Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

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.

A walk through the Midtown district known as Grand Center is a lonely enterprise on a weekday afternoon. There are no people, not even a few friendly winos in the numerous empty lots. A dog chained to protect someone's notion of private property barks. Bright banners proclaiming "10 Grand Years" hang near the burned-out carcasses of former homes and businesses. Along the north boundary of the district -- as the 58 acres was designated in the late '80s for redevelopment -- is the city's juvenile-detention center. On the south side, in contrast, is St. Louis University. A proud array of beauty salons dot the urban landscape. The Lindell Mini Mart is a few doors down from the popular Vito's Pizza Bar. Among the many handsome, vacant buildings to admire are the Beaux Arts building, across from Powell Hall; the Sun Theatre building, with its impressive neon-light display (more meretricious in the light of day); the Medinah Temple, which fits snugly in an obscure block of Olive; and, down the street, the Continental Building, still resisting the wrecking ball, a monument to an earlier, more enterprising St. Louis.

In the light of day, Grand Center fails to measure up to "the premier arts, entertainment and education district in the St. Louis region," the claim made in a slick brochure celebrating the 10th anniversary of Grand Center Inc., the redevelopment agency whose charge it has been to revive decades of urban blight in the area. The rare pedestrian might observe the "sparkling sidewalks," which are mentioned twice in the 30-page full-color brochure, or designer Kiku Obata's brightly colored parking signs, which even at midday add some life to the derelict environment. The prose of the vividly designed catalog of achievements is pure civic boosterism: "Grand Boulevard with its impressive buildings and its shining marquees was 'On-Stage.' The streets leading up to Grand were 'Off-Stage' where people could find restaurants, galleries and other businesses."

At least that was the design plan. "Off-Stage," in most directions, are more abandoned buildings. Although a 1993 feasibility study for housing on Olive is mentioned in Grand Center Inc.'s chronology, "Grand West" has yet to materialize.

An invitation to end a walking tour of the district at Grand Center's Arts Administration Complex -- where Grand Center Inc. and 11 arts organizations have offices in what is sometimes referred to as an "arts incubator" -- might be politely refused. The "old Missouri Theater building" houses the city health department on the initial floors. Passing through a clinic for STDs, standing in an elevator with the occasional medium-security prisoner, doesn't quite communicate "premier arts district."

A symbol of Grand Center Inc.'s success stands on the corner of Grand and Grandel Square. The Grandel Theatre, home of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and the Grandel Theatre Cabaret Series, was built by Grand Center Inc. "The first new theater to open in the City in more than 25 years," their publicity department brags. Adjacent to the Grandel is the environmental sculpture "Tilted Plane," by internationally renowned artist James Turrell. Grand Center is home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Sheldon Concert Hall, the Fox Theatre, the Forum for Contemporary Art and, most recently, KETC (Channel 9). The Pulitzer Museum is under construction on Washington Avenue. The Forum's new building is being planned to stand beside it. Jazz at the Bistro moved to Grand Center in 1995. On any given night, literally thousands of people drive into the city to attend concerts and theater in the district.

Then, after the show's over, those people get in their cars and leave.
Drive along brightly lit Grand Boulevard at 11:30 on a Saturday night and there is no foot traffic to be seen -- not a soul walking the premier cultural district. And, despite the improvements to Grand Center, that was as true 10 years ago as it is today.

Who or what is Grand Center Inc., and what has been the organization's role in the successes and failures of the last 10 years? The answers reflect an ongoing identity crisis.

Don Roth, president and executive director of the symphony, says, "Their job is development." Jim Holtzman, of Grand Center Inc.'s real-estate-development board, says, "We function best as a facilitator. We're not developers." Tom Reeves, chairman of the board of Grand Center, says the agency is a "facilitator of a collaborative effort." Paul Hales, chair of the Business and Growth Association for the district, says, "Grand Center's role is to keep things together, encourage and stimulate development and hand it off to the people who come into the neighborhood." Paul Reuter, of the Sheldon, sees the role of Grand Center Inc. as functioning in two parts: "as a real-estate developer to get the district going, and to promote the district as an arts center." Betsy Wright Millard, of the Forum, admits, "It's taken me a long time to figure out what they are. I'm not sure they fully understand what they are."

Grand Center Inc. is as ambiguous about its role in its own press material as those who try to define it. In one paragraph, a timeline charts the shifting identity of the organization as it has evolved from "organizer" to "developer," again to "organizer" and now to "facilitator."

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.

