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The Missing Notes

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The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (VAPAF) has made another "major" announcement. It claims to have raised $20 million in private funds, enabling the foundation to collect a $23 million jackpot from the city to build the long-troubled downtown performing arts center.

As with many such past proclamations from this public-private partnership, there are more questions than answers — the most important of which hinge on whether the city or the VAPAF would control the Carpenter Center, which has been boarded up for two years under the foundation's helm.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder has made it clear that city ownership is key to any deal, while VAPAF officials assume that they will get the money without argument, strings or accompanying public oversight. They say they are waiting for a final report from the mayor's appointed performing arts committee, convened one year ago.

The Carpenter Center is now slated to reopen in 2009. And all we have are assurances that VAPAF's fundraising pledges are solid ... this time, and that a new consultant-derived name (CenterStage, the same as Baltimore's arts center) will somehow change things. Richmond taxpayers are supposed to forget the millions in public funds that the well-connected foundation has already wasted, and cough up more.

We are exactly where we started a year ago, when the mayor appointed his committee (long on corporate experience and short on arts expertise) to study the situation. It has since been revealed that J. Robert Mooney, VAPAF's acting executive director, has been drafting the committee's reports. This may explain why those documents read more like high-school mash notes to a certain quasi-governmental body than serious objective studies of how to build consensus for a publicly funded performing arts center. The committee's first report even began like a fairy tale: "Just imagine ..."

What a fantasyland. We're currently waiting for Mr. Mooney to listen to what Mr. Mooney has to say. The future of Richmond's established arts groups hangs in the balance. Somehow I think Mr. Mooney is going to recommend to Mr. Mooney that the foundation get the money and keep the property. Don't you?

This project has always been about the property, not the arts. Log on to www.vapaf.com and check out the foundation's board of directors. Count the artists and arts professionals who sit there in relation to lawyers, newspaper publishers and energy executives, many of whom own property downtown. Then note the absence of direct representation from the arts groups who would use the facilities and/or anyone from the downtown "for-profit" arts scene that would be the center's supposed neighbor.

The serious involvement of local people who know the arts is key to the success of any large-scale community arts project. The foundation and the city refuse to take heed. But three recent case studies prove how it can be done:

1. The National Folk Festival has been a raging success in its first two years in Richmond.

It's easy to see why. The festival is run by professionals who are passionate about folklife (they arrange and program the huge three-day event). But even with nearly 70 years of experience behind it, the Folk Festival is a collaborative process with its host community, not a grand edict from an all-powerful board of directors.

The process involves both local business leaders (Venture Richmond did an excellent job coordinating this past year's installment) and a local advisory committee made up of folklorists, artists, regional promoters and those people most familiar with the indigenous music of the region. (Full disclosure: Your humble essayist has been added to this NFF advisory board for the 2007 installment.)

In other words, the Richmond stop of the National Folk Festival has been a success mainly because it has been planned and programmed by people who know what they are doing.

2. Use any yardstick you like, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' recent fundraising campaign for its expansion has exceeded all expectations.

According to the museum's director, it was "the most significant cultural campaign ever attempted in Virginia." It took the cultural body less than a year to raise $171 million for its planned expansion, exceeding its stated goal by more than $20 million (if you'll recall, $20 million is the same amount that the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation is claiming triumphantly to have raised).

Overseeing VMFA's successful campaign was a board of trustees mostly made up of area arts professionals, collectors, educators, historians and arts writers.

While there are indeed representatives from the business community on VMFA's board, one could say that having savvy, arts-first people leading the process — not being led around — was the difference that made the difference. In other words, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' recent fundraising was successful largely because it was run by people who knew what they were doing.

3. The National Theater, a historic Richmond venue not unlike the currently boarded-up Carpenter Center, has been restored and will open next year.

Thanks to the same music promotion team behind Norfolk's NorVa theater, the long-dark National Theater is being reworked into a prime cultural showplace (with a $10 million renovation and plans to open not in 2009, but in late spring or early summer of this year).

The historic venue had been turned down by Richmond Symphony officials as a possible alternative to an expensive new music hall. Now the venerable National is poised to reopen at the same time the symphony (along with Virginia Opera, Richmond Ballet and Theatre IV) is going to the VAPAF for a welfare check to make up for the lost revenue endured since hitching its star to the foundation.

It's also worth noting that the National has been refurbished for half the scratch VAPAF spent to tear down Thalhimers and leave nothing in its place.

Could that be because the National is led by entertainment-savvy people who know what they are doing?

If you claim to support the arts, you owe it to yourself to compare and contrast. Take a look at the success stories listed above. Note the substantive differences between those projects and the private-party approach of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and its satellite performing arts committee.

Now note the different results.

And just imagine …

Don Harrison is a freelance writer living in Richmond, and the co-founder of the blog www.saverichmond.com

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of those of Style Weekly.

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