"What's going on at the Downtown Arts Center?" has become a common question among Lexington-area artists and arts supporters — but not in the way the Main Street venue's directors would like for it to be asked.
Far from assuming something cool must be happening in the city-owned center's black box theater, it carries the presumption that nothing is going on there or has been since primary tenant Actors Guild of Lexington left the venue in 2009.
"That is a perception," says Scott Sherman, who became general manager of the Downtown Arts Center in August. "Our audience is very spread out in the community as opposed to when Actors Guild was here, and the audience was very central to that company. They had an audience that filled the seats for several months, and then on Actors Guild's off months, they were still here as an audience of the Downtown Arts Center.
"Since they've left, and there hasn't been a flagship company in the theater to lead audience development, there hasn't been an audience to develop."
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Sherman, however, counters the notion that nothing is going on at the DAC. He offers a list of 22 groups or individuals that have used or are scheduled to use the theater for public performances between last August, when he came on board, and the coming June. Sherman says the theater has been or is scheduled to be used all but nine weekends during that time.
Most are not quite the marquee status of Actors Guild — though one issue some cite is that the DAC has no actual marquee — and many performances are one-night stands, not the multi-week runs area theaters present.
Sherman, Actors Guild's onetime technical director, notes he has also made more time for groups to use the space before productions open for audiences.
His case: The theater might be closed to the public, but it is being used.
Still, perception is important. Sherman and Jim Clark, president and CEO of LexArts, which manages the center, say the venue needs to get back on track.
"It has been a challenge," Clark says.
He notes that in the past year he has been disappointed that several groups who had been actively using the center discontinued or scaled back their work.
"The challenge for the center is that if it is a rental facility for the local groups, then it's sitting around waiting for the local groups to come ask to rent it.
"Or should it be a presenting house, where I go out and hire an artistic director to bring in national talent and create a season that way?"
Clark asks the question: Should LexArts be running the Downtown Arts Center at all?
How it came to be
The Downtown Arts Center was born out of a tortured time in Lexington arts and government.
The original arts development near Main Street and North Limestone was supposed to be a $20 million arts center, built on property the state acquired for $9 million, with the understanding that a cultural center would be built there. The center was to be along the lines of Louisville's Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts or the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts — the sort of facility many Lexingtonians say still needs to be built here.
The city eventually decided it wanted to build the dual courthouses that now stand on the property; the state filed a $17 million lawsuit against Lexington. In a settlement between then-Gov. Paul Patton and then-Mayor Pam Miller, the city agreed to invest $15 million in cultural projects in downtown Lexington. Part of that allotment was $4 million for a theater in the old retail buildings once occupied by Embry's and Lowenthal's. (Other projects included restoration of the Lyric Theatre and the Lexington Children's Theatre's space on Short Street.)
The Downtown Arts Center, which had a final stated price tag of $4.7 million, opened in February 2002 with much ballyhoo as the new home of Actors Guild. It also boasted the Ann Tower Gallery and a dining space that was initially a coffee shop and is now home to Alfalfa Restaurant.
The Lexington Arts and Cultural Council, as LexArts was then known, signed the initial agreement to run the DAC in the months before it opened, when Miller was the mayor and Dee Fizdale was director of the arts council.
"The city didn't want to get into the arts planning and programming business," Miller said Friday. "And there really wasn't another logical entity to do it."
She noted that LexArts had been running ArtsPlace, the Mill Street building it shares with other groups such as the Lexington Philharmonic and Lexington Ballet, for some time.
"We didn't have another candidate, and I don't recall that we ever considered creating a new board," she said. "I guess you could say it was the path of least resistance."
Miller also noted that at the time, Actors Guild was at the height of its success, and with it as a resident company, it didn't see there would be a problem keeping the space active.
Clark acknowledges that the DAC became an issue for LexArts after Actors Guild left.
What do performers think?
Now, without a major theater tenant, the Downtown Arts Center is far from the bustling cultural venue it was envisioned to be.
Actors Guild moved out in the midst of a financial and management crisis in 2009, and in subsequent years, the expense of performing in the center's black box theater has regularly been cited as a financial burden for the company, which had previously operated in an awkward loft space on Short Street. Actors Guild now presents performances in a former retail space off Harrodsburg Road.
Over the years, numerous companies have complained about the financial arrangements associated with working in the center, including stipulations such as the majority of ticket revenue goes to the center, groups have to pay for redundant personnel, and they must pay overtime for the center's staff to be at the theater during the evening, when shows typically take place.
