The Art is the Matter

The curtain rises on Act II of the Dade Performing Arts Center Story. Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Depends on who you ask.

In the early years of the 21st Century, Miami's flourishing arts scene begins to implode. A string of once-lively neighborhood dance companies and playhouses shuts down for want of funding. The city's giant downtown performance center, open for only a few seasons, strangles in debt. Middle-class aesthetes retreat to televisionland, while a tiny snob set pays $50 per ticket for an occasional maudlin night at the opera. Out-of-town cosmopolites whisper that cultural Miami has reverted to its true nature, a Sahara of the beaux-arts.

That is the worrisome future according to Seth Gordon, recently knighted by a local newspaper columnist as "the bad boy of Dade's Performing Arts Center Trust." To some extent it is also the dire vision of 50 arts administrators, patrons, performers, and architects who gathered with Gordon on September 10 to launch the Alliance for Neighborhood Arts Facilities. The group hopes to derail and reshape a county plan to spend $170 million building one of the world's largest performing arts centers at a site on Biscayne Boulevard near the Miami Herald building. Alliance members say the construction plan is a grandiose example of "monument building for boosterism's sake" that will suck funds away from Dade's 100-plus grassroots arts organizations and place an elitist overemphasis on ballet, opera, and symphony.

County officials and advisors close to the mammoth project privately declare they sometimes wish Gordon and his group of skeptics had never been born.

The current arts center outline calls for a vast, 2700-seat opera house and a 2200-seat symphony hall to house Greater Miami's five main performing arts groups: the Greater Miami Opera, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, the Miami City Ballet, the New World Symphony, and the Concert Association of Greater Miami. The Dade Performing Arts Center Trust, a 32-member county advisory committee established two years ago to promulgate the plan, has earmarked $140 million for construction, and another $30 million for "cost overruns and renovation of existing facilities."

Most of the money for the project, $109 million, would come from Dade's Convention Development Tax, a levy on hotel rooms that has been used in the past to build the Miami Arena, the Miami Beach Convention Center, and the Homestead Sports Complex. Members of the Trust say they expect to raise another $40 million in private donations. Interest earnings, special tax benefits related to urban geography, and state grants will account for the remaining $21 million. Knight-Ridder, the Miami Herald's parent company, has offered to donate a parcel of land for the project.

The nine-member Metro Commission, which has the ultimate authority to approve the construction plan and accept the land donation, could vote on the matter as early as mid-1992, according to the director of the county's Cultural Affairs Council.

Gordon, a former dissident trust member and current chairman of the New World School of the Arts, presented an alternative plan to alliance members during the group's two-hour inaugural meeting in Miami Beach. Gordon's plan includes a grand opera-ballet hall, but eliminates the proposed $65 million symphony building. Instead, approximately $15 million would be spent to renovate Gusman Center for the Performing Arts downtown, which would then become Dade County's principal symphonic concert venue. Another $24 million would be spent on restoration of other existing performance spaces throughout Dade County, such as the Manuel Artime, Lyric, Colony, Cameo, and Tower theaters.

By chopping approximately $45 million off the total cost of the project, alliance members believe they can remove the need for state grants, and escape the burden of a massive private fund-raising drive. Both those sources of revenue, they warn, are dangerously elusive. "It's the ultimate yuppie finance plan being played out," Gordon says of the county's scheme. "It's the sense that you should be spending 130 percent of what you earn."

Margaret Kempel, a self-described arts consumer who attended the first alliance gathering, says she believes it was the beginning of a revolution. "I think everyone was glad that someone had the courage to say something. It's the mentality of Florida to build things. We don't think about whether we need them, or can run them, or whether they're pretty. [The performing arts center] has been a topic of conversation in this community for so long that the momentum has built up to do something, whether it's the right or wrong thing to do."

