On Aug. 31, the Downtown Arts District (DAD) board held an “information gathering session,” billed as a chance for members of the arts community to give input on the city’s master plan for a “thriving” arts district. If you’re unclear on what the DAD is, or how it relates to the proposed Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center (DPAC), join the club: Since splitting in 2002 from what’s now called the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Central Florida, the DAD has not earned a reputation for transparency. After 10 years of observing and participating in Orlando arts, all I can tell you is that I can’t recall seeing many of the DAD board members (largely real estate and marketing types) performing onstage or otherwise creating art. Still, I held out hope that this meeting might be a chance for those serving in Orlando’s artistic trenches to speak honestly about the struggles they face, for their “voice to be heard” in a meaningful forum.
Unfortunately, the tone was set early by a DAD representative who exhorted attendees into forgoing all talk of “obstacles” and “challenges,” dismissively saying, “We all know what they are already.” Instead of sharing roadblocks faced in the real world, participants were expected to engage in blue-sky brainstorming – with grade-school butcher paper and day-glo stickers – about the features of an “ideal arts district.” By the time “mimes” and “twinkle lights” were being suggested as essential elements, the meter on my half-mile-distant parking spot had almost expired. I departed suspecting that the Downtown Arts District would have about as much lasting impact as Glenda Hood’s once vaunted Cultural Corridor; that is, none whatsoever.
Ironically, the Downtown Arts District’s self-proclaimed priority is “helping arts groups find performance space,” yet the CityArts Factory where DAD is based has become an unfriendly emblem of the uphill battle performing artists face when seeking urban stages. Since opening in 2006, CityArts has failed to achieve its potential for theater performers, despite proving hospitable to visual artists. The acute shortage of downtown accommodations has increasingly hamstrung our theatrical community. Over the last decade, I’ve watched personal passion projects get pushed aside (like Joe’s NYC Bar). I’ve seen once-established companies wander homeless (like Orlando Theatre Project). I’ve observed anchors of our theatrical community struggle with uncertain futures (like Mad Cow Theatre, Theatre Downtown and SAK). In every case, the problem isn’t a failure of talent or of audience – we have both in spades. The problem is real estate: Our city’s leaders incentivized the extinction of affordable performance venues. And they wonder why there isn’t more art downtown?
Which brings us to the future Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center. This newspaper (and to a lesser extent, the Orlando Sentinel) has covered the political and financial machinations behind the venue projects, but hardly any ink has been spilled from the POV of the front-line artists. The project that many assumed was a done deal is in limbo again, thanks to a Sept. 6 Florida Supreme Court ruling against using $160 million of Community Redevelopment Agency funds without a voter referendum. Venue-boosting politicians, reluctant to validate petition-pushing hotel magnate Harris Rosen, are scrambling for alternate funding. That might make this the last, best opportunity for a cold-eyed re-evaluation of the DPAC.
The Orlando Ballet, Orlando Opera and Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra – DPAC’s proposed primary tenants – are all fine companies that will derive a much-needed boost from the new venue. Still, the trio combined will perform only 90 or so dates each year, almost exclusively in the secondary 1,800-seat hall. Most of the smaller performing groups will likely never be able to use even the smallest 300-seat stage, which is slated to be available only 40 nights per year. As a result, DPAC would not be an economically viable outlet for the majority of those most in need of space.
The real beneficiaries of the facility’s 2,800-seat main theater? The deep-pocketed producers of touring shows like the SunTrust Broadway Across America series. But the road company of Xanadu won’t make us a world-class arts destination. And constant carping about the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre’s cramped backstage and unwieldy seating aside, that venue is more spacious and flexible than many of the legendary venues on NYC’s Great White Way – a permanent center aisle, acoustical treatments and another parking garage would eliminate most of the complaints.
The deeper issue is that the proposed performing arts center is less about the genuine needs of our arts community and more about civic ego. Our representatives have made silly statements in favor of “picking up” the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and “dropping” it downtown. As a North Jersey native, I can assure you that the NJPAC is a success because it was built in a region that already had the firm foundation of a thriving local arts network, not the other way around. And the NJPAC hasn’t been a boon for all the area: The respected Paper Mill Playhouse in nearby Milburn is now struggling. Building an architectural behemoth in hopes that it will stimulate grass-roots cultural character is like spreading the frosting before baking the cake. Orlando has suffered from this kind of “build it and they will come” irrationality for years. Ask Linda Chapin what her boondoggle of an auditorium at the Orange County Convention Center has done for performers in this town.
My small-government libertarian side shudders at indebting taxpayers for decades, but I’m enough of a realist to recognize that a new arts venue may be inevitable – the question is what form it should assume. Rather than spending the GDP of a small nation on a massive monolith, why not instead take a page from the one indisputably successful cultural event: the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival? After more than a decade of organic growth, the Fringe has achieved near perfection in its Loch Haven Park home. For 12 days each May, Orlando has a genuinely thriving cultural life; not “First Thursdays” faux-culture, but artists and enthusiasts honestly interacting in a stimulating social setting.
To extend that kind of eclectic aesthetic environment to downtown year-round, here’s my modest proposal: Ditch the giant auditoriums and self-aggrandizing architecture, and designate the DPAC land for the construction of a half-dozen adaptable 100-seat black-box theaters. Include office and rehearsal space, and rent it out to local arts groups at cost (or below) on a lottery/time-share basis. Surround it with gathering spaces, safe and ample parking, and easy access to reasonably priced food and drink (aka a full-time beer tent). The rest will take care of itself. By creating an affordable home for our multitude of “gypsy” artists, we’ll have done more good for Orlando culture than a thousand commission studies could ever achieve. And it would cost a fraction of DPAC’s almost half-billion-dollar budget.
Orlando’s arts leaders are enamored of cooperation and collaboration, and reluctant to air dirty laundry. No one wants to appear ungrateful for the corporate largess that has pledged millions for DPAC. But those noble instincts can result in a reluctance to speak truth to power. Only United Arts of Central Florida CEO Margot Knight has dared ring the alarm bell with a diplomatic yet pointed Sentinel op-ed. While many in the arts community seem to feel that a deeply flawed facility is better than nothing, they may be singing a different tune in a few years when those struggling groups that manage to survive are told, “We built you the OPAC, what more do you want?”firstname.lastname@example.org