Tell us about your early days at the Carpenter.
When I started in 1995 ... the Carpenter Center board of directors had a strategic plan which called for them to participate, if not to lead, in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood. The neighborhood at that time was two dead department stores, a failed 6th Street mall project, the worst parking facility in the world across the street, and everything that goes along with a dark, dank, smelly downtown.
In the first three years, we didn't present anything because [the Carpenter] had a terrible history of presenting and producing. ... at a certain point, the Carpenter Center board basically said, “We'll set aside $50,000. You use that as seed money to start presenting shows. If you lose it, you're done. If you don't, you continue.”
Do you remember the first show you actually presented?
I recognized early on that Richmond was a place that had very different communities that didn't mix. You went to a white show, you went to a black show, you went to a youth show. I didn't go to a [performance] for many years where I saw a cross section of the community. So I asked myself, what can change this? Things for kids. Because everybody loves their kids. I had little kids after all, and I had a relationship with the Sesame Street organization. ... so we did “Sesame Street Live!”
And we did well. It was a confidence builder. ... I had an agreement with the symphony, opera and ballet when I started presenting that I would not present anything that was in direct conflict with what they did. So that let me off the hook. Because the things that lose the most money are bringing symphonies, operas and ballets to town because they take a tremendous amount of subsidy. ... the ticket sales never pay for them.
Which is why the long-term feasibility of the new CenterStage is a serious question that needs to be addressed. It will take a tremendous amount of subsidy if it is primarily a venue for symphony, opera and ballet. Correct?
Each of those art forms [is] incredibly expensive to produce. Ticket sales don't support any of the high arts, whether they are the performing arts or the museums -- ticket sales just aren't going to support that. So they have to raise money from the beginning to stay alive. I read that an average opera company, and this was from a study done a few years ago, had to raise 65 percent of its revenue through contributions. Which means they earned 35 percent at the box office.
What are your thoughts on SMG, the organization hired to run the new Carpenter Theater?
I can only comment on what SMG does. They are gatekeepers. They rent the building. They have made a major thrust in running performing arts centers in the last few years, they now run the Paramount in Charlottesville, for example, and other smaller venues.
And they are in an interesting position right now because they are running three buildings in Richmond, and the demand for the Carpenter Center will be unprecedented. Because everybody wants to do everything in the new building. I know what's happening, probably -- the phone is ringing off the hook, everyone wants to use it. Ninety percent of the folks wanting to use it have no idea of the costs. So SMG has to hand hold and walk community groups and others through the “how much can you afford to lose on this show?” conversation. I used to call that the number one lesson [of presenting shows].
Tell me about your early days with the Virginia Performing Arts, now CenterStage, foundation.
You have to understand that I worked for the foundation for a period of less than three months, so my work with them was largely as a Building Committee member and an informal -- I would say underused -- resource.
The first board meeting of the Foundation was on Sept. 11, 2001. 7:30 in the morning, on the stage of the Carpenter Center, Brad Armstrong [the former president of the foundation] gave his first public slide presentation of what he thought the vision could be. And I walked off the stage into my office and saw the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. It's kind of trite but that board meeting changed my life. And that day changed all of our lives forever.
I recognized very early on that Brad was an extremely talented individual at what he did. ... inventing and marketing great ideas, to promote products. And the performing arts center was something he had great passion for. My disillusionment started when I was left out of conversations, decisions were made and the Carpenter Center and its board were not necessarily brought into the front end of the conversations. It was my opinion from the beginning that this new entity [the foundation] was more concerned with building a new edifice on Broad Street, because there was a horrible old department store there, than it was in bringing the Carpenter Center to its full potential.
I was initially offered a position of authority -- vice president in charge of programming. But I was given nothing to do. Then, shortly after [Wilder] was elected, I was told to hurry up and craft a deal for the foundation to manage the Landmark. The foundation wanted a dialogue with the newly-elected mayor to take over the Landmark before the City Council changed and before the mayor actually took office in January. And I was told to go do it. And my contacts in City Hall told me nothing was going to happen until the mayor came in and the council was installed.
When Doug Wilder put a stop to the foundation's original plan, he seemed to be parroting many of the same concerns about their project that you voiced when you quit?
I was a major supporter of Wilder during the campaign as well as in his first year as mayor. Because he was challenging and asking questions, not just of the performing arts center but of many things in the community that I thought were appropriate to be questioned. I grew up in a generation that questioned authority, not because we were defiant but because you always have to reassess.
