When the Portland Center for the Performing Arts turned 10 in 1997, no expense was spared.
There were balloons and specialty cocktails. Elegantly dressed servers offered high-end hors d'oeuvres—radicchio stuffed with duck salad, cucumber topped with curry shrimp. And a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at the main theater center at 1111 SW Broadway.
"It was a huge fundraising gala," recalls Gary Maffei, a member of the then-newly formed Friends of the PCPA. "And it was a big success."
But there won't be any bubbly or big parties costing tens of thousands of dollars as PCPA marks its 20th anniversary this year. There's not much reason to party, because PCPA's numbers are down and it wants more financial help from the city.
PCPA manages Keller Auditorium, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the main Broadway center, actually called Antoinette Hatfield Hall. Hatfield Hall comprises three venues—the Newmark Theatre, the Dolores Winningstad Theatre and Brunish Hall. And it's at Hatfield Hall—which Portland Center Stage left in 2006 for its new Armory home in the Pearl—where trends are most troubling.
The five-floor facility has suffered up to a 20 percent reduction in its rental use among Portland arts organizations over the past five years. This at a time when Portland arts groups want space. But PCPA can't meet increased venue demands from those groups, critics say, because it's either giving away space to nonprofits or renting those spaces at higher rates to commercial enterprises.
Theater attendance at PCPA has fallen 11 percent over the past five years, compared with attendance gains reported by other Portland arts venues such as Artists Repertory Theatre and Miracle Theatre.
"My concern," says local actress and impresario Mary McDonald-Lewis, "is PCPA is going to be a big box squatting on Broadway that's only home to franchise theater shows and rubber chicken dinners."
While crowd-pleasing traveling franchise theater shows can generate enough money in theory to subsidize smaller local productions, directors of small to midsize companies say that hasn't happened with the rents PCPA charges them. Adds actor and developer Corey Brunish, a former member of the PCPA's Friends group who donated $250,000 for the naming rights to PCPA's smallest hall: "They have a beautiful facility and a great staff at PCPA. The fact that they [the halls] sit empty is a shame."
PCPA wants more city funding, on top of the nearly $700,000 annual infusion it currently receives. PCPA also gets a share—$1.9 million this fiscal year—of the tri-county hotel-motel tax. PCPA's executive director, Robyn Williams, says she'd like a slice of the Regional Arts and Culture Council's "percent for art" program, which is used to subsidize public arts installations.
The current combined $2.6 million government subsidy represents about 25 percent of PCPA's $10 million annual budget.
Jesse Beason, Commissioner Sam Adams' deputy director for arts and culture, says increased funding for the facilities is "a possibility, but we need to hear from folks in the community about how that falls into the scheme of priorities."
It's a priority for Jill Baum, managing director of Artists Repertory Theatre—which recently produced a new work called The Ghosts of Celilo at PCPA's Newmark Theatre. But Baum raises a question asked by many others: "Can the city help partner with PCPA to get small and midsized arts groups in there, or into new venues?"
That question reflects the tension between PCPA and Portland's arts community since Portland Center Stage's move to the Pearl District freed up space for nonprofit and commercial use—at a rate at least three times what PCS was paying. In addition, some of PCS's former office spaces at PCPA are now rented at a sizable increase to the commercial development company Clarus.
"While the landlord may consider the rent increases just good business, I consider it exclusionary," says McDonald-Lewis. "And any project that is comped or subsidized by PCPA needs to undergo serious scrutiny and oversight by a committee comprised of staff and citizens."
David Woolson, CEO of Metro's Exposition Recreation Commission, which oversees the PCPA and two other venues, has full faith in PCPA Executive Director Robyn Williams' abilities, and in where the PCPA is today.
"At the end of the day there's a business to run," Woolson says. "And we have to look at the bottom line. I think Robyn has done a very good job."
Williams says PCS's move was "great" for PCPA because PCPA actually ended up subsidizing PCS while it was there. As to the question of PCPA squeezing out local theater companies, Williams says, "PCPA is never going to meet all the needs of the local arts community. But the real issue is that we have a shortage of performance facilities in Portland."
Adds Maffei, chair of PCPA's Friends group: "I certainly love all my Portland performing arts groups, but they've got to get real."
PCPA resident companies are Tears of Joy Theatre (Newmark/Winningstad), Oregon Children's Theatre (Newmark/Brunish/Keller), Oregon Symphony (Schnitzer), Portland Opera (Keller), and Oregon Ballet Theatre (Keller/Newmark).