A Grand Center for the Arts

November 3, 2009
Years of wishful thinking among members of Charleston's arts community and months of discussions among community leaders have produced a clear picture of a new downtown performing arts and civic center with an extensively renovated Gaillard Municipal Auditorium at its heart.

The Gaillard Municpal Auditorium is set for a makeover. Below: Among many options being considered is an exterior renovation, perhaps employing a design to echo the architecture of the College of Charleston's historic Randolph Hall.

Mayor Joe Riley has voiced his commitment to what he said would be an economic engine in the heart of downtown and an opportunity for urban improvement.

College of Charleston President George Benson said an updated Gaillard would provide a logical extension of the school's arts programming and physical campus.

Martha Rivers Ingram, chairwoman of the Spoleto Festival USA board, said a new concert hall would connect Charleston to its pre-Civil War past, granting it "an opportunity to be exceptional again."

Ingram pledged $20 million dollars to the city-led renovation project, meant to be matched by other private gifts. The Gaillard renovation is likely to cost about $100 million, though the final price tag depends on the scope of the job.

Riley wants to achieve economies of scale by building new offices along the streets surrounding the auditorium.

Office space is badly needed. Municipal offices are too few and are scattered throughout downtown. The city stations personnel on the top floor of 75 Calhoun St., adjacent to the city-owned Gaillard property.

It makes sense to consolidate municipal offices, rather than keep paying rent, and it would be less expensive to do so in conjunction with the Gaillard construction project, Riley said. A municipal campus likely would include green space for public use, he said.

Riley said the existing Gaillard auditorium has served its purpose well, providing an essential performance venue since it opened in 1968. "Charleston couldn't be what it is today without it," he said.

But the Gaillard's fan-shaped hall, bad acoustics and stodgy architecture no longer match the high quality productions offered in Charleston by the Spoleto Festival USA, the Charleston Concert Association, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Charleston Ballet Theatre and other presenters, many have said.

A modern, new hall is "the missing piece" of the local arts community, Riley said.

During a visit to Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year, Riley toured the Bass Performance Hall, designed by architect David M. Schwarz, which opened in 1998. The 2,056-seat hall cost about $65 million to build and is the model for the Gaillard's new performance space.

Schwarz, who also designed Nashville's $125 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center, developed detailed preliminary plans for the Gaillard renovation.

A renovation of the current building would be much less expensive than building a hall from scratch, planners said.

Riley said the project depends on the involvement of City Council and others and that the city is seeking input from Ansonborough residents, who will be most affected by nearby construction and who could benefit from added parking.

The project will do more than provide Charleston with a world-class performance space that enhances quality of life, Riley, Ingram and others said. It will generate short-term and sustained economic activity, creating jobs and making the city a more desirable place for businesses and professionals to settle.

Ingram, born and raised in Charleston, was the driving force behind development of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Now focused on her hometown, she said a fundraising consultant was engaged and that the city could soon hire a project manager. Riley confirmed this, saying a job interview was scheduled for this week.

365 days

Benson said the project would align with the values of the College of Charleston. It's new strategic plan emphasizes "the history, traditions, culture and environment of Charleston and the Lowcountry," he said. Increasingly, the college will be investing its resources in ways that highlight the institution's unique associations and geography, he said.

"Potentially, there will be a world-class facility one block from campus, and as a result we need to be involved," he said. A renovated Gaillard, especially one that includes additional performance, practice, meeting and office space, as well as dressing rooms, scenery shops and private studios, would enable the college to extend its arts programming and physical footprint. But the benefits go two ways, Benson said.

Like many theaters and concert halls, the Gaillard currently is "dark most of the year," used by performers only 20-30 percent of the time. "But if the college is involved, we can keep the lights on 365 days of the year," he said. More use helps justify up-front costs and can generate year-round revenues, he and others said.

The School of the Arts has been involved in formulating potential uses for the new Gaillard, Benson said. He listed specific ideas that could be implemented over time: a resident music industry management program; a music preparatory division for underpriviledged youth; a resident youth orchestra; a center for musical theater; a festival celebrating Gullah heritage; and an international theater program.


Ingram said a new hall with great acoustics can change the dynamics of a community, sparking nearby development, retail activity and tourism. That's what happened in Nashville since the Schermerhorn Center opened in 2006.

"It changes the whole experience if you have a beautiful place to go," she said. A world-class hall demands performances that meet the highest standards of artistic expression, and when audiences are exposed to that kind of art, it becomes the new standard for the community, she said. And as the arts get better, other things get better, such as restaurants and retail and small business development and property values.

The reputation of Nashville's new hall has lured top-tier artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Sir Neville Mariner, Ingram said.

It's all part of revealing the human condition in ways that inspire people of all ages and income levels to dream and achieve, she said. "The dream leads to ambition for a better world," Ingram said. "People should not be deprived of seeing the world through the eyes of the arts."

Design plans

The preliminary plans include five main options. A preferred option cited by Spoleto Festival officials includes an extensive reorganization of the performance hall, public amenities and exhibition space within the existing structure.

--Seating would be reduced from 2,700 to about 1,800.

--The fan-shape hall would be converted to a horseshoe shape, and the size and depth of the balcony reduced.

--The orchestra level would include two center aisles.

--The large balcony would be replaced with two or three smaller overhangs.

--The large stage would lose 6 feet, and modifications would be made to the pit and surrounding backstage areas. A second level would be added to the Exhibition Hall, approximately doubling its square footage to 30,000.

--The exterior could get a neo-classical makeover, echoing the College of Charleston's historic Randolph Hall.

Paying for it

Mayor Joe Riley, Spoleto Festival USA Board Chairwoman Martha Rivers Ingram, College of Charleston President George Benson and others envision a public-private partnership involving local arts organizations, the college, the city and the Coastal Community Foundation.

Funds could be raised in several ways by the various parties -- through philanthropic giving by individuals and corporations, bond sales by both the city and the college and tax credits.

The Gaillard sits in a Tax Increment Financing zone, and the renovation project could be eligible for a relatively new federal funding mechanism called a New Markets Tax Credit.

Tax Increment Financing allows municipalities to raise money (often by selling bonds) based on the future tax revenues likely to result from community improvements.

The New Markets Tax Credit program, administered by the U.S. Treasury Department, "permits taxpayers to receive a credit against federal income taxes for making qualified equity investments in designated Community Development Entities." The investment must be used in low-income communities and the credit, claimed over a 7-year period, is worth 39 percent of the investment amount.

Benson said college administrators surely will be part of the project team and can leverage the school's existing fundraising capabilities, soliciting gifts, selling bonds or borrowing money.

The Coastal Community Foundation, which manages endowments and other financial tools for local arts organizations, would oversee project finances.

Already, a $20 million matching gift has been committed.

A Grand Center for the Arts

By Adam Parker - Charleston Post and Courier