Arts Facilities Report Addresses Longstanding Needs in Charlestown

By Seth Daniel

After a year of studying the longstanding crisis regarding space for the performing arts, the City unveiled a study on July 10 that codifies the problem of affordability, unmet needs and basic space for the many artists looking to enliven the city’s cultural soul – a problem that had been only really discussed in artistic circles before last year.

It’s a problem that has long been discussed locally by operators of the Charlestown Working Theatre and by local artists like Joe Caruso – both of whom have been very vocal about the space crisis.

The report was conducted by TDC and TDC Executive Vice President Susan Nelson said it would be presented to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and the City of Boston. Those entities plan to release it this week for public comment. Beyond that, it will serve as a document that can be used by the BPDA and the City when talking to developers and the donor/foundation community.

“We’re really excited about this document and what it means to have data about what is useful in the market,” said Joyce Linehan of the City of Boston. “It can change the way the BPDA talks with developers about having space for cultural amenities – knowing what is needed and what’s useful.”

Nelson said they eliminated the “Big 5” theatres that typically host Broadway style productions, venues which are flourishing and largely out of reach for the budgets of the small and medium theatre companies that are really feeling the cost pinch when it comes to performance and rehearsal space.

This five theaters include the Boch Center,  Boston Opera House, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Colonial Theatre and Orpheum Theatre. Beyond those, they studied non-profit performing arts venues (such as Charlestown Working Theatre), University-managed theatres, cultural centers, religious venues, commercially operated venues (like clubs), rehearsal venues and other venues (like schools and art galleries).

One thing they learned was that there are a lot of adequate spaces, but the spaces are too expensive and don’t meet the demands of the market.

The costs of maintaining the spaces for the operators is extensive, and the budgets of the performing arts companies can’t extend to cover those operating costs. That, they found, is the overarching conundrum.

“Individual donors are a big thing in Boston,” Nelson said. “They are supporting the arts and the dance companies, but the buildings themselves are not sexy to invest in…We hear this conversation all over the city. Users can’t afford another nickel. Operators need to raise prices to improve facilities. These operators are in a double bind. They can’t put up prices. They need to improve the amenities. They need to think about improving their lighting, their bathrooms and facilities, but they can’t raise prices to do that because the users can’t afford them. That’s where they’re in a bind.”

One difference, she said, between Boston and other cities is that Boston is an older city with older buildings. Cultural facilities were largely converted from movie houses, vaudeville theatres and other uses. They were funded through donors for the sake of supporting the arts.

Meanwhile, in places like Phoenix, such facilities were built new as a way to spur economic development.

“Other cities grew up differently; we are old,” she said. “Younger cities decided to build an arts facility as part of an economic development plan. We kind of need to learn from our younger cities.”

One suggestion is to encourage donors and foundations to support facilities with donations, money that would be combined with some new kind of government subsidy to support existing venues.

“We need to find a way to pull all these three levers at the same time,” said Nelson. “Without that, we don’t see how you can solve these needs. You need good operators to get good facilities. Good operators need subsidies.”

Meanwhile, BPDA officials said the document, once it goes through the public process, would be something they can use when speaking with developers. While not every first floor retail opportunity could be turned into a subsidized theatre, some could, they said, if the right operator was combined with the need in the market.

Sara Myerson, BPDA director of Planning (and a Charlestown resident), said they would use the finished document to initiate conversations with developers about how to activate the new buildings and districts. It could also inform zoning amendments and regulations for districts, too, she said.

“It’s a chance to go beyond that retail space and look at other opportunities to activate our buildings,” she said, hinting that there are great opportunities in some of the developments for such spaces – and that developers are excited to think about providing the opportunities.

Linehan cautioned that when developers build new spaces, it will be important to bring in someone who knows what they’re doing in order to run these spaces.

“We can have developers build all the theatres we want, but if they’re not operated by people who know how to operate theatres, we could end up with a bunch of empty spaces that don’t work well or address these needs,” she cautioned.

The report was posted online Wednesday for the public to view. There is a 30-day comment period now in place and the public is encouraged to weigh in.

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