The Fox, Powell Symphony Hall and the Sheldon already stood as cultural anchors for Grand Center. But what the district lacked then, it lacks now. In 1988, the first of a series of consultants -- John Bos, of Washington, D.C. -- was hired and had this to say about Grand Center: "People go to the symphony or the Fox, park their automobile in secured parking lots, and then leave the area immediately afterward because there's nothing for them to do."

The consultancy team recommended that housing be built for artists in the district to stimulate the introduction of grocery stores, restaurants, drugstores, art-supply stores and other services. More galleries would emerge, and with them a vibrant cultural scene. (Ruwitch says there are no plans for artist housing in the future, saying it "boils down to economics.")

In 1989, California artist Robert Mangurian was commissioned to create a wooden scale model of the district for $40,000. Weighing about 200 pounds and 5 feet tall at its highest point -- the Continental Building -- the model also came with $42,000 worth of lighting (the money coming from an NEA grant) -- all for Gaddes to present Grand Center Inc.'s vision of the next decade. (It's now "in pieces in Mangurian's office," says Ruwitch. "It was remarkable. I remember going to see it. It was like going through an enormous Lego installation."

In 1990, "art-friendly" condos were designed to be placed in an abandoned two-level parking garage on Washington Avenue. Leon Strauss, who had saved the Fox and was serving as "development consultant" to Grand Center Inc., told the Post-Dispatch, "I think this project fills a need for artists, and will do a lot to add the visual-arts component to Grand Center."

A microbrewery -- what would become the St. Louis Brewery Tap Room -- was being discussed for inclusion on Olive Street. Tom Schlafly, the Tap Room's owner, was looking at the old Wagner Mortuary building, next to the Continental. One of the issues for Schlafly, he says today, was parking. People will pay $5 for parking to see Phantom of the Opera, but that becomes an extravagance if someone's just looking for a beer and a hamburger.

Parking wasn't the only issue with Schlafly. "They wanted us as a tenant," he says. Schlafly would have spent his own money to renovate the property, but Grand Center Inc. would retain ownership. "If we paid for the renovation and the business failed, we were still liable for the rent, and if the business did well, our rent could go up. Part of the decision I made with the current building was that if the business would fail, we would at least own the real estate."

If Grand Center Inc. couldn't make a more suitable deal to invite a successful restaurant business into the district, it could always deliver the visuals. A "laser light canopy" was installed over Grand Center at a cost of $160,000. With plans for the renovation of the Sun Theatre stalled, neon was placed on the facade at a cost of $20,000 (although, at the time, the Black Rep was forced to rent lights for its new theater in the Grandel).

Gaddes talked of a renovation of the Medinah Temple to provide much-needed rehearsal space, art classes and other educational programs. In 1993, the first feasibility study for housing on Olive, Grand West, was completed.

Such were the early ambitions of Grand Center, punctuated with gaudy, expensive lighting displays, models and grand schemes -- most of which never made it from concept to reality, or onto Grand Center Inc.'s list of achievements.

For all that didn't materialize, though, there is much that Grand Center Inc. implemented that has improved the district in ways that are not always obvious to anyone who is ignorant of what the area was before. Bruce Coppock, former executive director of the St. Louis Symphony, remembers that sidewalks were just being put in when he first came 10 years ago. Ruwitch, a lifelong visitor to the symphony, says, "I still have visual images of parking down here and climbing over glass and broken sidewalks and weeds because I wanted to go to the concert."

So there's good reason for the sidewalks, the lighting and the "infrastructure" that Grand Center Inc. helped bring to the district to be highlighted in its promotional material.

Grand Center Inc. renovated the former First Congregational Church to create the Grandel Theatre, with James Turrell's "Tilted Plane" adjacent to it. Grand Center Inc. brought the Backstage Bistro into the district. The old Block Bros. Photography Studio was renovated by Grand Center Inc. to create the environmental education center EarthWays. The Portfolio Gallery was renovated by Grand Center Inc. The Forum and RAC moved to Grand Center. Jazz at the Bistro was invited to move to the district from downtown. More and more arts organizations have housed their administrative staff in the Arts Annex for a $1 rental fee.

KETC's move to its new facilities on Olive is Grand Center Inc.'s greatest coup in recent years. The agency demolished the former Beaumont Medical Complex, then took responsibility for an extensive waste cleanup. KETC received the property for $1.

KETC now serves as Grand Center Inc.'s model for facilitating redevelopment. This is how the agency has facilitated the Pulitzer Museum and how it plans to implement new housing on Olive, the newly resurrected Grand West development.

