Grand Illusion

Ten years ago, Grand Center Inc. set out to create the region's "premier arts, entertainment and education district." They fixed the sidewalks and brought in the lights. It's a nice place to visit, but nobody stays.

The most disquieting response to questions about the role of Grand Center Inc., which has been given by members from numerous arts organizations, is "off the record." Whatever Grand Center is, those artists for whom the agency is, supposedly, there to promote and serve do not want to voice their frustration, or confusion, publicly. The general consensus is one of mystification. Artists and arts organizers both within and outside the district express uncertainty as to the role of Grand Center Inc. in relation to the arts. There is a notable degree of incredulity as to how, in 10 years, more amenities haven't emerged to keep theater- and concertgoers in the evening. Grand Center shines as a cultural district for about four hours a night.

Artists and arts organizations show resentment as well, with the feeling that the arts organizations do the work that makes Grand Center the cultural mecca it is for those hours but Grand Center Inc. takes the credit.

More critically, in regards to the support and promotion of the arts and artists, there's the feeling that Grand Center Inc. has minimized that role, which is arguably where the greatest need exists. Depending on the amount of history a skeptic of Grand Center possesses, the agency either always has been, or has increasingly become, a real-estate broker, providing opportunity for business, housing and educational facilities but abandoning its role as arts advocate and supporter. "They've lost vision," says Sally Brayley Bliss, who's been executive director of Dance St. Louis since 1995. "It's no more about the arts. What is their vision?"

This lost, or re-directed, vision reveals itself in the change in Grand Center Inc.'s mission statement, which was implemented in 1995 when Ann Ruwitch took over as president and CEO. The current mission statement reads: "Grand Center's mission is to create a vibrant urban neighborhood by facilitating the development of a regional district for arts, entertainment and education."

But the previous statement, which was adopted when Richard Gaddes, founder of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, was at the helm of Grand Center, takes a more activist approach to the development and support of a cultural district. "The Grand Center district is a regional center for the arts and entertainment," it begins, and then describes specifically the agency's goals. "In order to improve and enhance the district, our mission is to: -- Create an urban neighborhood that is vibrant, safe, secure and enjoyable -- Build and support visual and performing arts facilities -- Create a major attraction in the St. Louis Metropolitan area by encouraging and supporting the production, presentation, and promotion of the best in arts and entertainment."

The perception that Grand Center Inc. is less involved in supporting the arts and more involved in real estate comes most forcefully in a Regional Arts Commission (RAC) panel response to Grand Center's application for an operating-support grant in the arts-center category (three other organizations in the region are considered arts centers -- the Center of Contemporary Arts, the Florissant Civic Center and the Sheldon Arts Fund). Grant applications at RAC go through three tiers: from an outside panel of experts in a particular field, then to RAC staff and finally to the executive commission body.

RAC's panel recommended zero funding for Grand Center Inc.'s $50,000 grant request for fiscal year 1998. The panel comments provide a blunt assessment of Grand Center Inc. "The perception of Grand Center is as a real-estate holding company, not an arts organization," the panel comments read in part. "This is a real-estate agency." Grand Center, the panel concludes, "has been a huge disappointment."

Both staff and the commission eventually approved the funding to Grand Center Inc. that year, but with additional concerns noted. "The panel comments reflect some serious concerns, including Grand Center's inability to get across what they do. Over the last 3-4 years the panel comments have reflected the perception of the community, and Grand Center has been unable to correct this misperception. Other panelists have recommended zero funding in the past."

The staff comments conclude, "Grand Center is important to the arts community and has benefitted arts organizations by providing low rent. However, they are not aggressive enough in pursuing other ways to support the local arts community."

Grand Center Inc. began with grand visions and another name, The New Performing Arts Center (TNPAC). The district received an official designation as a blighted area, with TNPAC receiving 353 developments rights over a 58-acre, 10-block area. Chapter 353 gave a private developer eminent domain and property-tax relief as a means of stimulating urban revitalization. (Chapter 353 was subsequently severely cut by the Reagan and Bush administrations.)

TNPAC, with Opera Theatre's Richard Gaddes as president, became Grand Center Inc. in 1987 and was granted nonprofit status. The district boundaries were defined as Lindell on the south, Spring on the west, Delmar/Enright on the north and Theresa on the east. City Center Redevelopment Corp. (CCRC) was incorporated to "acquire, construct, maintain and operate" the redevelopment of the district, serving as a committee of the Grand Center Inc. board. City Center Parking was formed as a wholly owned subsidiary of CCRC to maintain and operate the 13 parking lots in the area.

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