City Arts Facilities Report Encouraging for Two Organizations in the South End

By Seth Daniel

Two key venues in the South End – prominently mentioned in a newly released City Arts Facilities Report – are encouraged by the path that the report seems to point to in solving what has become a space crisis for small to mid-sized theatre companies and theatre operators in Boston.

Both the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts and the Boston Center of the Arts (BCA) were prominently mentioned as two venues that – if their funding mechanisms were re-thought – could go a long way to solving the crisis, a situation that only gained widespread attention last year when the report was commissioned by the City.

At the time last year, the situation was one where many smaller performing arts companies were resolving to leave Boston for other places where they could operate – with several in the arts community indicating at the time that the city was in jeopardy of losing its creative soul.

Robin Allen LaPlante, director of marketing and communications for the BCA, said this is a problem they have been addressing since the Factory Theatre closed in the South End’s Piano Factory a few years ago. While their efforts there have been helpful, it hasn’t spawned a major solution, she said.

“It’s putting a face to the situation,” said LaPlante this week. “We’ve been talking to the companies and other venues to figure out how to help solve this. This has been a question on the BCA’s mind for a long time. It’s a roadmap to really help many artists have a place to express their art…The report showed there is good space and there is a lot of space, but it’s not really meeting a lot of the needs.”

Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, executive director of IBA/Villa Victoria, said they are looking to provide input and are excited to hear they are identified as a real asset to help in the crisis.

“I’m really excited and it’s important we have a written document that will support the City’s plan moving forward and also leverage the Boston Creates plan,” she said. “This is a way the City could tell funders and donors to support the spaces…and meet the needs of these smaller performing arts groups. You don’t want to create an imbalance between big performing arts groups and smaller performing arts groups. You need both or one will thrive over another. The report can be used for developers and the arts funding community.”

After a year of studying the longstanding crisis regarding space for the performing arts, the City unveiled a study on Monday that codifies the problem of affordability, unmet needs and basic space for the many artists looking to enliven the city’s cultural soul – a problem that had been only really discussed in artistic circles before last year.

The report was conducted by TDC and TDC Executive Vice President Susan Nelson said it would be presented to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and the City of Boston. Those entities plan to release it this week for public comment. Beyond that, it will serve as a document that can be used by the BPDA and the City when talking to developers and the donor/foundation community.

“We’re really excited about this document and what it means to have data about what is useful in the market,” said Joyce Linehan of the City of Boston. “It can change the way the BPDA talks with developers about having space for cultural amenities – knowing what is needed and what’s useful.”

Nelson said they eliminated the “Big 5” theatres that typically host Broadway style productions, venues which are flourishing and largely out of reach for the budgets of the small and medium theatre companies that are really feeling the cost pinch when it comes to performance and rehearsal space.

This five theaters include the Boch Center,  Boston Opera House, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Colonial Theatre and Orpheum Theatre. Beyond those, they studied non-profit performing arts venues, University-managed theatres, cultural centers (such as the BCA and Villa Victoria), religious venues, commercially operated venues (like clubs), rehearsal venues and other venues (like schools and art galleries).

One thing they learned was that there are a lot of adequate spaces, but the spaces are too expensive and don’t meet the demands of the market.

The costs of maintaining the spaces for the operators is extensive, and the budgets of the performing arts companies can’t extend to cover those operating costs. That, they found, is the overarching conundrum.

“Individual donors are a big thing in Boston,” Nelson said. “They are supporting the arts and the dance companies, but the buildings themselves are not sexy to invest in…We hear this conversation all over the city. Users can’t afford another nickel. Operators need to raise prices to improve facilities. These operators are in a double bind. They can’t put up prices. They need to improve the amenities. They need to think about improving their lighting, their bathrooms and facilities, but they can’t raise prices to do that because the users can’t afford them. That’s where they’re in a bind.”

That’s something LaPlante and Calderon-Rosado said is a frequent concern for them.

“We just did a bunch of electrical upgrades and lighting upgrades and you can’t really name your wiring after your biggest donor,” said LaPlante. “You can’t name the code and life safety upgrades after a foundation. On top of that, you have the cost of operating a space, such as staff time and keeping the lights on. That’s not the sexy stuff that people want to fund as much.”

One difference, Nelson said, between Boston and other cities is that Boston is an older city with older buildings. Cultural facilities were largely converted from movie houses, vaudeville theatres and other uses. They were funded through donors for the sake of supporting the arts.

Meanwhile, in places like Phoenix, such facilities were built new as a way to spur economic development.

“Other cities grew up differently; we are old,” she said. “Younger cities decided to build an arts facility as part of an economic development plan. We kind of need to learn from our younger cities.”

One suggestion is to encourage donors and foundations to support facilities with donations, money that would be combined with some new kind of government subsidy to support existing venues.

“We need to find a way to pull all these three levers at the same time,” said Nelson. “Without that, we don’t see how you can solve these needs. You need good operators to get good facilities. Good operators need subsidies.”

Calderon-Rosado said such a subsidy combined with philanthropic money would be an ideal situation for them. The Report pointed out that places like the Villa have a community development mission and a neighborhood support mission, and their facilities are often left out of the big foundational and philanthropic conversations.

“There are a lot of hidden costs in these older buildings and the costs to operate them are high,” she said. “We have been doing things little by little, but subsidizing these upgrades would really help us to get it done faster so these spaces can become available to other groups and costs can go down. That’s one approach and we’re definitely in support of that approach.”

Meanwhile, BPDA officials said the document, once it goes through the public process, would be something they can use when speaking with developers.  While not every first floor retail opportunity could be turned into a subsidized theatre, some could, they said, if the right operator was combined with the need in the market.

Sara Myerson, BPDA director of Planning, said they would use the finished document to initiate conversations with developers about how to activate the new buildings and districts. It could also inform zoning amendments and regulations for districts, too, she said.

“It’s a chance to go beyond that retail space and look at other opportunities to activate our buildings,” she said, hinting that there are great opportunities in some of the developments for such spaces – and that developers are excited to think about providing the opportunities.

Linehan cautioned that when developers build new spaces, it will be important to bring in someone who knows what they’re doing in order to run these spaces.

“We can have developers build all the theatres we want, but if they’re not operated by people who know how to operate theatres, we could end up with a bunch of empty spaces that don’t work well or address these needs,” she cautioned.

That’s something that Calderon-Rosado also felt was a concern. She worried that too many spaces could result in saturation.

“Once these spaces are constructed, you have to think about operating costs, about who is running it and whether the person running it knows how to attract and market the space so it successful in perpetuity,” she said. “These new spaces have to be clearly thought out and developed with the need and demand in mind.”

The report was posted online Wednesday for the public to view. There is a 30-day comment period now in place and the public is encouraged to weigh in.

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