Dear Mayor Hood 

Your campaign to build a performing arts center across from City Hall has spent at least $50,000 in public dollars so far, and now the City Council has pledged $100,000 for a site plan. At no point has the public endorsed the expense, and there's no sign you intend to ask. We must trust that you want to boost downtown and the arts, because you give us no choice. But here's a better idea.

It's true that most of the $2.2 million banked so far toward a grand center for the arts has been raised privately ... including the leftover $25,000 you kicked in from your re-election campaign. (The $50,000 in public dollars comes from the city's general fund.) Perhaps since you raised it, you feel it's yours to spend, too. For now, we'll even grant you that. But consider the new Orlando Science Center. Built from scratch and equipped with generous corporate and private gifts, it still ate up $28 million in public dollars ... including $3 million from the city of Orlando. And the science center cost just $44 million. This time you're talking as much as $260 million. That means a lot more public dollars. You want, and need, the public on your side.

We, too, believe in the performing arts. Central to the Orlando Weekly's mission is a desire to nurture the growing but fragmented cultural scene, providing a sense of community that can be elusive in a city expanding as fast as ours. A performing arts center can be a fine addition. Tampa, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach -- each recently built one, and Miami is building one now. So why not us?

It is easy -- too easy -- to cite the civic excitement stirred as these centers "revive" urban cores. The latest example is Newark, N.J., where the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened last fall. Unfortunately, the parallels between Orlando and Newark are nil. And the cheerleaders overlook the Disney Concert Hall -- name sound familiar? -- designed by a truly world-class architect, Frank O. Gehry, and conceived to "revive" the downtown of a truly world-class city, Los Angeles. After 10 years Disney Hall is still no more than a dream, despite civic hopes and $100 million in Disney family money; hoping to jump-start progress, the Walt Disney Co. finally chipped in $25 million last month. But if they struggled finding donors in L.A., imagine the struggle here. (Disney already gave you $2 million. Don't count on them to bankroll two such centers; that well is dry.) Worse, like a film studio that recycles only the kindest words from a mediocre review, you overlooked a relevant fact in a study of downtown by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute. Sure, the consultants spat back what they were fed, concluding that, "Much as Sydney, Australia, is symbolized by its Opera House, the city of Orlando can become identified by its performing arts complex." But they also said this: "The scorecard of success for these arts centers is mixed." You're gambling, and it's not all your money.

It's worth recalling your promise when you took office in 1992. Under your three-term predecessor, the city built the arena and a new city hall. Those were boom times. With the boom stalled, you made a more personal appeal, pledging to extend the benefits of urban growth to all. A performing arts center, let's face it, reaches out mostly to upscale suburbanites who drive downtown, park in the nearest garage, maybe buy an espresso and a souvenir program in the lobby, then climb back into their cars and head home. We already get that with the Magic. The NBA may market to the masses, but only the affluent can afford season tickets that start at $720 and climb to $2,610 apiece. And 86 percent of the Magic's fan base is season-ticket holders. It's not something to cheer.

Here, then, is your chance to rethink. You want to promote the arts? Create for downtown a cultural identity? Subsidize ticket prices in a way that benefits local performers, not distant booking agencies and out-of-town owners? Maybe even encourage a new restaurant or two? The work has already begun. And, curiously, it's taking place on your behalf.

The Orlando Sentinel rarely projects progressive thinking; more discouraging, its regular call-in surveys of public opinion attract conservative reactionaries whose views suggest a knowledge of art limited to spray-painted swastikas. But Sentinel theater critic Elizabeth Maupin has a good cause that gives her something to champion besides paid actors. The fact that her agenda coincides with yours may be incidental or not; Sentinel Publisher John Puerner is part of your inner circle on the arts campaign, and the paper stands squarely behind your performance center. At the very least -- given the coordinated editorials and op-ed columns -- Maupin's effort bears the stamp of an orchestrated campaign approved by the paper's high echelon.

Maupin wants to see a theater district. What elevates her opinion above mere commentary is the paper's extraordinary push. She has been allowed to make her case in an ongoing series that numbers 10 installments in the past 14 weeks -- each stripped across the top of the Sunday Arts & Entertainment section -- and shows no sign of stopping. She means to foster discussion, but it is not a debate. It is a campaign as one-sided as yours, made even more so given that the person who launched it is also the only Sentinel writer reporting on its progress. The effect? Naysayers are dismissed; Maupin has, in print, practically paddled people who proposed alterations to her plan. As in Disney's Town of Celebration, where the benevolent overseer succeeded in spinning a split over school issues as a rift between "positive" parents and "negative" parents, you are either for the theater district or against it. That's OK; we'll go on the record for it.