"For a while I thought I was the only one who felt the performing arts center is a possible waste of money," muses Betsy Cardwell, lighting designer for the Acme Acting Company. "The building of this center would be a death notice to TOPA, which we've spent so much money on, and Gusman, which we're spending money on now. This whole thing is a Catch-22. You might be building this great arts center, but killing a lot of the people who would use it."

Bob Heuer, director of the Greater Miami Opera and a long-time Trust member, is as critical of Gordon as Gordon is skeptical of the county's plan. Like other Trust members, Heuer worries that revenues from Dade's Convention Development Tax will be lost to the project if they aren't used to their full extent soon. And he says he's convinced that even an expansion of Gusman's stage and backstage areas will still leave the old theater acoustically unfit for first-class orchestral performances. "It's the wrong approach," he says of the alliance plan. "We have two major symphonies in this town. Now we have a tremendous opportunity to build a symphony hall. Even if we don't need it today - even if that argument can be made - we will need it in ten years. Seth and others have the impression there's a big plot going on, and that nobody cares about the little arts groups. That's not true."

Sheila Anderson, a real estate executive and head of volunteer activities for the project, dismisses Gordon and his newfound group as opinionated Johnny-come-latelies. "He's repeated these comments all over town for a very long time," she says of Gordon's proposal. "His opinions are categorical assumptions not based on any expertise. This is a real estate development project, an economic development project. This will create a great number of jobs. There will be a tremendous multiplier effect."

"The decision about what was to be built was the product of three years of public meetings that Seth participated in," says Michael Spring, director of Metro-Dade's Cultural Affairs Council. "I just don't see a groundswell of support for abolishing the symphony hall. I don't think Seth is trying to mislead anyone, but I'm concerned that all the facts get on the table. I don't think it's wise to get so adversarial that the whole project gets derailed."

Trust members and county officials emphasize that neither their $170 million spending plan nor the proposed Knight-Ridder site is a done deal. A theater consultant and cost estimator are now being chosen by the trust to examine the feasibility of the project. The experts will also be asked to take a fresh look at Dade's artistic supply-and-demand and judge whether the county's proposal is reasonable or grossly out of scale. Meanwhile, the Arts Center Trust is in the process of being dissolved. A new advisory group will be established in the coming weeks to handle the construction and operation of whatever facility is finally built. The trust is still accepting nominations for representatives from various arts organizations across the county who will sit on the new board. Members must be approved by county commissioners, at a meeting yet to be scheduled.

Until recently the 600-member Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects opposed the site of the performing arts center, saying the land offered by Knight-Ridder would doom the facility to obscurity. That opposition has been temporarily withdrawn since Sears Roebuck & Co. in June offered to donate to the county the company's landmark building on Biscayne Boulevard. Whether the building will be torn down or partially preserved, and exactly what part the Sears site will play in a reconfigured design for the center, will depend in part on the results of a report now being drafted by a county inspection team. Commissioners will vote October 9 to accept or reject Sears's land offer. Trust members say Gordon and his fledgling alliance should take heart: the Trust's chairman, lawyer Parker Thomson, has suggested that part of the historic Sears building could be turned into a small black-box theater, with exhibition space for graphic artists. Thomson, on vacation in Kenya, could not be reached for comment.

Alliance members remain skeptical of the county advisory group's guiding Dade's performing arts center project. Charles Dusseau, the lone Metro commissioner who attended the first meeting of the alliance, avoided clearly endorsing Gordon's vision. But he agreed commissioners need to hear more than the trust's view of the future. "Don't let us get so far down the road that we make a decision we can't back away from," Dusseau urged.

Architect Bernard Zyscovich, both a trust member and a supporter of the alliance, says he hopes the opposition group gets a lot of work done at its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-October. "I was disappointed in the meeting because I felt there was no strategy for accomplishing our goals," Zyscovich says. "We need a focused strategy, not a bunch of well-meaning, well-deserving people without a plan. The alliance is embryonic. It needs to establish a method for achieving some power and influence, and it has to do it soon. I believe things are moving more rapidly than people realize.

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