Monday, February 23, 2009

Arts alive in economic downturn

The urgent letter 10,000 Grand Opera House supporters received last week was disturbing. Patrons were asked to donate $150 each by July to underwrite a budget shortfall of $500,000.

The prospect of The Grand shuttering its doors is preposterous. It is our Empire State Building, our Golden Gate Bridge.

Executive Director Steve Bailey has not suggest the institution is about to close, but the implications are clear. And perceptions rule, so it is surprising that this financial hiccup was not resolved behind closed doors.

The Grand, along with seven other statewide arts institutions, receives payment from The Arts Stabilization Fund, a state/corporate endowment. They all rely on this endowment to maintain their facilities, and we all know about equity loss these days.

In the midst of a a lot of bad news for the arts, there are a few bright spots. The Grand's letter comes the same week that Aisle Say reported that three quarters of the $24 million needed has been committed for The Queen Theatre, a long-vacant entertainment venue three blocks south of the Grand that a public-private partnership hopes to revive as a hip, new "World Cafe Live South" of sorts.

Rob Buccini, whose development company has invested loads to revive Market Street, and who owns The Queen, recently called this latest venture "the most important project we have ever done.” If Buccini makes a comment like that, well, break out the silver shovels for the photo op.

Hopes are high for The Queen's success. But as Buccini has also said, the viability of Wilmington's arts and entertainment life depends on creating and maintaining a critical mass. It's time to consider new strategies to ensure the future of the arts. How about a co-op for economies of scale discounts for all institutions? What about consolidation: move some institutions into available space in others?

This may be blasphemy to suggest, but, for example, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art on the Riverfront has a prime location any developer would love. What about moving to some of The Grand's empty floors? More traffic for both could result.

Film making is art. Wilmington University has a strong program. The city should entice them to move that division to Market Street. More blasphemy, perhaps, but it would fill some of Buccini-Pollin's empty space, and more importantly, it would bring more of a critical ingredient – students – to downtown to join Delaware College of Art and Design's students already there. Critical mass, once again. Creative partnerships, too?

The Grand's Bailey could work a deal with Sandy Robbins of the University of Delaware Professional Theater Training Program to drive traffic to the little-used downtown 300-seat facility. There is no finer acting in the state than the theatre training program and their newly-established professional group, the Resident Ensemble Players. Their home base is at Hartshorn Hall in Newark, so expanding its productions to Wilmington might draw a crowd who won't drive south.

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