The show must go on, but where?
That’s the central drama described in a new draft report commissioned by the city that details the challenges many Boston-area performing arts groups face as they try to find appropriate venues to rehearse and perform their works.
The backstage dilemma dates back decades, but the stakes have risen in recent years as demand for space has skyrocketed and the pool of facilities has remained frustratingly stagnant, with much of it built for another age and poorly suited to the needs of today’s performing arts groups.
“There’s excess supply, there’s excess demand, and they misalign,” said Susan Nelson,executive vice president of TDC, the research firm that conducted the study for the city. “We have big huge theaters that are not being used, and then we have religious spaces and other spaces that report a lot of open space, that [are] not appropriate for the kind of things that we need.”
City officials say the new report, a year in the making, is a powerful tool to understand the city’s performing arts landscape and will inform how the city works with developers to incorporate cultural amenities into future development projects.
“It will change the way my colleagues at the [Boston Planning & Development Agency] will work with developers,” said Joyce Linehan, chief of policy for Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “The idea is that from this we will essentially create a BPDA policy document [to guide talks] with developers who are thinking about developing big projects in Boston.”
The long-awaited report, which grew out of Boston Creates, the city’s 2016 cultural plan, surveyed nearly 200 performing arts organizations and artists as well as 45 venue providers in Greater Boston. Formally titled the Boston Performing Arts Facility Assessment, the draft report will be available for public comment for the next 30 days.
“What we tried to get at is why can’t these things align,” said Nelson. “Really it is about how the organizations use the space, and how they think about using the space: Is it appropriate, what’s the price, and where is it located?”
More than half of the arts groups surveyed have annual budgets of less than $100,000, and many respondents said that finding appropriate rehearsal and performance spaces at prices they can afford is a significant challenge. Well-appointed spaces — with light grids, audience amenities, etc. — are often fully booked or too expensive, prompting some groups to further stress their budgets by hiring staff to find and outfit bare-bones spaces.
On the other side of the equation are facilities operators, who must contend with rising operating costs, deferred maintenance, and facilities upgrades to meet the expectations of modern audiences.
“Price is such an issue on both sides,” said Nelson. “[Operators] can’t charge the prices that they want, and yet the prices they are charging are way too expensive.”
The report identifies a variety of rehearsal and performance venues that the performing arts community says it particularly needs. Among them: a venue that could accommodate 400 to 600 audience members, another that could seat 150, and one with a large stage that’s suitable for dance.
In addition to more rehearsal spaces, the report also identifies a stated need for a 300- to 600-seat space for local commercial shows, and a larger theater that could accommodate opera and ballet.
While recently filed plans for the Huntington Theatre Company’s complex may help by providing new performing arts venues that could be used by local groups, the report identifies other possible solutions to alleviate the city’s facilities problem. Perhaps the most controversial would be to repurpose some of the city’s larger venues — including the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre and the city-owned Strand Theatre. It also suggests that some of the city’s cultural centers, such as the Boston Center for the Arts, could be better equipped, and recommends forging new ties between developers, the city, philanthropists, foundations, and the local arts community to increase access to spaces and to help maintain them.
‘Price is such an issue on both sides. [Operators] can’t charge the prices that they want, and yet the prices they are charging are way too expensive.’
The thinking behind the report can already be felt in a memo the Boston Planning & Development Agency sent WS Development last month about the company’s planned development in the Seaport. The agency urged the developers to consider a variety of performing arts venues for the project, including an 800-seat theater, a 500-seat theater with a stage appropriate for dance, and two smaller venues.
“We asked for them to explore the possibility of four different theaters, but more importantly to also explore the notion of endowing these theaters somehow so that they become primarily for use by nonprofits,” said Linehan. “These things have to be operated correctly. We can build all the theaters we want, but if they’re not operated by people who actually know how to operate these things, we’re going to end up with a bunch of empty spaces.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.