Betsy Wright Millard is now involved in selecting an architect to design the Forum's new facility, which will be situated next to the Pulitzer Museum. "I'm beginning to realize how long it takes to get anything done in St. Louis," she comments. "Ten years is a rather short period of time in this town."

Millard believes Grand Center Inc.'s new role as facilitator is the most suitable for the agency. "I think they are probably best at concentrating on facilitating people coming in and making investments, which is not the touchy-feely stuff about programming and supporting organizations. They're not in this world to support organizations. They're in this world to make the district better. They should help out in things they should be good at, which means getting tax credits, building stock that can be gotten very cheaply and turning it over to groups and letting them do it.

"I'm not saying Grand Center has to pay for this. I'm saying, I need tax credits -- you guys know how to get them. If you want me to stay here, help me. And they are. They've been very good with that. I will need parking. I will need to know how many parking spots I'm going to need. If I don't have them, how close do I need to be to get a variance? Those are the things they ought to know and help me do."

Were Grand Center's early plans more dreams than goals? Ruwitch terms the initial years "conceptual." Given that St. Louis is a city without great financial resources, without strong political leadership, and given the cuts in federal redevelopment money in the Reagan/Bush years, along with the devastating cuts in arts funding, it's remarkable that the sidewalks got done.

Those with long memories in the arts community say there are other reasons many of Grand Center Inc.'s goals failed. Even with the estimable Gaddes in charge, it is said, the agency was always more about real estate than about culture.

But the vision of those early years, at least what was communicated to the press, was the development of a cultural district. Gaddes left to become director of the Santa Fe Opera in 1994, and Ann Ruwitch, who had served as director of Arts in Transit, was selected as the new president.

Ron Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep -- who has had the closest contact with Grand Center Inc.'s administration, being that the agency owns and manages the Grandel -- says the agency changed dramatically with this transition of power: "Somewhere around the time Richard was on his way out, the vision and direction of the board changed, because you couldn't have picked a more different person from Richard Gaddes than Ann Ruwitch."

In his office in the Arts Annex, just down the hall from Ruwitch's, Himes laughs and cautions himself to be more politic when he sits down to talk about his relationship with the agency. But the more he talks about it, the more his years of frustration are apparent.

Himes believes Ruwitch was not selected to continue what Gaddes had begun but to change Grand Center Inc.'s direction -- and that the new direction was poorly defined. "Within five years of us moving to Grand Center, the entire staff of Grand Center had changed. The entire staff. We couldn't be looking at continuity. We didn't even have people who knew history. All of a sudden we had to be dealing with revisionist history: 'No, they didn't tell you that. That's not what we said we'd do for you.'" According to Himes, the relationship between Grand Center Inc. and every arts organization in the district changed.

"But when the whole staff changed," Himes emphasizes, "part of the attitude of people who came in was -- and this changed, too -- was that 'Richard and those people were giving away the store, and we're here to put an end to that.' I think that is what Ann's directive was."

Arts groups that had been paying $1 for office space in the Arts Complex were now paying Grand Center Inc. $1 per square foot. (Dance St. Louis, for instance, paid $1 when Sally Brayley Bliss first came in 1995 and now pays $404 per month, up from $337 the year before, with an increase projected by Grand Center Inc. for each calendar year. Grand Center Inc. pays nothing for its space.)

At the Grandel, the Black Rep was told it needed to be paying Grand Center Inc. more rent, substantially more rent. "The Black Rep wouldn't be at the Grandel if it had to pay more money," Himes says with considerable agitation, "because when you came and asked us to come to the Grandel, you asked us knowing we couldn't pay. You were going to build it for Theatre Project (which folded before construction began) and the Black Rep, knowing neither of us had the wherewithal to be able to pay. Now, with a concerted marketing effort by Grand Center, Theatre Project and the Black Rep could have conceivably been selling out, thereby generating enough revenue to pay Grand Center a little more money."

Today, the Black Rep pays Grand Center Inc. a $60,000 "usage fee" from January-June. Because Himes believed the rates the agency offered the Black Rep for the fall were exorbitant, the second-largest theater company in the city vacates its "home" and performs at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park during those months.

Himes says that his company's relationship with Grand Center Inc. "is as good as it's been in a while" -- with the agency helping secure a $100,000 HUD grant for the Black Rep to do a feasibility study of its own on the Sun for a space that would function as an education and technical-support center, with acting and dance studios, a 150-seat black-box theater, rehearsal space for traveling shows, a box office, gallery and retail space, administrative offices, and costume and property shops. Himes acknowledges that Grand Center Inc.'s new role as facilitator "may be progress in that, at least now they're admitting what they are and 'fessing up to what they want" and sees this as an opportunity to move forward. But he feels that the need remains to sometimes retrace the history of the relationship between the Black Rep and Grand Center Inc., because "their revisionist history doesn't remember that they couldn't have raised the funding money to renovate the Grandel if every grant they wrote didn't say, 'We're building a home for the Black Rep.' Every grant. Every proposal."

