Arts and the Bottom Line

Architects and consultants are bridging the divide between culture and economics by bringing vision, excitement, and charisma to the pro forma of new arts centers.
August 11, 2010

In recent years, public discussion of the role of cultural facilities in society has turned into a war of dueling spreadsheets over their economic benefits, especially when public funding for performing arts centers, theaters, and museums is at stake.

On one side are some, such as those who were miffed over Federal funding for controversial exhibits by such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, who see the use of government funds for the arts as a waste of taxpayer dollars and doubt whether arts facilities have any spillover economic benefit.

On the other side are advocates of the arts, who argue that these institutions are indeed economic engines that generate tax revenues, spawn new business development, create jobs, and revive depressed neighborhoods.

For most of the 1990s, the latter argument has been compelling. From 1993 through 2001, state public spending on arts more than doubled, from $211 million to $447 million, as state coffers bulged with surpluses. This influx of funds helped spark a boom in construction of cultural arts buildings.

But post-9/11, as state surpluses have turned into deficits, politicians and the public have become more skeptical about the accuracy of some of the methodologies used in "cultural economics" to compile so-called "multiplier effects," which hold that every dollar spent on an opera house or theater produces many times that amount in economic development.

A report released last month by the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, Calif., is the most recent study to question such methodologies. The report, "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," recommends policy makers spend time and money on developing future demand for the arts by engaging young people through sustained exposure to events and participation in programs. More to the point, its release has opened up the debate over whether arts facilities are worth the investment.

Reaction to the study has been strong, says Kevin McCarthy, RAND senior social scientist and lead author of the report. While he says many in the arts community have endorsed the report, "Others say, 'If you want to convince the skeptics you have to make a bottom-line, dollars-and-cents argument.'"

For the record, McCarthy says he would like to make it clear he is not arguing that performing arts centers should not be built. "Performing arts centers can provide all kinds of benefits to the community besides the economic benefits," he says. But increasing the demand for these facilities is at least as important as building them, he says.

Yuma, Ariz.: Designer as fundraiser

With greater scrutiny being applied to such projects, arts organizations are relying on their architects and design consultants to make the case—both aesthetic and economic—for arts facilities. Fundraising and creating community awareness—public presentations, speaking engagements, dinners, and meetings with public officials, private citizens, or prospective donors—should be routine for professionals involved in designing arts projects, says Paul E. Westlake, Jr., FAIA, principal with Cleveland A/E firm Westlake Reed Leskosky.

The Phoenix office of Westlake's own firm worked with public officials and citizens in the design of the Yuma (Ariz.) Art Center, the first phase of which opened in February 2004. The city provided $6 million in funds for the project, which encompassed the restoration of the Yuma Theatre, built in 1912 as a movie and vaudeville house, renovation of adjoining buildings used for art studios and classrooms, and construction of a new, two-story visual arts center that houses art galleries and administrative offices.

With a mission to grow the arts and boost cultural tourism in the area, the Yuma Art Center "has been everything we hoped for and more," says Roberta Ukura, art center and civic center manager for Yuma's Arts and Culture Division.

Serving over 90 arts and cultural organizations, the project has been a hit with retirees who winter in Yuma. In its first year, the center hosted 300 events, three times that initially planned, featured performances by 70 groups, and presented 32 exhibits involving 189 artists. The next step is to draw more support from year-round residents through a marketing and community outreach.

Let's take a tour of several other arts projects, with an eye toward the bottom line.

Atlanta: Calatrava's tour de force

With public funding yet to be secured for Atlanta's $300 million Atlanta Symphony Center, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has involved the community in project planning and in the process that led to the selection of Santiago Calatrava as the project's design architect. Eighteen community task force groups contributed programming recommendations prior to the selection of Calatrava, says ASO president and managing director Allison Vulgamore. "It's all about ownership and involvement of stakeholders, including donors," she says. "Santiago said he had never been involved in such an inclusive project and was excited to be a part of our 'experiment,'" she recalls.

