'Perils of the Gusman' requires artistic last-minute rescue
By Michael Lewis
Dream a decade ago: Downtown Miami will become a magnet for young professionals to live and work, powered by nightlife focused on the historic Gusman Center.
Reality today: Downtown Miami is that magnet for young professionals to live and work, powered by nightlife that by fall might no longer include the Gusman.
Paradoxically, Miami's electric attraction that helped generate an economic powerhouse ran out of juice.
Last week the Gusman sent an SOS: it's sinking. Funds might drain away through a $100 million hole in the city budget starting Oct. 1. And the Gusman has always relied on a city subsidy.
Subsidy is common. The county sends the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts more than $7 million a year, dwarfing $478,000 from the city in the Gusman's budget.
But the city is tapped out. It's not playing a game. Salaries and benefits are eating the lunch that will no longer be free to the Gusman or dozens of other city targets, all of merit. Something has to give.
The Gusman is, figuratively if not literally, in the bulldozer's path.
The theater's perils are a continuing saga, a reprise of the serial weekly dramas common when it opened in 1925 showing silent movies. Every few years, for decades, the Gusman has dangled from a cliff, always a near-victim of funding disasters.
Meanwhile, throughout the decades the theater has been physically restored piece by piece to past grandeur. It has always been a gold-plated treasure, a joy in which to see film or live performance, all 1,567 seats with fine sightlines, a valued gem of city history.
At the same time, for decades the Gusman has been under-marketed and under-appreciated other than by too few aficionados. Its 60,000 yearly users equal fewer than 39 full houses — and not another visitor — in 365 days.
And, because the Gusman has always been funded on the cheap, there never was enough to program maximum booking or market for maximum attendance.
Whether the problem is chicken or egg — Which came first, demand to attend or programming that generated ticket demand? — the problem has been perpetual.
To compound the dilemma, the perplexing path of history put the theater under the tutelage of the city's parking authority, whose primary role is on another stage and whose main expertise is not the arts.
The authority has been a good steward but not the best Gusman operator, if only because it is barred by law from using parking funds to prop up the theater and must annually go hat in hand to the city for aid.
Now the well is dry. But the tapped-out city shouldn't shut down the Gusman and turn off the juice. The historic restorations would crumble in months without air conditioning.
The city also shouldn't raise property taxes in this economy. It can, and will, battle to trim labor costs to balance its budget as required by law. That's a $100 million balancing act.
So how can the Gusman survive until the economy recovers and the city can again support its historic gem — a gem that also supports a downtown population that supports nearby retail and restaurants and, not coincidentally, the city's tax base?
A solution requires creativity worthy of the arts the Gusman serves.
Options might include one or more steps:
nA decade ago the city, cash-strapped almost as badly as today, tried to get the county's cultural affairs department to run the Gusman. That agency has never seen a venue it didn't think worthy of programming. It's worth retracing city steps down that avenue.
nThe city could borrow to temporarily fund the Gusman, using the building as collateral.
nIf terms of the Gusman family gift permit, the city might sell the building but retain operating control of the theater. That might be feasible because the theater is just part of a downtown high-rise.
nMiami's Downtown Development Authority might aid the Gusman, which, properly funded, could be a vital economic engine for downtown.
nNearby developers opening high-rise towers might find a properly structured Gusman affiliation both smart and profitable.
nA naming rights deal might put a movie studio's name on a motion picture gem in a throwback to the time the Gusman opened, an era when major theaters in every city bore a studio name. Such a deal could lure film openings and events back downtown, too.
nThe city might turn to the Performing Arts Center Trust. No PACman gobbled revenues that should go to the Gusman, but that trust and its arts center might find the Gusman suitable for acts that can't afford to play its newer competitor uptown.
nPerhaps the parking authority could trim cost by outsourcing the Gusman's operation, either to professional operators or to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which is profitably serving smaller centers, including one about to open in Aventura.
But time to solve the problem may be too tight to mesh with a city budget that must be wrapped up to start the fiscal year Oct. 1.
That might in turn require an unorthodox short-term financing bridge or a one-time grant from a source like the locally based Knight Foundation, which has a strong arm upholding the arts in eight cities, including Miami.
One certainty: a real solution will require unanimity at the parking authority and city hall and willingness to let someone else get credit for success.
There are no villains in the latest chapter of the serial "Perils of the Gusman." The heroes may not get much time on screen, either.
But, as in those silent movie serials, it's unthinkable that in the last episode the Gusman will fall to its death. This drama demands a final rescue.