Savannah’s Cultural Arts Center: let’s do it right

If you’re a regular Spoleto U.S.A. attendee, you’re probably already familiar with the excellent venues available in downtown Charleston.

The Emmett Robinson Theatre at the College of Charleston isn’t as grand or historic as other festival venues, but it makes a tremendous spot for world-class performances that need a more intimate space — the theatre has only 310 seats.

I’ve seen several flat-out tremendous shows at the Emmett Robinson Theatre in recent years, including a performance by the Australian physical theater troupe Gravity & Other Myths, Dean and Britta’s “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests”, and Haydn’s marionette opera Philemon and Baucis, staged by the Colla Marionette Company with live singers and musicians in the small orchestra pit.

Ever since I first entered the Emmett Robinson Theatre, I’ve felt the lack of a similar space in the downtown area of Savannah. SCAD’s theatre in Crites Hall falls far short, and the small auditoria at the Jepson and at the SCAD Museum of Art are simply different categories of spaces. With adequate time and care, the Charles H. Morris Center can be a solid venue for musical performances of various types, but it’s not a theatre.

For years, the plan has been that Savannah’s long-delayed, long-promised Cultural Arts Center would have a 500-seat theatre. If designed well, that space would almost certainly be used for world-class performances during the Savannah Music Festival, and it’s easy to imagine a variety of other music programmers utilizing the space, including the Savannah Jazz Festival, Coastal Jazz Association, MusicFile Productions (parent company of Savannah Stopover and Revival Fest), and a variety of course of theatre companies. Imagine the other opportunities too, for cultural programming related to the Savannah Black Heritage Festival, the Savannah Irish Festival, the Savannah Dance Festival, and other groups.

Imagine also the possibilities for city-produced plays as part of ongoing arts initiatives — remember the big summer musicals that the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs used to produce?

The 500-seat theatre was just one component of the new center, which has been approved by voters for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax Funding. I could go on and on about the missteps in planning, funding, site selection, and other areas, and I even wrote an entire column arguing that the handling of the project has been a metaphor for city government dysfunction.

In 2014, city officials seemed on track to finally produce an excellent facility (even if we had long ago abandoned the original idea to build the center on MLK so that it would be a catalyst for private investment). From the city’s blog (with emphasis added):

The new Cultural Arts Center will be one of the most technologically advanced buildings in Savannah to meet modern performance needs. It was designed with significant input from Savannah’s cultural arts community, and will feature a 500-seat theater, a flexible 125-seat performance space with removable seats, and dedicated performing arts classrooms, visual arts studios and gallery space. The various uses will radiate from a central multi-story rotunda, that will serve as the Center’s focal point. The outside will include a piazza and park-like setting, suitable for outdoor events and classes.

And then the project ran over budget, then the building was scaled down and the larger theatre was eliminated and the black box space enlarged. Now, black box/flexible spaces can be tremendous in their own right (like the monumental Memminger Auditorium in Charleston), but they pose all sorts of obstacles to the kind of programming that a traditional theatre could host. City Manager Stephanie Cutter insisted in public statements that the design had not been significantly compromised, but SMF head Rob Gibson — presumably one of those cultural arts leaders who gave input into the project — joined Lisa Grove from the Telfair Museums and Daniel Carey from Historic Savannah Foundation in criticizing the changes. I’ll embed their joint letter here:

Letter to Editor in Yesterday's SMN:Time to hit pause on Cultural Arts CenterThe cultural arts center project is at…

Posted by Historic Savannah Foundation on Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In other words, rather than make deep compromises to the structure and program, let’s explore chances for private, corporate, and philanthropic funding to bridge the funding gap.

The SMN editorial page subsequently questioned the plans for the Cultural Arts Center, and in my latest Sunday City Talk, I have expressed hope that the newly elected mayor and council will hit the pause button on this project.

We need to stop and rethink the final design if for no other reason than the city manager’s public statements are so wildly contradicted by leaders of the city’s leading arts nonprofits.