Tom Eblen

Lyric Theatre: big opportunity disguised as a problem

From the time it opened in 1948 until it closed in 1963, the Lyric Theatre was a cultural icon for Lexington's African-American community, hosting the likes of Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.

For the past 46 years, the Lyric has been an empty, crumbling building. For nearly 20 years, its renaissance has been a dream deferred for the East End neighborhood and many African-Americans throughout Lexington.

Now, as city officials move forward with a long-promised renovation that will cost about $9 million, the Lyric Theatre is something else: a building in search of a sustainable operating plan, and a great opportunity cleverly disguised as a problem.

The Lyric renovation has a long and tortured history, but it boils down to this: City officials committed to restoring the Lyric as an African-American arts and culture center as part of an agreement with the state. The Urban County Council unanimously approved a design that calls for a 588-seat theater, a 2,000-square-foot African-American culture museum and a 3,800-square-foot multipurpose room.

The city has made a commitment, and that commitment must be met. Further delay will result in hefty fines by the state.

Many good people have put a lot of time and effort into planning the Lyric's revival. But when the Urban County Council voted this week to authorize construction bonds, it became clear that the planning hasn't been good enough. The Lyric's business plan, which illogically did not include a feasibility study, would result in financial subsidies much larger than those the city provides for other arts venues.

You have to give Mayor Jim Newberry and this council credit: They've shown a willingness to tackle tough issues. Ed Lane, Vice Mayor Jim Gray and other council members have asked good, hard questions about the Lyric, and that has resulted in Gray being asked to form a work group to develop a better business plan.

Part of the problem is that not enough artists, arts professionals and entrepreneurs have been involved in the years of discussions about the Lyric. That has led to a lot of talk about the building, but not enough talk about how it could be used.

Gray said Friday that he expects to form a diverse work group. Among those Gray said he may ask to serve: Writers Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson, UK Opera director Everett McCorvey, developer Mira Ball and architect Drura Parish.

"It's really important that whatever is done at the Lyric succeeds," Gray said. One key to success will be forming partnerships around town with universities, arts groups and other organizations.

One work group member will be Jim Clark, president of LexArts, the local umbrella organization for the arts. Surprisingly, previous city administrations haven't included LexArts in discussions about the Lyric.

Ideally, artistic and entrepreneurial vision would have driven the Lyric's renovation plan, rather than the other way around. But it's not too late to make the facility a valuable, sustainable asset for both the neighborhood and the city, Clark said.

Clark sees great opportunities for the Lyric to form partnerships with local artists, arts organizations and the University of Kentucky. Those could include integrating the Lyric into UK's music, museum studies and art history graduate programs.

The Lyric's special mission will require a strong director and board, Clark said, but money could be saved and efficiency improved if some management and technical employees were shared with other small city arts facilities.

This process also should prompt a larger discussion about city-owned arts facilities, how they are managed and how they are used. "If we're going to put the Lyric under the microscope, we might as well put the whole thing under the microscope and see what's best for the community," Clark said.

One example: The Opera House, managed by the Lexington Center Corp., and the Downtown Arts Center, managed by LexArts, were set up more as rental facilities than "presenters" to actively recruit performers, as Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts does. That's why Lexington gets Broadway touring companies while big acts such as Lyle Lovett, the New York Philharmonic, Joshua Bell and the Pointer Sisters go to Danville.

What makes a cultural facility successful isn't the facility, but what happens inside it.

Thanks to the hard work of many people, the Lyric Theatre is on its way to becoming a fine building. The challenge now is for Lexington's most creative minds to step forward and develop an artistic vision and business plan to make that building come alive, succeed and endure.