Calatrava was not as well known as he is today when selected for the project in June 2002, says Vulgamore, but his name recognition skyrocketed with last summer's Olympic Games in Athens, where his design of the Olympic Stadium, the Agora, and the Nations Wall received acclaim.

The buzz built to a crescendo in February with the 2005 AIA Gold Medal winner's unveiling of the center's design. Generating the excitement of an opening night concert, the event drew more than 3,000, including the governor and mayor. The star of the evening was given three standing ovations during his presentation. In classic Calatrava fashion, the architect-engineer-artist picked up a paintbrush to create one of his famous watercolors to the piano accompaniment of artistic director Robert Spano.

Part of the campus expansion of the Woodruff Arts Center, the symphony center will feature a Calatrava trademark kinetic element—wing-shaped shades over the entrance façade that spread to signal the start of a performance. The project will house a 2,000-seat concert hall, rehearsal and studio halls, and a learning center that will be located adjacent to the concert hall and backstage area to take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded by both.

The ASO has put Calatrava's passion for public buildings on display at dinners and in face-to-face meetings with the mayor and other officials. "He enjoys the public interaction very much," says Vulgamore, and is "a tremendously exciting speaker," especially when he talks about the role of buildings in the history of a community and architecture as legacy and vision.

Thus far, $100 million in private funds has been raised for the 279,600-sf project, which is set to begin construction in 2008, with completion in 2011. The investment is steep, but Vulgamore says the ASO's economic studies show the center will bring $2.1 billion to the community.

To help fund the project, Woodruff sold two acres of the 6.2-acre site to Houston-based developer Hines for the construction of a 41-story mixed-use office tower designed by Jon Pickard of Pickard Chilton Architects, New Haven, Conn.

Miami: Pelli ignites development

Despite a tough economic climate, Miami is developing an ambitious—and pricey— performing arts center to spur development. "In a world market, if you are going to compete for tourism and trade, you need to have cultural facilities, parks, and a great school system, and they need to be better than [those in] other cities," says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, whose Miami Performing Arts Center, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates, New Haven, Conn., is scheduled to open in September 2006. Tax increment financing and a convention development tax will provide three-fourths of the $400 million cost of the project.

The center, with its 300,000-sf ballet/opera house and a 194,000-sf symphony hall, was purposely located in a depressed area of downtown Miami to promote development. "In this regard, the project has been an unqualified success," says Spring. Growth started in the neighborhood a full year before construction began; now, a year before construction is to be completed, a forest of construction cranes pierces the skyline, constructing high-rise residential, retail, and parking structures. "All the real estate inserts promote their developments as being in the performing arts district," says Spring, and other area communities are now considering building or renovating arts facilities.

The Pelli firm was selected to design the center following an international design competition with two other finalists, Rem Koolhaas's OMA and local firm Arquitectonica. The competing firms engaged in a weeklong design charette, setting up design studios in suites at a Miami hotel, where they were visited by user groups, area residents, and members of the downtown development authority.

Pelli says he found the open process engaging because it allowed his team to get "an in-depth view of the people. The design taking place before their eyes was responding to their needs and hopes." One thing he learned was that "many of the neighbors were concerned about us forgetting the back side of the theater." As a result, offices with windows were located all around the facility, helping to make it "as friendly as could be in all directions," says Pelli.

The team also heard about the importance of preserving one of Miami's first Art Deco buildings on the site, a tower built in 1929 and formerly owned by Sears. The team worked the tower into the site, and it may eventually house a restaurant.

While Pelli is conscientious about interacting with officials and donors, it's what he brings to the design that really matters to the locals. "Cesar is intelligent, well-spoken, and charming," says Spring, "but the thing you need to make sure of is that you have a great designer."

