For the past several years the relationship between some of the city's most prestigious arts organizations and their government landlord has been strained--maybe not as frosty as between the Montagues and the Capulets, but enough to edge into dramatic territory.
The Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theater, Portland Opera and Portland Center Stage have long harbored misgivings about the Metropolitan Exposition-Recreation Commission. The main beefs have to do with user fees added to tickets, the quality of the performing spaces and the snug booking calendar MERC keeps.
But the tension rose palpably last year when the arts organizations banded together under the name BODS (an acronym for Ballet, Opera, Dance, Symphony). They hired a private consultant who concluded that Portland needs to build two additional performance halls in the next 10 years and that extensive improvements to the Keller Auditorium and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall are overdue. The projects would cost an estimated $200 million, half of which would come from a private capital campaign spearheaded by the BODS, the other half from public funding.
BODS muscle-flexing comes at an exciting time for the arts. Long-serving creative directors at three of the four big arts groups stepped down last year (Robert Bailey at the Opera, James DePreist at the Symphony and James Canfield at Oregon Ballet Theater), and the search for new leaders awakened slumbering scene watchers.
The push for shiny new buildings adds yet another element of evolution for these groups. While some bystanders are impressed by the ambition of the proposal, MERC is not.
"We were a little disturbed that we weren't involved," says Sheryl Manning, MERC's acting general manager.
Excluding the owner and manager of the main stages in town from the creation of the BODS plan was viewed by some as a slap in the face. "As the most knowledgeable person in town regarding performing arts facilities, I think it's amazing that we weren't consulted," says Robyn Williams, the MERC official who oversees operations at the Schnitzer and Keller auditoriums, as well as the New Theater Building, which are collectively known as the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.
Williams also questions the study that calls for two new arts halls. "No one's asked what the city needs," she says. "This study shows what four groups need."
The primary force behind the effort to rehab and construct new art spaces in Portland is Tony Woodcock, the 52-year-old president of the Oregon Symphony. A sophisticated Welsh violinist and intrepid fundraiser who joined the symphony as its administrative leader in 1998, Woodcock led a rebellion this summer when MERC instituted an increase in user fees tacked onto tickets. "We did lock horns with MERC on that issue," he says.
MERC argued that rents for resident companies at the PCPA are relatively low (the symphony pays $625 for a day at the Schnitzer, less than half the $1,600 the Hult Center charges resident companies in Eugene), and the user-fee increase stuck.
Woodcock, however, says the Schnitz, a 75-year-old rehabbed theater, isn't a first-class hall: The leg room in the seating area is inadequate, the stage is too small, its location makes sound float upwards instead of outwards, and performers can't hear each other. "It hasn't progressed sufficiently since its days as a cinema," he says.
And most important, he says, it's overbooked. According to a study funded by MERC, the PCPA hosted 817 events in the 1998-1999 season, while similar performance facilities in Denver hosted 434. The same study shows that "the PCPA presented the highest number of events of all the comparison centers." While this high use rate shows efficient management, it comes at a cost to the symphony and other organizations. "Halls are being used three and a half times more than they should be," he says. "The problems with scheduling are huge. We often get, 'Do you think you can end that rehearsal early so we can get in?'"
Last year, with funding provided by an anonymous donor, the BODS hired the Keewaydin Group, a Minneapolis consulting firm, to come up with the feasibility study for new venues. The proposal calls for finding a new theater space for Portland Center Stage this year, improving the Schnitzer and Keller the following year, and building a 2,000-seat multipurpose hall for the Symphony and the Opera to move into within the next 10 years.
Art-scene observers have mixed reactions to the plan.
Allen Nause, artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, says his group has benefited immensely by moving from the YMCA to its own downtown space on Southwest Alder Street five years ago. "We have street visibility--we have our own marquee," says Nause, who believes a new home could give the BODS a boost. "Identity is everything," he says.
Walter Jaffe and Paul King of White Bird, a group that brings dance troupes to town, favor improving the existing venues. "We're big advocates for dealing with what we have--let's raise money to make these things better," says Jaffe. King, who hasn't seen the study, says he'd love to be involved in the plans, "but no one's talked to us, to be honest."
Howard Bierbaum, executive director of Fear No Music, says the BODS must make the case that expansion is needed and they have "the butts to fill the seats." Even with that, he says, "I don't know if it's doable to raise that kind of money right now. I've been doing grant-writing for 15 years, and this has been the hardest year ever."
If the plan does come to fruition, what will be the cost? Will the siphoning of capital for these buildings hurt the arts organizations' ability to focus on creative demands? Will the city take a hit if the PCPA is abandoned by its primary tenants? Or will the new halls take Portland's arts scene to a new level and encourage Joe Millionaires to taste-test culture of another kind, saving the arts from extinction?
MERC's role in these new ventures is still unclear. Woodcock says he regrets leaving his landlord out of the study. "I believe it was an oversight on our part--in hindsight, they should have been involved," he says. "Now the open hand of collaboration for Phase II has been warmly received."
The BODS have been meeting regularly with the PCPA's Williams, who says she's noticed more cooperation as of late. "It's been less strained," she says.
THE ART OF ACRONYMS
The Metropolitan Exposition-Recreation Commission is an arm of Metro, the tri-county regional government. It manages three of Portland's event facilities--the Convention Center, the Expo Center and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (MERC used to run Civic Stadium, now the privately operated PGE Park).
The PCPA is not really one "center" but three: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (1037 SW Broadway), Keller Auditorium (222 SW 3rd Ave.), and what's called the New Theatre (1111 SW Broadway), which houses the Winningstad and Newmark theaters.
The PCPA has 24 full-time employees who are responsible for booking and managing the theaters. It brings in $1.5 million annually from a hotel-motel tax and the city's coffers. The bulk of its cash--about $5 million annually--comes from rent it charges to the arts groups that use the facilities it manages, concessions sold during events and ticket fees. --CBB