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Curtain Curtailed

Amid turmoil, local arts groups plan their future without the Carpenter Center. Can they survive another year?


"It's costing the community big bucks. This is just running up the deficits" of the endowments of major tenants such as the Richmond Symphony, says Stephen Meyers, a former president of the now-defunct Carpenter Center board and now a member of the arts foundation's operating committee. "It needs to be added to the dollars needed to raise for the performing arts center," he says. "There's only a finite amount of money."

Philip H. Davidson, chairman of the Alliance for the Performing Arts and a member of the foundation's executive committee, echoes the concern.

"It's one of the issues that has gotten lost with all of the conversation," Davidson says. "Delaying [the Carpenter Center] is most problematic for the symphony, the opera and the ballet. Every season that they are not there, it impacts them financially, and it makes it harder for them to sustain their overall presence."

For their part, representatives of the opera and the ballet say they can weather the storm financially. Officials with the ballet express support for the foundation's new timetable, and the "pay as you go" philosophy of renovating the Carpenter Center.

"It's going to affect everyone's planning and scheduling. But we think their plan to 'pay as you go' is really a very smart thing to do," says Jennifer MacKenzie, marketing director for the Richmond Ballet. "We enjoy the Carpenter Center, but we're lucky that we can perform in many spaces. We like being everywhere."

David J.L. Fisk, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, declines to address the financial impact of the new timetable. In an e-mail, Fisk told Style that the symphony's board would address the implications at its Sept. 20 meeting. "Until that time, I don't wish to comment further," he wrote.

Edmund A. "Ned" Rennolds Jr., a member of the symphony's board of trustees and one of its original founders, says the orchestra has remained financially sound. In the absence of the Carpenter Center, the symphony's new concert series using suburban churches has generated an increase in subscriptions and a new fan base.

Still, the homeless symphony incurs "a couple hundred thousand dollars" a year in losses because of the Carpenter Center's closing, he says. He also worries that the symphony's new suburban fans won't venture back into the city when renovations on Grace Street are finally complete.

"The question is: Will those people come back downtown?" Rennolds says. "It's been a terrible drawback to not have our main house."

The shifting timetables affect others, too. Some of the smaller groups that plan to use the Carpenter Center and the planned performing arts center have been in perpetual limbo for the last six to eight months. The political battle between Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the foundation has cast a shadow over the rest of the arts community.

"These organizations have known all along that there was a cost and challenge. Now what we are looking at is a longer window and a bigger challenge," Davidson says. "It is tough for them to sustain themselves financially, but they are good at it."

Uncertainty has affected other developments too. For instance, private developers interested in purchasing and renovating the National Theater on East Broad Street (owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation) have been turned away in the past few months because the arts foundation has etched the National into its future plans.

Another problem, according to people close to the National Theater negotiations, is that potential tenants, such as the opera and ballet, can't commit to it because plans for the performing arts center are in flux.

The performing arts foundation is working with the arts community to keep it abreast of the shifting deadlines, which may shift even more in the weeks ahead, says foundation spokeswoman Carolyn Cuthrell. The new construction timetable may force the foundation to re-bid the entire project — most recently estimated at $112 million — in phases. Meanwhile, the cost of building supplies are rising in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Cuthrell says the foundation is moving forward and says the delays won't change the fact that a new performing arts center, when it finally opens, will be the rising tide that lifts the entire arts community.

"What we're hearing is: If you build it, they will come," Cuthrell says. "A revitalized downtown will be a place that people would want to come to. We think the performing arts center will be a key element in that revitalization." S

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