Edifice Complex

Building new cultural facilities is a risky business for Valley cities.

Millinger points out that new corporate execs don't stay long enough to truly understand the arts institutions. "Even more importantly, they're not here long enough to develop a sense of commitment."

Some proposed projects don't take into account the flurry of arts facilities going up throughout the Valley.

The proposed new Phoenix Family Museum will compete directly for audiences and what the philanthropic world characterizes as "kids bucks" against the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa and the Arizona Science Center, barely a stone's throw from the new museum's proposed location on Seventh Street. (See "O Children, Where Art Thou?" on page 33.)

Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix.
Myra Millinger, associate director of the Flinn Foundation, says that many arts organizations still struggle for funding and audiences.
Paolo Vescia
Myra Millinger, associate director of the Flinn Foundation, says that many arts organizations still struggle for funding and audiences.

In Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale, plans for new art facilities are booming along on the basis of feasibility studies that no longer accurately reflect the Valley's increasingly competitive cultural landscape.

Mesa's plan for four theaters, for example, was formulated before Tempe came up with a plan for two of its own. Neither plan takes into account the possibility that Scottsdale may add as many as six theaters.

Supporters say that the region's booming population will provide plenty of customers for the healthy cultural future that's anticipated in the proposals.

David Hempfill, who heads the Phoenix-based Black Theatre Troupe, which performs Valleywide, says that arts groups can't count on population growth alone to provide the gate.

"The fact is," he says, "theater is not a big priority here. The hindrance runs from MTV to all the other things families can do instead."

What's valued are recreational opportunities, says Matthew Wiener. "It's always so nice here. People are outside. They go hiking all the time. They play golf all the time. There's an aesthetic about going out and being outside."

And even the Southwest's cultural season -- when the major exhibitions occur, the galleries are open, the plays and performances are on -- runs from September through May, when people prefer to be outdoors.

These factors affect the ability of organizations not only to bring in the crowds, but also to bring in the needed operating cash.

"There's this misperception that it's as easy to fund raise for arts groups as it is for the disease of the month," says Jody Ulich, Tempe's director of cultural services. "But even in these good economic times, it's extremely difficult to fund raise for the arts and create strong, viable organizations.

"Four or five years ago, the Arizona Theatre Company was doing curtain calls, saying if [they] don't get money they would have to close. The Ballet was doing that curtain call last year."

Ballet Arizona was saved by a $100,000 donation from patron Carol Whiteman. "But she can't do it alone," says Millinger, whose foundation has invested about $1.3 million in the Ballet in the past 15 years.

The problems go deeper than cash. Nonprofit arts organizations simply don't make enough on ticket sales to survive. They need help from the government, corporations, foundations and the public.

"They're not a business," says Marvin Cohen, who formerly headed the Arizona Commission on the Arts and now sits on the board of the Arizona Theatre Company. "A lot of businesspeople come onto the boards of these organizations and say, 'Gee, you're not making a profit; what's wrong here?' The fact is that none of these companies function with more than 50 percent or 60 percent earned income. They have to raise the rest through grants and contributions."

Last year, the Phoenix Arts Commission's grants program invested $742,000 in 129 organizations. Tempe gave $55,000 to ChildsPlay, a group that presents children's theater. Scottsdale contributed more than $2 million to the Scottsdale Cultural Council, the cultural nonprofit it formed in 1987 to oversee its cultural affairs. The Arizona Commission on the Arts awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars. Corporations and foundations have contributed millions of dollars more.

Despite these investments, says Judy Mohraz, president and CEO of the Piper Trust, which has been holding discussions with arts groups to determine how the foundation should focus its cultural support, "even the most financially stable organizations are still weak. They simply do not have the financial standing that institutions of their stature have in other areas of the country."

Newcomers to Phoenix may never fully appreciate just how much and how quickly the idea that culture is essential to quality of urban life has grown here in the past 15 years.

Once seen merely as a diversion for the few, it has emerged as a reliable vehicle -- right up there with professional sports -- for redefining and advancing civic identity.

When Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano dreams of the art center the city's planning to put near Rio Salado, he envisions the Sydney -- as in Australia -- Opera House, a prestigious landmark of civic vitality thrusting its prow out over the water.

To Mesa boosters, the city's proposed new arts complex, with studios, theaters, galleries, shaded walks and open-air amphitheaters, won't be anything like the aging school that now houses those facilities.

"The center will bring a new heart to the downtown area," says Joanie Flatt, the city's Woman of the Year and a leading advocate of the arts complex. "It will bring a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of pride. It will completely rejuvenate the downtown with a wow factor that makes your heart stick in your throat."

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