A 'MESSAGE TO THE WORLD'

 
December 7, 2008
Hopes are high that the $485 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts will transform Las Vegas' cultural legacy

One cool joint.

As descriptions of performing arts centers go, that may lack a certain dignity. But in a city where cool is currency, no greater compliment could be bestowed on the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Theoretically, anyway.

The $485 million center is still nearly five acres of downtown dirt that won't be disturbed until early next year, when construction is set to begin within the 61-acre, master-planned Union Park, with a 2011 target for completion. But that vacant space holds prodigious potential for the cultural transformation of Las Vegas.

"The Smith Center is being built for people who live here, but the message to the world is that Las Vegas has grown up. There won't be any slot machines in the lobby," says Myron Martin, president of the Smith Center. "Performing arts centers have proven they can change cities. We've reached critical mass in terms of population. Now we have to satisfy the population."

The center is named for Fred W. Smith, former Review-Journal executive and chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, and for his wife, Mary B. Smith. The foundation provided $150 million for construction of the center, which will be anchored by a 2,050-seat proscenium theater that will be a permanent performance home to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre, as well as host Broadway tours and other arts groups. Cabaret space for jazz, an intimate black box theater usable for children's and community productions, and educational outreach facilities, including classroom space, are also slated for the center.

"This is the most important project to be built in Las Vegas in our lifetime," says Don Snyder, the center's chairman of the board. "We're the largest community in North America that does not have its own world-class performing arts center, but we've got a significant base of people that are used to having this type of asset. It's part of the infrastructure you need to be a world-class community."

Plans for a 650-seat theater have been shelved, and the area where the theater would have been built now is being considered for a museum gallery. But center officials have announced the addition of an outdoor stage where shows can play to 800 people, to be constructed in Symphony Park, on two acres outside the center. How to maximize its use, given colder winter temperatures and scorching Las Vegas summers, still is being studied by the center's landscape architect.

RIPPLE EFFECTS

Given the quality and quantity of performers the center is expected to attract, its ripple effects on the city will include tipping the cultural balance in relation to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and its twin venues, the Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall and Judy Bayley Theatre.

"(UNLV) has done a great service in getting us to where we are today," Martin says. "Cut to when we're no longer a medium-size community, the residents will expect something more. I suspect the New York Philharmonic, if they could perform at Ham Hall or the Smith Center, would choose the Smith Center."

No argument from UNLV's chief performance scheduler, with a caveat.

"I see it as a natural extension of the growth of the arts in Las Vegas, but we're going to have to choose our niches," says Larry Henley, UNLV's director of artistic programming and production.

"We're all trying to serve the people of this community, but by the same token, we need to protect our interests and bring people into our campus," Henley said. "It's a good thing we'll all be working with the same agents and tour managers. It'll be communication, not negotiation."

UNLV will lose the Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre, which schedule the bulk of their performances at the university. Major visiting acts, such as this year's appearances by Rita Moreno, Broadway superstar Lea Salonga and the Jerusalem Symphony, probably will switch to the Smith Center in the future.

"Instead of doing four of those a year, we might do one," Henley says. "Actually, right now it's a shoehorn to try to book the tours and accommodate the music department, the theater department and the dance department. Now we can bring in things so students can play with the artist."

Less affected will be the Cashman Center, where events have tilted more toward civic than artistic in recent years, though there are occasional performances, such as a tour stopover last August of a pair of Mormon-themed musicals, "Saturday's Warrior" and "The White Star," a Nov. 14 concert by locally based Red Mountain Music Company and the musical "Black Nativity" this coming weekend. But it's been several years since a Broadway road company took the Cashman stage.

"The functions now are graduations, dance recitals, a lot of nonprofits doing business there," says Vince Alberta, spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, though he does foresee a tourism boost from the center. "It will absolutely help because it will be another example of how we're evolving as a destination city."

Only the Philharmonic and ballet theater meet the center's residency requirements: having a complete season, a history of success, a financial plan and a commitment to give every performance at the center September through May. Beyond UNLV, the Philharmonic currently uses venues such as the Planet Hollywood Theatre for the Performing Arts, and the dance company occasionally has staged its holiday favorite, "The Nutcracker," at Cashman and the Rio's Samba Theater.