And Grand Center Inc. couldn't talk about an Arts Annex if there weren't arts organizations housed there. Yet Himes has heard that the rent for the Black Rep's office space is about to increase again: "Why do we have to pay them rent? They don't pay the city rent. It's ludicrous, at any rate. I said, don't pay it."

Ten years after consultant John Bos said it, Tom Reeves, chief credit officer of the eastern region for Mercantile Bank and chairman of Grand Center's board, is still saying it: "We want people to stay longer after the symphony. We want people to stay longer after the Fox and come earlier."

Reeves, in his Mercantile office in downtown Clayton, has papers and building plans strewn about the room in a morass that's pleasing to find in a banker's office. Redevelopment is one of his specialties, and he wants to put into perspective the hard task of rebuilding a neighborhood.

"You have to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable, where there are restaurants, where there are bars, where there are bistros, where there are art galleries, where there are photography studios -- which are all open much later than they are today. You have to feel comfortable walking up and down the alleys. You have to feel comfortable staying out and not just rushing back to your car."

Ten years is not a long time, Reeves says as a kind of Grand Center Inc. mantra. He does not believe that the initial concepts of Gaddes and company were overblown. The renovation of the Sun Theatre, for example "still can happen. Right now there's over $80 million that's invested in Grand Center. I would say that over the next three to four years we can double that. The momentum has built." (That $80 million figure is fuzzy at times. In some of Grand Center Inc.'s material, the sum is $60 million, and Ruwitch ballooned it to $100 million in conversation.)

Reeves turns to KETC as the new model for Grand Center redevelopment: "A critical development was the move of KETC. KETC took a risk. Their board was torn. They could have gone to the county or to (University of Missouri-St. Louis). Michael Hardgrove and Ted Garcia were instrumental in choosing Grand Center. Grand Center worked to demolish a couple of small buildings, clean up the environmental problems and clean the site to be able to deliver it."

With a vigorous capital campaign, the station was able to raise the funds for its state-of-the-art facility on Olive.

But is this a "one-size-fits-all" method for development? An affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System, with significant corporate-underwriting support, is not the same as a midsize nonprofit theater or dance troupe. Just as 10 years ago there was an apparent need for restaurants, bistros and bars in Grand Center, the need for an 1,800-2,000 seat performing-arts facility has been severe. Companies such as Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, The New Theatre (TNT) and the Metro Theatre Company have been the Bedouin nomads of the local arts scene. TNT, for example, has performed in the New City School, Webster University's Studio III, the International Shoe Building, the Annex Theatre and the Grandel in recent years.

These three groups are in very preliminary discussions about transforming the former Medinah Temple into a performing-arts space that could benefit them and other midsize companies in the community. The groups have spoken with Grand Center's redevelopment committee and have six or seven months to put together a strategic plan. Reeves says he's talked with the groups about fundraising, operating expenses and the need to change their board structure. "What they do, they do well," says Reeves. "They're not real-estate developers. They're not supposed to know about tax credits. Many of their boards are focused on the artistic side and not the financial side. Our goal would be to help point out how these things would be practically implemented. It's nice to have a vision, but you have to have a way to put it together, a real plan on how to raise the money and what the feasibility is of the whole project."

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."

"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:

"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."

Then she returns to the fundraising question. "Absolutely," she says in regards to support for the midsize groups, but then qualifies that statement: "We have to be asked to help. We offer 'What can we do for you?' It's got to be a collaborative kind of effort."

The label "facilitator" can mean a way of removing oneself from ultimate responsibility. "This community has to say that these things are of value to the community and will fund them," says Ruwitch. "I don't think an organization like Grand Center doing that for them is the answer."

It is ironic that in 2004's assessment of the strengths and needs of St. Louis' artistic community, two points were made especially clear: First, there is a critical need for an 1,800-2,000-seat performing-arts space, with the Medinah Temple being the most feasible and advantageous site. Second, the study stressed the lack of artistic leadership in the community.

For 10 years Grand Center Inc. has owned the Medinah. And, after 10 years, it remains part of the leadership vacuum.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

More by Eddie Silva

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 13, 2021

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

© 2021 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation