Edifice complex

Can The Smith Center really save the arts in Las Vegas?

Richard Johnson, left, and Myron Martin of The Smith Center.
Photo: Jacob Kepler

The air inside the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Summerlin practice facility is singularly focused. Artistic Director James Canfield leads a dozen or more dancers through a rehearsal of an upcoming show featuring choreography matched to different covers of the standard “Blue Moon.” While Canfield and the ballerinas are calm and focused, outside, it’s a different story: The arts community is getting hammered in Las Vegas. And we’re not talking art galleries or local bands. We’re talking the three pillars of the so-called “fine art” community in Las Vegas. The ascendant Las Vegas Art Museum closed its doors a few weeks ago. The upstart Las Vegas Philharmonic has weathered management issues and is trying to recoup a $200,000 deficit. Even the venerable Nevada Ballet Theatre just let go nine dancers and three staff members and has postponed a concert.

So in addition to this being a crappy time for Las Vegas generally, it is an especially crappy time for the arts in a town with a strangely ambivalent relationship to art—a town known for its aesthetic showmanship and for being a cultural lightweight.

The backdrop to the arts community’s woes, meanwhile, is the impending start to construction of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a $465 million theater facility slated for Downtown Las Vegas’ Union Park development. The Smith Center will be the new home of both the ballet and the symphony, which currently play out of an outdated theater at UNLV.

A Smith Center model.

This should be the tonic to get us through a rough patch, and not surprisingly, arts leaders are optimistic. “Part of the reason we made cuts is to look at the long-term fiscal health of the Ballet,” says Beth Barbre, executive director of NBT. “We’ve been here for decades and plan to be here for decades [more].” The Smith Center, in fact, was part of the reason Barbre took the job, and was also part of the reason she was able to lure Canfield from the Oregon Ballet Theatre.

The Philharmonic’s financial hurdles are by no means small, although a fundraising drive at a February concert went well. “I think we’re all trying to figure it out,” says presiding officer Jeri Crawford. “I can’t speak for the Ballet … but I can tell you that the Philharmonic is bouncing back.” And The Smith Center will help. “A lot of people that have stepped up to the plate and put their million dollars on the line believe it’s something Las Vegas can support and will support. That alone speaks for itself ... Two or three years from now, we’ll be in a different place.”

Most optimistic of all, though, is Myron Martin, the energetic president of the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation, who has the passion of a true believer. “Do we have a right to be optimistic about the arts and culture in Las Vegas? My answer is absolutely. I am particularly saddened by the closing of that museum, but I know in my heart of hearts that something really good is going to come out of that.”

He adds, “Between now and opening night everybody has their challenges. But we’re gonna help the Philharmonic and we’re gonna help the Ballet, in a big way …”

Hal Weller, co-founder of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, is more skeptical. He agrees that the time for the project is now—“The university facilities are dated. They are small”—but the news of the challenges of the arts groups has him “concerned about the arts ecology” of Southern Nevada. And his skepticism focuses on The Smith Center, meant to be the crown jewel of arts and culture in the city for generations. “It would seem to me that the scales are really out of whack. The combined annual operating budgets of the Ballet and Phil are less than $5 million a year. It makes we wonder what we’re building a $485 million facility for.” (The budget has since been adjusted to $465 million.)

Originally The Smith Center was to contain a large all-purpose concert and theater hall and a smaller, 650-seat venue for the NBT. A year ago NBT changed its mind and decided it wanted to perform in the larger hall alongside the Las Vegas Philharmonic. So The Smith Center scrapped the smaller venue and replaced it with two small theaters in an adjacent education building: a 200-seat studio theater and a 300-seat cabaret with a glass-wall-backed stage that looks out onto the proposed Symphony Park.

From the Archives
Smith Center drama (1/22/09)
Beyond the Weekly
The Smith Center

The project’s current budget includes a $50 million in-kind gift from the city for land, parking and environmental remediation; a $50 million gift from the Reynolds Foundation ($5 million for design, $45 million for an endowment); a $150 million commitment from the city through a rental-car tax; another $100 million gift from Reynolds for construction; and promised gifts of a million dollars or more each from 42 individuals and corporations around town, of which $16 million has been collected. (The center is named for the chairman of the Reynolds Foundation, Fred W. Smith, and his wife, Mary B. Smith.)

Little remains left to be raised, and Martin and the center’s chief financial officer, Richard Johnson, say no donors have been delinquent. While the economy is down, the projected rental-car tax revenue remains high, because the casinos are lowering room rates to ensure occupancy, thus keeping up car rentals.

That The Smith Center will be finished is not in dispute. But with an uncertain future for the arts, the real question is who will be left to perform there.

“It concerns me that the support is going for bricks and mortar rather than the artistic endeavor itself,” Weller says. “I think there’s a healthy balance. It’s beholden to The Smith Center people to network to the community to such an extent that there’s a mutual embracing of an arts-center project with the healthy existence of the groups that need a venue. There’s no question a venue is needed, but at what cost?”

Or, as Canfield puts it, “It would be a shame to build this great jewelry box and have no jewels to put in it.”

The price tag sounds like a lot of money, but once you take out its endowment, the Center is not way off from other facilities. Kansas City’s Kauffman Center, scheduled to open in the fall of 2011, just a few months before The Smith Center, costs $413 million—which includes $40 million for endowment and $47 million from the city of Kansas City. Like at The Smith Center, most of the funds have been raised. (And like The Smith Center, the Kauffman is designed by a famous architect, in this case Moshe Safdie.) Kauffman will feature both a 1,600-square-foot concert hall and another 1,800-seat proscenium theater.

“Could we have spent less money?” says Martin. “Uh-huh. Would we have ended up with a building for the next 100 or 150 years? No.” And as Martin happily shows me several models of the central performance hall at The Smith, it does appear lavish and impressive, with a subtle art deco flavor that Martin notes was inspired by the Hoover Dam.

Martin says that the center’s “design imperative from day one was Bass Hall or better.” Bass Hall is the performing arts center in Ft. Worth, Texas, and both Smith and Bass were designed by Washington, D.C.-based architect David Schwarz. “Bass Hall just celebrated its 10th anniversary,” says Martin. “And it still looks as good as the day it opened. The material choices were great. The attention to detail was spectacular.”

Some critics have carped about The Smith Center’s safe, classicist design (it will be sheathed in the monumental Indiana limestone of countless beaux arts museums and rail stations), but you can’t accuse its leaders of half-assing anything; clearly they want this to be not just a big theater but the cultural heart of a maturing city, the ultimate rejoinder to a thousand “There’s no culture in Vegas” laments.

But if anything, the ambition of the project raises other questions. First and foremost: While the size and health of both arts groups are of concern now, how strong will they be when The Smith Center opens? As Duncan Webb, president of Webb Management Services, a New York arts consulting firm, notes, resident troupes can act, something like anchor tenants in a mall, guaranteeing an “amount of annual activity that’s credible and professional.”

The Ballet has an annual budget of about $3 million, while the Philharmonic’s budget hovers between $1.6 and $1.7 million. The ballet puts on a few dozen performances a year; for the Phil, it’s nine.

Weller says he would like to see The Smith Center revisit its project plans, possibly reducing its building costs, and support an endowment that could support its member groups. Martin’s dream is to help set up an endowment for the resident companies—but that’s many years off. Right now, he hopes the new building energizes the resident companies and brings in a new audience.

“When you say ‘anchor,’ it sounds like the vast majority of the things that happen will be things from those two organizations, and that’s not quite right,” says Martin, clearly uncomfortable with the term. (Barbre, on the other hand, embraces it.) And true, The Smith Center is also planning to bring in other cultural groups, and Martin is planning on 12 weeks of Broadway programming a year—at eight shows a week—but many of those potential shows may be playing on the Strip.

But how touring Broadway shows will play in a town with a mixed record for longer-running shows is anyone’s guess. Aaron Brown, principal with the San Francisco consulting firm WolfBrown, points to “the inability of anyone in the marketplace to compete against” the availability of Broadway on the Strip. Martin, who produced Hairspray here and once thought Vegas would be Broadway West (a mistake, he now says), is aware of the challenge the Strip presents, and not just with Broadway shows.

