Edifice complex

This piece about the construction of new nonprofit theaters prompts the Nonprofiteer to offer a pair of cautionary notes. 

As a theater critic (alternate life) she’s seen a number of fine companies succumb to New Building Disease, characterized by an overuse of high-tech toys (trap doors, lifts, revolves, flies) and an underuse of the imagination that made patrons want to support the theaters in the first place.  The first three to five years in a new space tend to be a theatrical wasteland; so patrons of the house-proud companies mentioned in the Times article might consider subscribing to a good storefront troupe while they wait for the big guys to settle their new plumage.

But–more important to readers here–the Nonprofiteer has seen the way new buildings risk sinking the very companies they’re supposed to anchor.  The risks include:

  • the abrupt onset of enormous fixed costs at institutions whose strength has always been the ability to cut back on expenses if a couple of innovative shows in a row are bombs;
  • collapse of the Board of Directors, let down after the excitement of a successful capital campaign, producing a fundraising lull just when audiences are expecting more, bigger and better; and
  • distraction of artists and administrators alike from their mission of creating art to their entirely new and not necessarily congenial role of running a building.

Of course city governments love the idea of having a theater make a
huge contribution to municipal infrastructure.  If the goal is
gentrification or reclamation of a downtown core, one theater company
is worth dozens of individual artists in lofts!  But municipal
enthusiasm, however intoxicating, isn’t strictly relevant, nor is the
enthusiasm of donors who may want their names on the wall, floor or

Sometimes an arts group’s new space can make a terrific and positive difference in the art it’s able to create: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s repertoire exploded as soon as it had a rehearsal space big enough for the creation of new dances.  But that’s the point: the question worth asking about any proposed building project is NOT "Does a fine arts group deserve a beautiful environment?" (who could say "no"?) but "Will that new environment help produce so much more/better art that it’s worth not just the financial but the human and institutional costs?" 

And unless the answer is not just "sure" but "We’ll be able to generate an entire new play series from this black box space alone" (or words to that effect), the savvy arts leader will treat the idea as the snare and delusion that it is, and return to dreaming of scripts and scores instead of bricks and mortar.


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