While the flag may theoretically have been flying at half-mast for the Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center since its ambitious inception, it's even more alarming that the actual flag marking its future address across from City Hall, blazoned with an orange-and-white "2012," has been removed altogether by DPAC staffers in the last month. (A spokeswoman blamed the weather's effects on the flag in the Orlando Sentinel, but no one believed her.) The shining emblem of the city's three-ring circus of development was to be a cultural hub of infinite educational opportunities and minimal acoustic interference. The $425 million structure was, if you'll remember, the key to making Orlando a "world-class city."
But then 2009 happened. In April, the Orlando Opera — which would have been one of the three major tenants of DPAC, along with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orlando Ballet — announced that it would let its curtain fall after 51 years. This, while a National Endowment for the Arts study showed that artists were losing their jobs at twice the rate of other professional workers. In early May, one-third of the Orlando Ballet's dancers walked out, citing creative differences with a new artistic director and shorter seasons.
Also in May came the news that Orange County's hotel tax revenues had dipped again for the 10th month in a row, a startling 28 percent from March 2008 to March 2009. The revenues that were meant to help construct DPAC by 2012 were no longer there, putting the project on "indefinite" status.
This is the news that United Arts of Central Florida president and chief executive officer Margot Knight wakes up to every morning. United Arts is charged with mitigating adverse circumstances, but have the circumstances reached a crisis point?
Not according to Knight, who tries to keep her head above the treacherous arts-world waters by "following one number and being chased by another."
Orlando Weekly: There has obviously been a confluence of events lately ….
Margot Knight: Confluence, that's the word. I think the whole analogy is that we all got scared of something that is worthy of being scared of, but may not be as bad as we thought.
I read an interview with you a couple of years ago in Florida Trend where you were quoted as saying that the performing arts center couldn't be coming at a better time, because interest was waning in the arts and to have that as a symbol could be quite helpful.
There's no question that an iconic — a regional icon like the performing arts center will jump-start interest, and boost it. All you have to do is look at any performing arts center around the country. The first-year enhanced interest in absolutely documentable, so that's a good thing. Then, just like any other enterprise with a new product or something new and different, how do we work to sustain that interest and grow it? Because for the last 20 years, we have pushed double-digit increases in attendance and contributed income, until this year, and I just ran the numbers last week and we're down.
Budgets are down 13 percent, attendance was down 14 percent from 2007 to 2008, and in 2009 I won't be surprised to see them down again. From 2008 to 2009, contributed income was down 7 percent, earned income down 6, and total sector down almost 14 percent, when you factor in the loss of the opera.
You straddle two dynamics here, ground-level arts and what some would consider the big-business classical arts. In town, you know there was some exception to the performing arts center being viewed as some kind of salvation, when none of these other arts groups would be able to afford to put on any kind of show there. There's a sense that it was rushed, and there's also been criticism that the whole trifecta — the Citrus Bowl, the new arena for the Magic and DPAC — that those two not benefiting the Orlando Magic were just leverage.
I don't buy into that; it's almost a conspiracy theory. I think that it's not a complete accident, but the Magic have the wherewithal to do a lot more planning and were just better-positioned to put a shovel in the ground.
It was just going to take a longer time to do the performing arts center. But I don't subscribe to the conspiracy thing, `though` I can understand how it looks that way.
In the case of the Orlando Opera dying, you've said before that just because a local art institution dies, that doesn't mean that the art form goes with it.
And we don't want to lose any of those 1,180 subscribers or the hundreds of donors who cared enough to support operatic music. We want to keep those people.
How, though? Do you assure them that there will be something else on the horizon, so just hold on?
And there will be. And as soon as we've got something beyond a plan to plan, there will be a communiqué that goes out to donors and subscribers. Right now I'm hoping that the opera will give me their subscriber list, which they haven't yet, but I have a request out to them.
Mitigation seems to be an important word in your position here. I guess there are all sorts of creative ways to try to make this look not as bad as it seems right now?
All the `Orlando Opera` artists got paid, that's the good news. Now it's down to the subscribers. We don't want to lose them. We lost, because there wasn't a clear way to immediately engage them, the people who were deeply engaged in the Florida Symphony when they went belly-up.
It was real hard, the early years of the Philharmonic were tough going because people were so upset. It created such angst in the community. It takes several years, make no mistake.
If there's anything that screams "expendable," it's recreational attendance to anything. So it's just a matter of trying to keep a smile on your face? This isn't the first recession, after all.
I still hark back to what Marc Scorca from OPERA America said: No healthy opera has gone under. We're seeing, even last year when we got those numbers from '08, we had 11 organizations that ended the year with positive unrestricted assets. We've got groups that stored some nuts for the winter. That's one of our rules at United Arts, we want you to have 90 days cash. And a lot of groups have done that for themselves.
Do you think DPAC has helped the arts cause or has it hurt it?
I think it's had a neutral effect. Your observation that it really has had a negligible impact on everybody except for the Ballet, Opera and Philharmonic is right. I think that having the arts paid attention to by politicians at the highest level is never a bad thing. So to the extent that it raises the profile that both brings out supporters and brings out the crazies who don't think art should be funded by anybody for any purpose at any point in time — that it has raised the profile of arts and culture in this community … is a wonderful thing. People are talking about it.
Do you think it stands a chance?
DPAC? Yes. I don't know when. You've got too much demand. You've already got $90 million invested — or pledged, I don't know how much they've collected. I'm not an insider, I couldn't tell you when. I think a market of our size must have some kind of performing arts center. A dream delayed is not a dream deferred, it really isn't. You have to be practical and you have to figure out a way to keep the momentum; even if you have to pare down the momentum a little bit, it shouldn't mean the end of the dream. Lots of people have had setbacks, it's just managing the setback that's really critical in times like firstname.lastname@example.org