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.

Whoever or whatever Grand Center Inc. is, its spokespersons are adamant about the fact that they aren't theater-builders anymore. Yet the Grandel Theatre is publicized as one of Grand Center Inc.'s most glowing success stories. Because the need has been, and is, so great for another performing-arts space in St. Louis, and Grand Center Inc. owns the property, why is the agency "facilitating" a group of nonprofit arts organizations to risk everything by building it themselves? Will "here's opportunity for $1" work with small organizations with limited resources the way it did with KETC? What happened with the Grandel that has turned Grand Center away from being their own "pioneers"?

Rather than remark with pride about how the Grandel is the only new theater built in St. Louis in 25 years, Reeves calls it "a great experiment."

What has Grand Center learned from that "experiment"? "It's not enough to figure out how to raise the money, how to build one or rehab one. You have to figure out how to operate. If you don't, you have something tied around your ankle forever."

That's one slogan you won't find in Grand Center Inc.'s promotional material.

Reeves and Grand Center Inc. CEO Ruwitch both express considerable concern for the Grandel's $85,000-$100,000 operating budget, which is the "something tied around your ankle." It's a concern that reveals the priorities of Grand Center Inc. as the agency has moved into its facilitating mode.

Priorities don't necessarily have to fall on the bottom line, but if they do, the primacy of the bottom line will restrict artistic development. When Ruwitch is questioned about the performing-arts space Grand Center Inc. will not build, and what that says about the agency's priorities, she responds, "I guess I don't understand that question. But look what's happening." She then lists KETC, the building of the Pulitzer Museum, the Forum's projected building, the new Sheldon galleries.

Those are indeed welcome additions to the neighborhood, and those organizations, along with the Fox and the symphony, all speak positively about the accomplishments of Grand Center Inc. But, as Fox Associates executive director David Fay recognizes, "The smaller institutions, their existence and survival is more Grand Center-dependent than the symphony, the Fox or KETC. If Grand Center were to disappear, the bigger folks would survive."

Yet a kind of "up by the bootstraps" mentality seems to pervade at Grand Center Inc. "Our goal is to get this area off of subsidy and make it so it can stand on its own," says Reeves.

"Trent Lott would like to see the same thing with the NEA," Himes says in response to Reeves' suggestion. "Off subsidy" is one of those fashionable phrases from the Reagan revolution, but it has been devastating to the arts. The very idea of a "self-sustaining" cultural district suggests a lack of understanding of what nonprofit means and why such a status was created for arts institutions in the first place. Currently every arts organization in Grand Center receives some form of subsidy or support with state or federal dollars, or both.

Joan Lipkin, founder of That Uppity Theatre Company and its popular AC/DC Series, has already decided, with the deepest regret, to drop out as a member of the collaborative that is considering the Medinah for renovation. Without full-time administrative assistance for That Uppity Theatre, Lipkin has decided the amount of start-up work, the interviewing, the meetings with consultants, the developing of business plans, the more and more meetings, are too much of a burden to bear.

She wonders why it should be her burden, or any other midsize or small nonprofit arts organization's, to bear. Grand Center Inc. "haven't taken it upon themselves to renovate the space because they're in the business of real estate and we're not." She takes issue with Reeves' and Ruwitch's concern about Grandel's operating expense. "It's not something around their ankle. It's something that needs subsidy." Grand Center Inc.'s saying otherwise, Lipkin believes, implies that "this nonprofit enterprise is really commercially driven, and that's not what it was set out to do. My responsibility is not to be a real-estate broker. I'm an artist, and I have my hands full.

"Every year Opera Theatre and the Rep and the symphony have to meet an operating budget, and nobody talks about that as 'something around their ankle.' It has to do with how things are perceived and how they're valued."

Lipkin thinks the doctrine of "doing it for themselves" is "antithetical to nonprofit. What does it mean, 'do it for themselves'? The whole conversation is very condescending."

So before a plan has even been drawn for the Medinah, one resource is already lost.

"Self-sustaining is a goal that is delusional" says RAC executive director Jill McGuire. RAC, in its 15 years of existence, has earned a reputation as one of the more receptive and innovative funding agencies. Few administrators exhibit the passionate commitment to the mission of making the arts an integral part of the community that McGuire does. She speaks with a deep, brassy voice that broadens in tone when her Irish dander is raised. As Himes has felt the need to re-educate Grand Center Inc. about its own history, McGuire offers a lesson in the meaning of "nonprofit."

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