Much Ado About Costly Arts Centers

Even in an era of cutbacks, some colleges see big performance halls as the new necessities

Robert Benson

The Hylton Performing Arts Center, on the Manassas, Va., branch campus of George Mason U., opened last fall at a cost of $46-million. Modeled on 19th-century European opera houses, its 1,121-seat theater includes a copper ceiling and three levels of box seats.
March 13, 2011

It's an irony Shakespeare could write a play around: Officials of California State University at Northridge spent 10 years planning a $125-million performing-arts center and figuring out how to pay for it—securing more than $60-million in capital-projects money from the state and raising millions more from gifts and grants. They pleaded with donors and local politicians to make up shortfalls and promised anxious students that none of the money would come from their pockets. It wouldn't be a surprise to hear that the project's biggest backer, President Jolene M. Koester, had checked between the sofa cushions in her office for loose change.

Finally Northridge scheduled the opening gala for late January, only to have it take place just two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown proposed slashing $1.4-billion from state support for higher education. This month Joan Rivers, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ed Asner, and Roseanne Cash are performing in the 1,700-seat main hall, and a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is running in the black-box theater—while across the campus, students stage protests against fee increases and program cuts that the university says will be necessary because of the state's revenue shortfall.

The Valley Performing Arts Center here isn't the only one to make its debut amid recessionary fallout. Multimillion-dollar venues, many of them financed largely by state money, are opening or planned at colleges across the country. Even though ticket sales and donations cover much of the operating cost, the centers prompt critics to talk about "edifice complexes" and "conspicuous consumption."

The number of new facilities, at least, is conspicuous. In February, James Madison University opened its five-venue, $82-million Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. Smaller facilities have opened within the past year or so at George Mason University's branch campus in Manassas, Va. ($46-million), Sam Houston State University ($38.5-million), and on Montgomery College's campus in Silver Spring, Md. ($31-million).

All of those were planned before the recession started. But even with the economy sputtering and gloom pervading legislative budget committees, new arts venues are in the works at institutions as diverse as Hagerstown Community College, in Maryland; the University of Texas's Permian Basin campus; and the State University of New York at Potsdam. With colleges everywhere raising tuition and cutting programs, such projects have some people questioning administrative priorities.

"In the order of sins, performing-arts centers are probably a tad better than rec centers, student-union buildings, and indoor-practice facilities," says Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University who is director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "They present events that have some tie to artistic expression, and that's part of what universities do."

But when you start adding up personnel costs, heating and air conditioning, and depreciation, he says, "the real problem is, we simply can't afford this stuff." Even though arts venues may not "be socking it to kids directly, there are no free lunches."

A Glut of Theaters?

Some of the arts projects have been particularly controversial on their own campuses. Faculty members at Sonoma State University, which is also in the Cal State system, spent years heckling President Ruben Armiñana's plan to build a performing-arts center, which ended up costing $120-million by the time it opened, in October. Although the money didn't come from the university's operating budget, some faculty members complained that the institution had been so focused on raising big sums for the arts venue that it neglected other needs. But other professors say the facility could help raise Sonoma State's profile and improve relations with local residents.

The glamour of performing-arts centers—the bright lights, the galas, the divas—may be hard for presidents and boards to resist, especially as more and more of the facilities open on campuses that aren't system flagships. David B. Greenbaum, a vice president of the architecture firm SmithGroup who oversees its cultural-facilities practice, says that while economic conditions have delayed some projects—"anything that's got state funding"—he sees a number of new facilities coming in the years ahead.

"I wouldn't be surprised to think that a performing-arts center is going to be something you have to have," Mr. Greenbaum says. "Maybe it's going from a luxury to a necessity."

Arts venues are still a long way from matching climbing walls in terms of attracting students. But colleges that have built performing-arts facilities say their public offerings—underwritten by a mix of ticket revenue and donor gifts—are important paybacks to the taxpayers and communities that support the institutions and that might otherwise never see a Broadway star or a ballet besides The Nutcracker.

Still, some arts professionals wonder whether campus performing-arts centers are contributing to what the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, said last month is a glut of theaters in general. Mr. Landesman, a Broadway producer, was responding to a question about declining attendance figures for performances. "Look, you can either increase demand or decrease supply," he said. "Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply."

But W. Robert Bucker, executive director of the complex here in Northridge, says that the San Fernando Valley has "a pent-up desire to see high culture and a tremendous interest in pop culture," and that the Valley Performing Arts Center will offer both. One of the big attractions of the new facility, he says, is its location in a populous area from which driving to older venues—in downtown Los Angeles, in Pasadena, in Santa Monica—can be a nightmare.

"The mission of this university is to be an accessible institution," he argues. Here, unlike downtown, performance prices are scaled "so there are always tickets in the $15-to-$25 range," with 20-percent discounts for faculty and staff members and 40-percent discounts for students.

And unlike many professional theaters, which have fairly narrow ranges of offerings, the Valley Performing Art Center's spring events include the China Philharmonic Orchestra, a popular brass quintet from Mexico called Metales M5, and, at the end of May, a double bill featuring the Evita stars Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin that's been sold out for weeks.

Such a wide-ranging calendar also helps limit the university's financial risk—if audiences here don't flock to modern-dance events, for instance, Ed Asner's one-man show about FDR or the brass quintet's performance may take up the slack. Just in case, though, the university has set aside $500,000 as a "safety net" for the center's operations.

In Silver Spring, Md., the biggest benefit of the new facility on Montgomery College's branch campus is that it "brings a whole group of people to Montgomery College who might not otherwise come—it's a huge front door with a wonderful welcome mat," says Brad J. Stewart, who oversees the campus as vice president and provost.

In addition to student productions and college events, the facility has housed dance performances, entertainers like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and big corporate functions. The revenue stream from company rentals and traveling shows not only helps the college's balance sheet but also means that local nonprofit groups, like the Maryland Youth Ballet, can use the facility free or at a discount, Mr. Stewart says. "To see the building full of young dancers—wow, that's is what we built this for. To have young people learning, to have their parents here, too."