"This will firmly put us on the map," says Peter Aaronson, executive director of the Philharmonic. "Our sister orchestras in the League of American Orchestras have their permanent homes on this same scale. It provides us with state-of-the-art facilities and allows us to present music in the proper setting on the proper scale. We have a great facility at Ham Hall, 1,800 seats. It has excellent acoustics and sightlines. But it is an older facility with limited backstage space and a very tight schedule, so it really does cramp our schedule. Being a permanent resident (of the center), we're hoping we can breathe deeply and expand."

And Aaronson cites the center's cutting-edge audio/visual systems to facilitate future Philharmonic broadcasts on KNPR public radio and cable TV.

Nevada Ballet Theatre originally was designated as the main tenant of the since-scrapped 650-seat hall.

"They've been in the Judy Bayley Theatre; it's 550 seats," Martin says. "Moving to 650 a few years ago seemed like 20 percent growth, but the new thinking is: Let's perform less but to bigger audiences, because that allows having a live orchestra, which is what they felt they've lacked."

Beth Barbre, the ballet company's executive director, says that although they'll maintain rehearsal studios and their academy in Summerlin, the move to the center will attract a "high level of artists, inspire new audiences and make us want to go to the top of our game, raise the bar, if you want to use that pun."

Plans for the center are paying immediate dividends, Barbre says, citing its appeal to job candidates in their search for a permanent artistic director.

Transitioning to the Smith Center will cost local arts groups more than they now shell out to rent UNLV space. The university's daily rate is $1,450 for Artemus Ham Hall and $800 for the Judy Bayley Theatre, not including labor and equipment fees. UNLV sets rates on a three-year cycle that ends this year, with rent to rise at least 10 percent next year.

"I think we are very fair to local nonprofit groups," Henley says. Smith Center rates haven't been locked in, but they'll exceed UNLV's, Martin says. "Will it cost considerably more? I don't think so. People can focus too much on rent."

Along with planning to increase revenue by drawing more patrons to the center, the Philharmonic already has a financial plan in motion, creating a $10 million endowment budget over the next five years.

"It's ambitious from where we've been," Aaronson says. "San Diego has a $96 million fundraising campaign, so a $10 million goal is very reasonable for this community." For Nevada Ballet Theatre, Barbre says, "Myron is very amenable to keeping our costs comparable (to UNLV's rates) the first year."

IF YOU BUILD IT ...

Though Broadway musicals have fared erratically on the Strip, tours coming through the Smith Center will attract locals, says Martin, a producer of the failed version of "Hairspray" at the Luxor in 2006, which drew insufficient tourist business. But the experience gave him hope for the center.

"During previews, locals know you get a better price," he says. "Having seen them come out for that in droves proved to me that if we bring in the kinds of shows that have never come to Las Vegas, like 'Wicked' and others, they will want to come."
Unlike the $100-plus ticket prices in New York and on the Strip, he anticipates prices more in the $65 to $80 range.

"It won't be free, and it won't be a rip-off, and people will get their money's worth," he says, noting that the hall, with its layout and sound system, was designed with Broadway productions in mind.

He expects the center to host 10 to 16 weeks of shows annually, with "A-list companies, which is exactly what those of us who live here have been asking for."

Locally based theater took a hit, however, when the 650-seat hall was removed from the center plans. Other arts centers with midsize venues that host nonmusical theater include those in Los Angeles; Orange County, Calif.; San Francisco; and Portland, Ore. "If you take (the ballet company), the main user of that hall, off the table, what was left was a little bit of this and that. Can you justify building it?" Martin says.

He noted that a regional theater company with a sizable staff of Equity actors, known organizationally as members of LORT (League of Resident Theatres), could have filled the space; but UNLV's Nevada Conservatory Theatre already is evolving into one that would remain on campus, similar to those in Knoxville, Tenn., and Kansas City, Mo.

"That's the direction the Nevada Conservatory Theatre is going in," says Jeffrey Koep, dean of UNLV's College of Fine Arts. "The loss of the Smith Center theater is not good for Las Vegas, but (NCT) moving into such a thing is not even a possibility. NCT is part of this university, and we support that, to have professionals come in to work with the students."

