Overseers, leaders unite to picture a future for the historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts
By Catherine Lackner
Miami's Gusman Center for the Performing Arts can be "a center for downtown," but a little soul-searching is in order before a game plan can be devised, say local arts and culture experts.
"You have to decide what you want to be, what you want to be known for," Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, told the Miami Parking Authority, which governs the theater. "The rest will follow."
About 50 people attended a special meeting last week at the historic theater at 174 E Flagler St. as the authority solicited ideas from stakeholders on how the circa-1926 venue can best continue.
The theater operates with 65% in earned revenues and 35% in contributions from the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and private donations, a budget arrangement that is standard for a theater of its size and history, said Margaret Lake, Gusman director.
While Ms. Lake and her staff have made progress since she arrived in 2007 — renegotiating vendor contracts, launching a $1.4 million renovation, increasing bookings 42% and boosting visibility on social media sites like Facebook — much remains to do.
Even with bookings on the upswing, the theater only operates about 75 nights a year, not enough to reach fiscal stability. And, over the next few years, the structure needs $10 million in renovations including new windows, repair of water damage, new lighting and electrical upgrades, Ms. Lake said.
"This building has never had a political champion," said Arthur V. Noriega, chief executive officer of the parking authority. "Though it's not a natural fit, the [authority] has done a pretty good job with it. We're not in the theater management business; we're responsible for financial oversight."
He invited Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Mayor Tomas Regalado to "buy into it" by becoming advocates for Gusman.
"We're here to support any effort we could do through the city," Mayor Regalado said. But he warned that the city budget is tight and money could be hard to come by. Nevertheless, he said he had met with officials of the Obama administration regarding federal funding for these types of venues and had lobbied for the Miami Marine Stadium and for the Gusman.
"General fund dollars are going to be hard to find," Mr. Sarnoff agreed. "But we support Art Noriega and Margaret Lake."
Mr. Sarnoff said he has scheduled a special meeting March 12 to consider realigning some city resources.
"We'll look at who is best positioned to manage what." Some agencies might be joined together to reduce staff, he suggested, while others may share resources.
"You could use the Adrienne Arsht Center as your booking agent," he told Gusman management. "We're an "app' society; everybody wants one-stop shopping. Everybody is looking for a way to streamline."
The Gusman family donated the theater to the city in 1975 with the stipulation that the facility be governed by the authority, an effort to keep it removed from City Hall politics. But having the day-to-day management handled differently is an idea that's being explored.
The possibility of Gusman transforming itself from a rental hall to a presenting venue has also been discussed. This would give the theater a themed season of events chosen by management, presumably conferring more artistic control, identity and visibility.
"High-profile events are what this theater needs," said Gene de Souza, development director for The Rhythm Foundation, which for 21 years has staged "world music" events in South Florida with a focus on artists from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Europe. "We have not been here as often as we'd like."
He suggested a "deeper analysis into the renters. You're going down the path towards resident companies, and that's good. The more lights on, the better."
In response to a question by parking authority director Stephen Nostrand, Mr. de Souza said it's possible Gusman could eventually become a presenting theater. "But right now you are a rental hall, and you need to work more with long-term renters."
"You have to get your thinking straight," said Mr. Spring. "You need to resolve the governance issue, and the management option needs to be resolved quickly."
It was suggested that a new board be created, with representatives of the parking authority, Gusman staff, the city, the county and others who are interested in the theater's future. That board would then make suggestions to the parking authority.
Authority director Thomas Jelke, who also serves on the board of the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, volunteered to serve on that new board. "In a down economy, how do we incentivize people to come here? We've got to think in a different way. We never grew up. We've gotten to the old lady stage and we still don't know who we are."
Jami Reyes, chair of the parking authority's board, agreed. "It's not that we can't take care of it. It isn't the [authority's] theater; it's Miami's theater."
She said she hopes the new group will soon have an action plan. "Ideas are great, but plans are better."
Mr. Noriega echoed her sentiments. "My long term legacy," he said, "is 80% this theater."