Dallas: Rem and Norman two-step

In a bond election two years ago, Dallas residents voted to provide $18 million for the construction of five performance spaces, a $275 million project, which when complete in 2009 will form the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. Economic studies conducted by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche (with assistance from Theatre Projects Consultants, Norwalk, Conn.) suggest the center will infuse $170 million a year into the local economy and create 2,800 new jobs. "We simply explained to the community the cultural significance and economic impact the projects would have if they were built," says William H. Lively, present and CEO of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation.

Lively is confident of the economic projections and cites comparative studies of arts centers in cities of similar size to Dallas. He says Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1992, infused $157 million into the local economy and created 4,000 jobs. "They had hard data suggesting that it's had an enormous economic impact on the greater Philadelphia area," says Lively.

The foundation has raised $100 million since appointing London-based Foster and Partners and Rem Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture to design the center's first two performance spaces: a 2,200-seat opera house (by Norman Foster) and the 600-seat theater (by Koolhaas), both of which are to begin construction late next year.

"We've been able to work with both firms to host symposia and hold various presentations featuring the architects," says Lively. Last month, OMA's Joshua Ramus presented the schematic designs for the theater before 500 people. In May, Foster and Partners will introduce its schematic designs for the opera house.

Suburban D.C.: Where stars align

The Music Center at Strathmore, located between Rockville and Bethesda, Md., was already enjoying formidable political support when William Rawn Associates, Architects, was selected to design the facility. From its inception, the project, which draws on an affluent, arts-savvy population of three million people in a three-county area, enjoyed the backing of Montgomery County executive Douglas Duncan, a noted arts advocate.

In a rare instance of political cohesion, the county found itself on the same side of a public issue with neighboring Baltimore County, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra agreed to make the new 1,976-seat hall its second home, performing 40 concerts there a year. The politically connected BSO also brought with it influence in the state legislature, which ultimately funded half of the construction budget.

"The BSO gave us the anchor store we needed in the mall, so to speak," says Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore president and CEO. "You need that in a concert hall like this." He also knew that if the state paid half the $100 million tab, the project would be greenlighted.

It was at this point that Rawn and acoustician Larry Kirkegaard of Chicago's Kirkegaard Associates brought their charisma and presentation skills to bear. "The most difficult thing in the early stages of the project was to sell something that didn't exist," says Pfanstiehl. "We needed that verbal picture, that visceral connection."

Presentations were made before the county council and other groups, with Rawn describing his vision of the center as a demonstration of "democracy with a small 'D,'" and Kirkegaard comparing the Strathmore's 11 acres of rolling green hills to a musical vineyard. The design team conducted a charette to give arts groups, users, and local officials a feel for what the project would be. "We spent a lot of time in Montgomery County talking to everyone we could," says Rawn.

The design team also listened, says Pfanstiehl. As the project progressed, the political importance of the center's educational component—a music and dance education center—became evident. Hearing this, Rawn put the education center at the front door. "Usually these wings are placed in the back corner," says Rawn, "but here, as you enter the building, you can see the youth orchestra rehearsing and the dance classes in progress."

This prime location even makes it possible for visiting artists to pop in on classes. "Seeing a Bobby McFerrin stop by after a sound check to say hi to the kids is something they'll never forget," Pfanstiehl says. "This place is built for tomorrow's audiences and artists. If you get second graders into a live audience, the arts will grow."

Despite its success, Pfanstiehl doubts Strathmore could be built today. "The public funding wouldn't be there," he says.

While celebrity architects bring creativity and excitement to arts projects, public officials and arts organizations should be careful not to get so wrapped up in creating the hype that they ignore the program, says Dana Hougland, principal and a theater design and acoustic specialist in the Denver office of consultant Shen Milsom & Wilke. "Sometimes they tend to focus so closely on the architect because of the funding that they forget to step back and look at the community and what they are trying to support," she says.

But whether it's a $400 million project in Miami or a $6 million project in Yuma, no matter what the exact multiplier effect may be, arts projects are "a wonderful focal point for the community," says Hougland. "When people look at communities as a place to live or to locate a business that will attract good employees, the arts do make a difference."