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CenterStage Contract Riles Arts Critics

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The latest news in the performing arts center saga has some in the arts community crying foul.

Last week, a Philadelphia-based management group, SMG, announced it had contracted with the Richmond Performing Arts Center to manage the Landmark Theater, the Carpenter Center and the new CenterStage facilities. Terms of the contract weren't disclosed.

The problem, says Joel D. Katz, former executive director of the Carpenter Center, has to do with the private handling of a contract involving so much public money. The management contract wasn't open to public bids. A project with so much public money should have greater transparency, Katz says.

In addition to state and federal money, the city has kicked in $25 million, though the pledge has been financed in a way that may wind up costing taxpayers $50 million, plus $500,000 a year for operating fees.

“SMG was awarded a no-bid contract that taxpayers now cannot learn about,” writes Katz, who was ousted as vice president of marketing and programming for the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation in May 2005.

Don Harrison, co-founder of the popular blog SaveRichmond.com, says “the no-bid contract says everything. It's just another in a series of eyebrow-raising incidents associated with this thing.”

There is good reason to question the abilities of SMG, which has a spotty record in its 23 years of managing the Richmond Coliseum. In the late 1990s, operational problems and financial mismanagement had the Coliseum reeling.

After years of decline in the number of bookings, a 2002 city audit of SMG's management revealed significant potential savings. It also called into question the venue's marketing partnership with Ken Johnson, who at the time was also chairman of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Richmond Ballet Managing Director Keith Martin characterizes his reaction to the new contract as one of “optimism and relief.”

“Since SMG entered the equation, we have made tremendous progress with RPAC in regard to facility scheduling, rental rates and related fees,” he says.

Dolly Vogt, SMG's regional general manager, says the company has been consulting with the Richmond Performing Arts Center since October and now has a one-year contract with an option to renew.

One lingering concern has been that a large company like SMG might program national acts that will draw away audience and ticket dollars from local groups, but Vogt pledges not to work in a vacuum.

“We're going to work in unison with the resident companies,” she says, noting that a recently booked show that includes an operatic performance was first cleared with Gus Stuhlreyer III, the Virginia Opera's general director. “We don't want to do anything to damage their programming, but on the other hand we want to look at the broad picture for the region.”

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