Here's where you come in. We know you're for it too, as we learned -- no surprise -- in Maupin installments No. 5 ("Cultural district is key to Hood's vision") and No. 10 ("Think big: Theater district and arts center"). The latter presumed to scold anyone who thinks that we can't have both your monument and a small piece of action on the side. Not from us will you hear that argument. Again, a performing arts center is a fine idea -- in time, and if the public wants to pay for and support it. But first things first. A theater district is more tangible, more manageable, more doable, and much more immediate. And thanks to Maupin's concurrent push for a theater alliance, it has a cohesive constituency. Her call twice filled a conference room with hundreds of people eager to sign on to the idea. Those in the crowd would rather have many places in which to perform than fight over one small, secondary stage in a performing arts center -- a stage that has all but been promised to the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival.

Our simple pitch: Redirect your spending from the palace to the peasants. Buy a single building, or several storefronts. Install the stages and the seats and a shared ticket window (Maupin's idea). Let the city sell or lease the real estate to the theater groups for a buck. You've got the cash on hand, and more coming in. Use it to back the writers, designers, directors and actors whose very presence pumps more life into Orlando than any black-tie orchestra concert or bus-and-truck tour of a homeless Broadway show.

You and others were smart to decide against linking a performing arts center to last fall's failed sales tax increase. The vote could have become a referendum on the project -- not a bad idea, by the way -- and where would you be now? It's noteworthy that during the tax campaign, the big-league arts groups heard a subtle message to lay low, and dutifully did so. The thinking seemed to be this: Can't have too many go begging all at once; trust the civic leadership; your time will come. Those forces are still at work. Has any one of the major performing arts groups -- the opera, the ballet, Orlando Philharmonic -- publicly sounded a cautious note? Of course not. Those and others can only step lightly in hopes that a performing arts center includes them. Not until a building is up, and their support has been bought with promises, will they see that their struggles remain. After the city spent $3.5 million in 1994 to spruce up the backstage area at Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, the big-wigs behind the Orlando Broadway Series said they'd be content to stay with that stage, even if a new center went up. Then they changed their mind: Why should they be stuck with the old hall? The booking problems now encountered at Carr will simply be transferred to a new place.

The push for a theater district has a similar thread, in that it's rooted in a perceived lack of performing spaces. But there is plenty of space. The problem is that few who want to perform can afford rent or production costs. With exceptions, theater here is still very Judy-and- Mickey; you sew the costumes, I'll print the tickets, etc. Maupin cites "40 or 50 theater groups." In fact, most "groups" consist of one or two people; consider Prof. Saturn's Atomic Sci-Fi Theatre Company, which actually is husband-and-wife Nick and Claire Farrantello, or SsQ Theatre, Glenn Stephens' one-man producing effort staging African American-themed works. Two storefront venues that hosted freelance shows -- Manhattan South and the former Stage Left Theatre, both in the Virginia-Mills district -- shut down last year. The most successful theater collective -- absent from most of Maupin's reporting, which focused on downtown-based organizations whose artists are paid -- is Theatre Downtown, which in March will celebrate nine years of staging productions in a renovated appliance store. Its rent is $2,752 a month.

Located at Princeton Street and North Orange Avenue, Theatre Down-town is not really downtown, although it sits just inside the border of a generously drawn downtown tax district. But it is practically across the street from Loch Haven Park, home to the three-stage Civic Theatres complex and the soon-to-be-emptied -- and government-owned -- old science center. The Civic has certainly done OK on its site, and the Shakespeare Festival had no problem filling seats in a makeshift theater in the old science center quarters, now filled by the Orange County Historical Museum. It was encouraging to hear Brenda Robinson, the city's deputy chief administrator, say that after the historical museum moves on, the building may not be torn down after all. There's plenty of room there for offices and storage; with another stage or two added, plus the Civic's three, plus Theatre Downtown just around the corner -- why, it's beginning to look like a theater district already. The city has new signs on I-4 directing people to the theatres and "Orlando Cultural Attractions." Might as well put 'em to good use.

What is a district after all? Two theaters? Ten? However many, the Sentinel insists they be downtown, where SAK Theatre soon may be homeless as well, and the springtime Fringe Festival is always looking for a stage -- about six of them, actually. We're much more open-minded; a theater district will work where it is allowed to work. So show up at the next meeting of the theater alliance -- 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2, at the Civic -- and tell the theater artists what you can do to make it happen. We know you're committed. We just want to know how. And we've given you a good option.

And if you don't like it, show up anyway and tell the people who truly give this city its unique culture exactly how they will have access to a new performing arts center.

And if you do that, try to keep a straight face.


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