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.

"This is a cultural district, and the arts are the critical mass. There's all sorts of stuff that we do to make sure the arts groups are here and thriving." Ruwitch lists "what we call backstage services": parking lots, security, cleanup.

And there are other ways in which Grand Center Inc. helps the arts groups in the district, besides supplying low-rent office space: "We identify opportunities, many of them having to do with marketing and promotion that either they couldn't do on their own or there's more appeal if we come in as a group. We recently placed an article in (the Regional Commerce and Growth Association's) commerce magazine on the four African-American arts organizations that are in Grand Center. Probably those groups couldn't have gotten any coverage if they'd tried to do it on their own.

"We do cultural tourism. We just got a $75,000 grant from American Express because we have a sampling program that is geared at the whole cultural-tourism market. It is called the Grand Music Getaway." In partnership with the Convention and Visitors Commission and the music venues in Grand Center (the symphony, the Sheldon, Jazz at the Bistro and the Grandel Cabaret), the agency hopes to lure tourists within a 300-mile radius of St. Louis. The Drury Inn and the Ritz are two hotels that may be part of the tour package.

Ruwitch is also proud of the calendar of events Grand Center Inc. distributes throughout the state. "Cultural tourism" is one of those hot topics in the arts these days, and can mean many things. A calendar can be one of those things.

When discussing the Black Rep's absence from its home in the Grandel six months out of the year, Ruwitch says, "It was their decision. It's because they decided it was supposed to be six months for one and six months for the other (the Grandel and the Forest Park campus). In building that theater we have obligations for other people in the fall. They've decided that they need to do a fall piece and there are other groups that are already in there. It's a scheduling kind of thing."

But Grand Center Inc. manages the Grandel and is responsible for that scheduling. If the agency is now a facilitator and doesn't want to own or run anything, why does it not find another manager for the Grandel? "Nobody has stepped up to be interested in doing that. It's not the kind of thing anybody wants to step up and manage and figure out how to raise $100,000 a year for operating deficits."

Those operating expenses, the thing "tied around their ankle," makes the Grandel a "case study," in Ruwitch's terminology. "I think it's a bigger issue than the Grandel," she says. "It's one of the arts-funding issues that needs to be solved for the arts community to grow and for facilities to be built, because at this point there is no plan in this community on how you can fund the operations of these kinds of facilities."

Any issue concerning the arts though, vulgar as it may seem, comes down to money. But in Grand Center Inc.'s role as facilitator, as a nonprofit that supports the arts in the district, fundraising is not one of the organization's responsibilities, according to Ruwitch. "We do not do the fundraising. That's not our mission."

But if the issue is always money, and Grand Center Inc. doesn't have enough and organizations such as Metro Theatre, TNT and Gash/Voigt -- who may or may not be the risk-takers in renovating the Medinah, with a price tag of at least $2.5 million -- don't have enough, wouldn't it be useful for these groups to collaborate (one of Grand Center's stated functions) to draw financial sources together that they couldn't alone?

"We're not a re-funding agency," Ruwitch stipulates. "That's what RAC does. That's what the Missouri Arts Council does. That's not to say that we don't help them with specific questions or ideas."

Distancing itself from its former role as "builder" and "creator," as defined in its initial mission statement, Grand Center Inc. will "facilitate" the building of a performing-arts facility in a space it owns and that St. Louis 2004 -- the consulting group that has been discussing the future of St. Louis -- has designated as optimal.

"We are looking at ourselves as partners in the Medinah," says Ruwitch. "Our board is willing to give the group the building, which is a $250,000 investment. We will do for them what we offer to do for anybody who comes in, in any kind of technical expertise, any kind of help with the city, with the building process, with people who would like to serve in a volunteer capacity, facilitating, making sure they're moving along in a collaborative way. It's got to be their budget."

Or whomever's budget may be able to raise the funds needed for a performing-arts space somewhere.

In its role as facilitator, Grand Center Inc. encourages "risk-takers" and "pioneers," but will not take the risk it took to create the Grandel again. When asked whether Grand Center Inc., which has the ear of larger funders that midsize organizations don't have, would help gain the attention of those larger funders for a project such as the Medinah, Ruwitch inexplicably turns to the subject of 2004: "Whatever this leadership initiative is with 2004, I think they're really going to help with this process, and we are going to be at the table with them."

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