Myron Martin, left, and Richard Johnson of The Smith Center.

“Tony Bennett sells out at Bass Hall in Ft. Worth, but Tony Bennett’s got this deal at the casinos, so we may or may not ever have the opportunity to bring him to The Smith Center. It is a different model for us.” That model is heavy on educational outreach to children—which is becoming a more critical component of arts-center operations. (These programs don’t pay for themselves, but they generate enormous goodwill in the community, have a lasting impact on children and encourage donations.) Martin points to the LVPACF bringing in Ailey II, a troupe from the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in February 2008 to work with kids.

Still, there is the question of how many shows The Smith Center can attract to the entertainment capital of the world. Most performing-arts centers average between 125 and 200 performances a year, and Martin says The Smith Center will be on the low end of that. But he’s reluctant to give a number of shows the facility is shooting for, and perhaps this is apt. Surely no one will be holding up a score card to mark how many times a year there’s a performance there—but it seems likely that Las Vegans will want to feel that there are a sizeable amount of high-quality performances going on at the center before they claim it as their own.

And despite the impressive funds The Smith Center has raised, financial challenges will remain. Even if The Smith Center earns 5 percent a year on its endowment, pegged to reach $50 million, the $2.5 million a year won’t be enough to cover operating expenses. (Ironically, the more successful the venue is, the more expensive it will be to maintain it.) And other arts centers haven’t always gone smoothly. Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, says orchestra consultant Drew McManus, struggled with a weak operating endowment, abysmal marketing and cost overruns during construction. Miami’s Arsht Center for the Performing Arts not only went $102 million over budget, according to the New York Times (originally named for Carnival Cruise Lines, the two-theater center was renamed for a philanthropist who donated $30 million to put the place on firmer financial footing), but it also saw the demise of the Florida Philharmonic during construction. Despite a $205 million gift, Madison’s Overture Center is trying to pay off $28 million in construction debt.

But there’s a deeper, conceptual question about whether the whole model of the performing arts center on the hill is past its prime. “When I see $480 million that’s being spent on a model of an arts facility that’s now 80 years old, it raises some questions in my mind,” says Brown.

Adds Webb, “We have this terrible problem where you hire a significant architect to build signature, iconic buildings that have limited flexibility day to day and decade to decade.”

Webb led a think tank a few years ago on the idea of the performing arts center in 2032, and concluded that it would change and become smaller, less formal and more flexible. Younger audiences, he says, have rejected the classical notion of a night out for the arts as too stiff. Everything, from advanced tickets to queuing in line to exact seating to leaving once the show is done, is too controlling. “You have to give audiences a sense they can control their experience. Younger audiences want to participate the way they want to participate … not only does it not work for young people, it doesn’t work in multicultural [communities].”

In other words, The Smith Center may be the idealization of the High Culture Venue that everyone over 30 or 40 has internalized and will take with them to the grave. For everyone younger, it might be too stale. Brown talks of the idea of small creative centers around a city, perhaps themed to particular art forms, where people can come and socialize and make art as much as they consume it.

Martin is hoping The Smith Center will break ground in 90 days. Construction will take 32 months, plus two more for fine-tuning. The center could open by early 2012. And there’s no doubt it could change the face of the city. Caroline Werth, an arts consultant hired by The Smith Center to do a feasibility study back in 2004, believes The Smith Center “will be an imminent success. It is going to generate enormous pride and ownership in the community, and make people really feel like this belongs to them.”

Werth notes that arts organizations across the country can’t pay their mortgages—and she thinks The Smith Center will lure troupes to town. “Las Vegas is conducive for creativity. It’s a wonderful place to move a company. I know I have recommended to a couple of companies to be looking at Vegas as a home base.”

Martin says building The Smith Center will require between 1.5 million and 1.8 million man-hours. “God bless those people who are making this happen, at a time when our city needs the work. It’s providing employment … When we come out of this funk, there’s gonna be something really great for us, and it’s gonna be called The Smith Center.”


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