"It's impossible to produce there, when the city is taking a 60-40 split on tickets," says Evan Bergman, co-director of Project SEE Theatre, which has produced plays including Big Love, Burn This and The Hot l Baltimore in the space. "Where's the incentive, other than that there's nowhere else to produce and it's a sweet black box?"
That, Bergman and Project SEE co-director Ellie Clark say, is part of why their company has not been mounting more theater in the space, which Clark said he had hoped they would. They will present a production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost at the DAC in late May and early June.
Balagula Theatre directors Natasha Williams and Ryan Case decided to present their group's most recent show at the Downtown Arts Center, instead of its usual home at the nearby Natasha's Bistro and Bar. It was a bit of an experiment, they say, to see how working in the center went for them, with the understanding they would talk to LexArts management when it was over about what they liked and didn't like.
"We were operating under the most normal contract that they have for co-producing," Williams says. "We told them from the beginning, we don't think this is a good contract. They said, 'We understand,' and that they would like honest and open feedback, because they are looking to revamp or reconsider their whole relationship with the facility."
The play, Terrorism, produced in January, was overall a success for the theater. Williams and Case met with LexArts management to discuss their experience, and they say they even got some money refunded after demonstrating expenses they should not have had to shoulder.
But their bottom-line critique?
"It's run by an organization that has no business running a facility, because that's not its function," Williams said. "Their job is to raise money and distribute money. Their job is not to run facilities."
LexArts' Clark agrees.
What do administrators think about DAC?
"LexArts is here first and foremost to raise money for the groups in town, not to be a facilities manager," Clark says. "At the end of the day, we're measured on how good of a fundraiser we are, and at the end of the day, that needs to be our main focus.
"The DAC, for me, has been a distraction, and I have been frustrated with that for a number of years."
Over Clark's tenure, which began in 2003 and ends with his retirement June 30, LexArts has tried several approaches to programming the DAC, including bringing in touring artists who would work well in the 150- to 250-seat theater. The organization has also made attempts to establish artistic directors to program the space. Neither effort has taken off.
Clark says the management fee LexArts receives from the city to run the theater — $109,000 in the current fiscal year, according to Clark — does not give the group much room to program or do much else other than keep the doors open and staffed with four full-time employees: Sherman, a technical director, box office manager, and production manager. LexArts consistently loses money on the DAC, projected to be an $18,000 loss this current fiscal year, Clark said.
Clark, the Balagula directors and others say the facility needs to be its own entity, such as the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center or the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, with a board and an artistic director focused on making it a vibrant cultural center.
Being under the LexArts umbrella hampers the center in other ways. Clark points out that since organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts do not give consortium grants, the center is unable to apply for money to, say, produce new programming.
Sherman says that the center is missing out on a prime source of revenue by not being able to sell alcohol, a concession that helps many other theaters cover expenses, because the DAC cannot apply for its own liquor license.
"We have had Alfalfa's come over and offer wine during shows," Sherman says. "But that money doesn't go to us, it goes to Alfalfa's."
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray says he has not seen a proposal to change the management of the center, but he says that times of transition, like Clark's retirement, are particularly good times to re-evaluate circumstances.
Gray says, "We can always look for ways to improve, and I think that's true for the Downtown Arts Center. It's true for every arts venue and organization we have in the city, even while we should celebrate how well we are doing and how far we have come."
What does the future hold?
In addition to agreeing that management at the center needs to change, the theater groups agree they love the DAC's black box theater, which is essentially a big, open room with variable seating and staging possibilities.
"It has everything Project SEE needs," Ellie Clark says. "That's exactly what we want to be producing our work in."
Williams, of Balagula, says, "It's an awesome facility. We would love to work there a lot. We would love to be a resident company."
That is one idea that has been floated through several parties. No theater company is poised to present shows in the volume Actors Guild did, at least immediately, but some think a group of three or four companies could create consistent and complementary programming that might bring audiences back to the DAC for their work and other groups that use the venue.
"I would be interested in building that and seeing what that brought," Clark says.
Sherman says a theater collective is an idea for programming that "has a lot of merit," and he is also interested in looking into ideas like working with other similar theaters in the region to create touring routes for artists.
There are other issues various parties say need to be addressed. Those include a lack of exterior signage to let people know what is happening at the theater and the development of the building's third and fourth floors. The third floor had been planned as a cabaret space, but it remains unfinished. The fourth floor had been Actors Guild's office space, but it has been vacant for nearly five years.
Asked about, say, finishing the third floor, Gray cautions first things first.
"First, we need to get this working," he says, referring to the black box theater.
Sherman is optimistic that he and his staff will be able to do that.
"Once we can overcome the perception that nothing's happening and get some of those repeat customers," Sherman says, "a new image of the entire center will start to emerge."