Whether the lack of a LORT company that could present full-scale dramas and comedies prevents the Smith Center from reaching its full potential is debatable. But Sandra Gibson, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington, D.C., says "adjustments and shifts of these types are not uncommon in the development of major performing arts centers. The best of these projects all have such moments when they return to their community to reassess the core needs of the new facilities and the depth of financial support currently available to meet those needs."

Theater on the community level will have limited visibility. Though Martin says he expects local arts groups of all sorts to perform from time to time, they probably wouldn't have drawn audiences to fill the now-dropped midsize hall. Troupes are more likely to stage smaller productions occasionally at the 250-seat Black Box theater.

"The term 'community theater' means it's born in and of the community," Martin says. "There's a reason community theater does well at smaller neighborhood venues. It's the people in and of those neighborhoods that get involved."

But some companies could feel deprived by the elimination of the 650-seat hall. Jim Carey, artistic director of Musical Actors Theatre, rents the Summerlin Library stage. The venue also is used by groups including P.S. Productions, Jade Productions, Signature Productions and Stage Door Entertainment.

"It's a great space, but very limited in terms of audience," he says. "The theater groups in this city were looking forward to having (the midsize hall) where we could excel with something state-of-the-art. I hope they think of us small guys as well as bringing the larger productions, because this city needs to be able to sustain both."

Niche groups, such as the avant-garde Cockroach Theatre, could be enticed by the center's Black Box, having flitted around town, sometimes staging shows at hole-in-the-wall spaces in out-of-the-way strip malls.

"Nobody walked by where we were, because we're in a weird venue. They don't want to go there," says Jo Cattell, development director of Cockroach Theatre. "You don't get the walk-by traffic of a mainstream area. It's hard enough to get people to the theater without another obstacle. We'd definitely be interested in doing things there."
Other local arts groups also dream of Smith Center occupancy.

"The lack of a venue has been a major problem for all these companies for a number of years," says Hal West, a spokesman for Opera Las Vegas, which has performed largely at recital halls and community centers. The company is attempting to ratchet up its prestige and productions to someday be worthy of the center.

"We actually brought in two Metropolitan Opera singers (for one show). But we'll have to pump up (their subscriber base) substantially. We're trying to generate enthusiasm and interest."

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS

Crucial to the center will be the educational component, partnering with the Clark County School District.

"We will touch every single school-age child in Clark County sometime during their academic career," Snyder says.

Programs carrying the center's imprimatur already are multiplying. They've included music education for teachers and students at the Lied Children's Discovery Museum and Variety Early Learning Center, and workshops and performances by the Alvin Ailey Dance organization around the valley.

Cultural efforts will target kindergarten through 12th-graders, with others geared toward college students.

"Maybe we'll have events such as wine-and-talk-back sessions on what jazz is all about," says Candy Schneider, the center's director of education and outreach. "Maybe you never liked opera because you never knew what the story line was all about or how to follow along, things that might prevent you from going to a performance. We'll do it in a fun, informational way."

Martin adds: "How cool would it be to be a jazz student at one of the high schools and have Wynton Marsalis come and show them a lick or two? That's as good as it gets."

RAISING FUNDS

Launched by a $50 million grant in 2005 from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation that tripled to $150 million in 2007, the total value of the Smith Center is estimated at $485 million, with $70 million still to be raised. Construction costs are pegged at around $275 million, and an agreement for a guaranteed price is expected to be signed early next year with contractor Whiting-Turner. The city has kicked in a hefty in-kind donation.

"If you take the land, the parking, the infrastructure the city is providing us, such as water and sewer services, and the environmental cleanup -- remember this is the old Union Pacific Railroad land -- that's a gift valued at around $50 million," Martin says.

Further fundraising is divided into three parts. The first is "naming opportunities" for families and companies. The second is a founders list for donors of $1 million or more.

"But the public phase, for contributions of all sizes, may be the most important," Martin says. "It brings additional money, but it also starts our conversation with the public. There's a lot of people in Las Vegas who don't know what the Smith Center is yet."

By its projected 2011 opening, everyone may know it as one cool joint.

A 'MESSAGE TO THE WORLD'
By STEVE BORNFELD
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL