Civic Theatre Syndrome

Most cities have a civic theatre problem. Each finds its own solution, and each is unique, but all of them exist on a familiar gradient of motives.

At one end of this gradient is a commercial motive; the desire to make money, or at least not to lose any. At the other end is a community motive, which seeks to maximize the cultural and educational benefits of exposure to the performing arts.

All cities are obliged to balance these motives. Some tip very far toward the commercial end of the gradient, operating their civic theatres like commercial road houses, serving renters and presenters in the most profitable and least risky manner possible. Others recognize their facility operations as a tax funded service, expending millions of dollars on subsidies that lower the cost barrier for community users, as well as the risk of programming dollars, to create opportunities for audiences and performers to enjoy experiences that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise.

It’s an uncomfortable balancing act. In large markets, commercial facility owners and operators, as well as producers and presenters, don’t like it when tax funded civic theatres compete with them. At the other extreme, politicians and their constituents become highly critical when civic theatres spend too much on programs and operations. Perceptions of value must be kept in focus, and the balance of motives adjust accordingly.

Nevertheless, it’s good for a city to face this challenge. Unless municipalities build, acquire, and maintain space for the performing arts, the development of these art forms will be stunted. Unlike other arts disciplines, the performing arts are very capital intensive, and capital is hard to come by for high risk, low return enterprises like symphony, opera, theatre, and dance. Professional quality venues cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build. They require huge volumes of space and tons of technology. They also take up big footprints of urban land and require additional allowances for huge loading docks at the back, and huge audiences at the front.

Whether they lean toward the commercial or the community end of the spectrum, generating profits or consuming subsidies, cities that lack large scale, technically sound performing arts facilities are the poorer for it. The challenge is to tune their governance and operating models to best express the public’s interest in the performing arts.

Complicating this challenge is the sensitivity of the entire performing arts ecosystem, from the amateur to the professional, to even minor disruptions in the availability of appropriate venues. Civic theatres often comprise a significant proportion of a city’s total soft seat inventory, and of the available stage time and space. A seemingly slight shift in policy or pricing can reverberate through the entire community, often with unforeseen impacts on producers, presenters, and audiences.

Whether these facilities are managed directly by the municipalities, arms length agencies, or their anchor tenants, problems will arise unless all the relevant factors are observed and understood in real time, and unless the rationale for change is understood by producers and presenters.

Problems arise when policy becomes misaligned with user needs or with municipal cultural objectives. In an environment of constant change, that happens more often than anyone would like. Because, when that happens, the consultants get called in, and no one wants that.

But thanks anyway.

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