland solution to the arts facility deficit involves the neighborhoods. The Prime Unit of planning in the city is the livable neighborhood, after all, and any political solution to the problem begins by convincing us that our neighborhoods, not just downtown, will be served. Given this political imperative, I might have spent more time developing these ideas -- arts centers and incubator spaces (presumably small, multi-use black boxes for performance of all sorts) -- than talking about the bigger halls.  

My two cents: small centers and performance spaces are very important to neighborhoods. They give them cohesion and vitality, and that makes them more attractive places to live and work and play. If I were charged with "fixing" some of the region's broken neighborhoods, I would include arts centers in my toolbox, attached to schools or libraries or parks, places where you could see art being made and make it yourself. Or learn to make it -- a system of arts centers might be a work-around for our neglect of the arts in the public schools or a complement, if we ever decide to value them properly. So, how do you make Glenfair in east Portland, say, into a real neighborhood, a real place? One of the elements probably should be an arts center/arts incubator wherever you are attempting to create a commercial center.

The report is general -- it makes the case that the needs of performing arts organizations aren't met by the existing facilities. That's a fairly easy case to make. And it could be extended to the visual arts, for that matter. The harder case to make, the case that ultimately must be made, is that the region needs these facilities, really needs them, and not just because they might attract more tourists or convince the odd opera-loving CEO that she should relocate her company here. That is outside the scope of Webb or even RACC, really. It IS within OUR scope, though, and we'll be making that case, elaborating and improving it, as time goes on.

Useful links:

Regional Arts and Culture Council

Webb Management Services

The downloadable Webb report in full

The Portland Business Journal story

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