"They're aiming for adolescence at a time when they ought to be trying to be grown-ups," says Seth Gordon, the New World School of the Arts' 43-year-old board chairman, describing his ex-colleagues on the Performing Arts Center Trust. "They want a big shiny bauble, when with a little more maturity, they could build something that's affordable and reasonable and functional. I think if I heard the phrase `world-class facility' one more time I would have pulled my hair out. It's the language of someone laboring under a gigantic inferiority complex.

"The funniest thing," says Gordon, "is when they start talking about the Sydney Opera House. For them it's a great cultural icon. It's a world-class facility. But the truth is, it was developed purely because poor Sydney, the armpit of Australia, was so worried about its image. The city fathers got together and said, `We'll show them! We're not nearly so third-rate as the world thinks we are!' So they built this thing that's an acoustic disaster, and looks good only if you're hovering in a helicopter three-quarters of a mile out over the bay. It looks pretty neat on a postcard, though. There are people who wouldn't mind building another Sydney Opera House in Miami.

"They also like to talk about the new performing arts center in Fort Lauderdale," Gordon goes on. "It's not a bad hall, but it's too big. The lobby looks like [architect] Ken Treister on an acid trip. It's all a mishmash of different colors and fabrics and textures and geometric designs, all kind of whooshed together, ugly as sin. From the front of the stage to the end of the hall, you couldn't throw a baseball that far. It's cavernous. If they ever tried to do something there that wasn't electronically enhanced, there's no way you could ever hear anybody. And yet the Broward Center for the Performing Arts has become another talisman.

"The best halls are smaller," Gordon asserts, swatting at a bug in the window of the Brickell Emporium, all but knocking over his glass of grapefruit juice. "Bigger is not a mark of quality. Sometimes it's a mark of economic desperation. When we talk about a 2400-seat opera house, that's really kind of big. We ought to be talking more about 2100, maybe 2000 seats. That's when everyone has reasonable sight lines, reasonable intimacy with the stage, you feel like you're part of the show. You get much bigger, and it becomes a barn."

The bug in the window has been a deep distraction, but now the bug is gone. A flock of youngish lawyers passes Gordon's table and they stop to chat briefly. "The county commissioners are way off base," he resumes once the lawyers have left. "They think what they're hearing is the will of the arts community. And I don't think they are at all. They're hearing from some staff people at large cultural institutions who have a very focused attitude: `I am the director of the opera. I want to look out for the creature comforts and the facilities needs of the opera, and I don't care about - and I'm not paid to care about - anything else.'

"The commissioners are paid to care about other things, and they ought to be more interested in building audiences at the rassroots than providing a shiny temple downtown for the dwindling audiences that already exist," Gordon says. "My theory is that you build a network of small, accessible arts facilities around the county, and you lure people in. Over time they will then step up to the grand halls downtown. But if all you build are the halls downtown, and you don't have any network of more accessible theaters, the arts in this city will actually die over time. You won't be creating the next generation of audiences.


"Whose interests are we serving here?" he asks. "As wonderful as all these big institutions are, they're generally staffed by people who we've imported from someplace else. The performers in the opera have been trained and begun their career someplace else, and we bring them here. Same with the Philharmonic.

"The kind of facilities I'm talking about are places where the local people go," Gordon says. "Where people from around town, kids from the New World School of the Arts, can begin their careers. Small stages, small audiences, places where you can make mistakes, develop new skills, and then eventually step up where you might be on the stage at the opera. We could do this rather than continue to be a way station for itinerant artists, which is what we are now.

"If you spend all your big money up front on these dinosaurs, you're never going to have the wherewithal to build the little ones," he reiterates. "The little ones are so damned cheap. You take the Colony, which is a beautiful theater [on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach], 460 seats. The problem is that when you're a dancer or performer there, you're changing your clothes outside the back door because there are no dressing rooms. For $600,000 or $800,000, they can add the dressing rooms. It's a tiny investment relative to a $65 million symphony hall.

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