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 stuff about being self-sustaining is like waving a red flag before me," she begins. "The reason you form nonprofit organizations is that you assume when you found them that they cannot make enough profit to sustain themselves. The reason the National Endowment for the Arts was established, when John Kennedy worked on it and (Lyndon) Johnson did it, was because they realized at that time that there were art forms that were not going to be supported by the general public, but they were very important art forms that we shouldn't lose, like classical music, American music, American musicals -- and it was right and OK to be supported by the government and other corporate entities. So the NEA was established so as not to lose our national treasures.

"So when you form a nonprofit, what you're saying is that more than likely you cannot make a profit. You are not saying you do not have a purpose. You are not saying you are not smart. You are not saying you are not savvy.

"That's what makes me mad. It makes me furious. The symphonies of the world cannot sustain themselves. Self-sustaining: Symphonies can't; operas can't; the museums can't. We know that. They raise money. We give them public money for which they are accountable. And that way we can keep ticket prices down and make admissions reasonable.

"That's the intent. So to sit there and say these arts organizations need to be self-sustaining is pure bullshit."

The first thing Ann Ruwitch mentions, sitting down for an interview in her office on the 10th floor of the Arts Annex, is that Grand Center Inc. is actually thinking about a name change, which seems an odd way to begin but, considering that this is an organization that brags about "sparkling sidewalks" and neon signs on empty theaters, is not wholly out of character.

Ruwitch became president and CEO of Grand Center Inc. after serving as the director of Arts in Transit from 1988-94. In the realm of public service she's been a member of the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners. In the arts she has served as a member of the board of trustees of the St. Louis Art Museum and currently serves as the chair of the Forum for Contemporary Art's development committee.

Ruwitch is excited to talk about Grand Center Inc.'s plans to "soften" the look of the district, which means, in part, that "greenspaces were nicely lit and we begin to increase the amount of public art. We want to make sure that open spaces are cleared and that the derelict buildings are gone."

She describes a marketing process called "branding," for which a consultant has been hired -- the same who worked on the Energizer bunny, Ruwitch effuses. Branding, Ruwitch explains, is used "to determine the essence of who we are and how we can communicate it. It's a communications strategy.

"We feel it's important that people understand what Grand Center is, where we're going, and it helps us to know how we're going to talk about it." She says the consultant is asking questions about what the consumers believe about the district, "because you can't promise more than your consumers believe."

What if consumers believe what consultant John Bos said 10 years ago -- that Grand Center is a place to go to for a show and then leave? "It is still true," Ruwitch admits. "That's part of the infill and what we do next. Part of the vision for the next five to 10 years is where all of the small infill things will be here." But Ruwitch insists that amenities already exist for people to enjoy when out for an evening's entertainment. She mentions the Bistro, which Grand Center Inc. owns, and Duke's Restaurant, on the corner of Washington and Grand. She seems a little surprised to hear that Duke's closes at 9 p.m., not long after the crowds have gone into the theaters.

"It's interesting, because it speaks to people's dreams," Ruwitch says of the criticism of a paucity of amenities after 10 grand years. "Do people say that when they go to the Rep? It will be wonderful when the Continental opens and there will be a restaurant." (Yet another plan to renovate the Continental is in the works, with developer Stan Trampe currently pursuing the project.)

Ruwitch envisions a future of side-street cafes but argues that the reason those cafes don't exist in the present is because "those people are not going to be the pioneers in developing a neighborhood. They're always the last people in. Some who started too early didn't make it. There've been a number of restaurants at the Bistro. They just haven't been able to make it.

"There are some things," and Ruwitch mentions Vito's and Bullfeathers Pub & Grill on Lindell, across from St. Louis University, "but there may not be the thing that is everybody's dream. That has to do with people's expectations, which is wonderful."

In regards to the expectations of the premier cultural district in the region, Ruwitch says it would be "totally wrong" to think of Grand Center Inc. as a real-estate broker whose role as a nonprofit arts supporter has been scaled back:

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