And Mayor Wilder was doing two things. He was assessing a plan that he inherited and politically he was also stating his independence because the contributors to his successful political campaign came, in great part, from the foundation's board of directors. And when he was sworn in, he made the statement that nobody owned him, whether they gave him money or not. And he didn't want to meet with certain members of the foundation because he didn't want to look like he was trumpeting their issues.
I provided information about the history of the Carpenter Center to the mayor and his staff, which included Paul Goldman. And I questioned many things that were in the foundation's plan. Which, I assume, led to the mayor questioning the plan. But ultimately the mayor wanted to be his own man. And the Carpenter was held in limbo as a hostage during that whole political process. ... for more than two years.
The foundation's response [to the mayor}, in my opinion, was arrogant and one-sided. So the project ground to a halt. I was terribly frustrated. And Brad was getting frustrated with me because he was hearing my arguments privately about things I hoped would be changed. And I remember him at one point saying, “Well, maybe you can broker a deal with the city?” And I was happy because I had something substantial to do. And I let word out about this agreement to members of the Carpenter Center board who were still interested -- it had only been a few months since the Carpenter Center board had been disbanded.
And Brad saw this as treason that I was trying to take over the project. And I remember one afternoon. ... I went back to Brad's office and said, “This just isn't working.” And he said, “Yeah, this is just isn't working.” And we decided to severe our relationship.
So did you quit or were you fired?
I thought I was leaving by mutual agreement. But Brad and his lawyers contracted a severance agreement that, for one, forbid me to work in my field for three years. And two, I was not to speak to anyone about the project. In good conscience, I couldn't do that for a small bit of severance. So I rejected his severance and then they suddenly started attacking me in the newspaper for being disloyal and providing to bloggers and other journalists information that made [the foundation] look bad.
What do you think about the foundation's outreach to the community throughout their history?
I don't think the average person had the slightest idea of what was going on. With the increase of the meals tax, it was done quietly, quickly. There were quote-unquote “public hearings” in front of the council but it was done quickly with very little input from the community.
In the early days with the foundation, there were many thoughts and ideas about how to raise the money to build the arts center. We thought about going to the state for permission to raise fees on renting cars, there were proposals to add fees to hotel rooms, there was a plan to raise the admission tax and designate a part of it to this project. Finally, they settled on raising the meals tax, which privately I argued against because I find it to be a regressive tax. A $3 Happy Meal is more highly taxed than the coffee I'm having here. And this tax was only citywide. It wasn't a statewide or metropolitanwide levy. And our statistics showed that only a quarter of the audience for the Carpenter actually came from the city, while three-quarters came from someplace else.
Shouldn't what is being marketed as a regional facility be regionally funded?
At the time, I was part of any number of conversations with Chesterfield and Henrico government officials but the politics of the new mayor and the sheer number of city projects that needed help were good excuses for the counties not to get involved.
It's interesting. We used to have country representatives on the Carpenter Center board. And those representatives participated. In 2003 we had John McHale from the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, Sa'ad El Amin, who was appointed by City Council, Hanover Supervisor Tim Ernst along with George Drumwright, an assistant county manager from Henrico. And each of those representatives came to board meetings and knew what was going on with the [arts center] project. In fact, Carpenter Center board meetings were great places for people to find out what was really going on with the foundation because we were given reports at board meetings that wouldn't necessarily make it [officially] into the hands of county officials.
What did you think of the mayor's compromise with the foundation and the work of his performing arts committee? They signed off on the plan that we see today.
The mayor brought in a new board to be in charge of the old board. ... I didn't quite understand the logistics of that at the time. But it brought four or five key people into the conversation who hadn't been part of it before. And it took time because they had to go through an educational process. I wasn't sure what was gained, other than there were some new people and potentially some new donors coming to the project. I don't know if [those donations] ever came to fruition or not -- people like Bill Goodwin, Tom Farrell, Joe Farrell, key community leaders who had been [hands-off] on the performing arts center until the mayor convinced them to be on this new board. This board ... did not invite any of the past presidents of the Carpenter Center board to be a part of its efforts. Which I found kind of odd.
What about the transparency issues? The foundation has been secretive throughout this entire process, and could even be accused of having been less than truthful about its previous fundraising efforts.
If you are truly engaging the community, and if you are using the taxpayer's dollars, you have an obligation to tell them how they are being spent. That's been absent throughout this process.
Arts leadership seems to have been missing in action here at the board level. Do you need people who know the arts to serve on the foundation board, or is that a false argument?
You absolutely need arts and cultural voices on a board of directors to be able to provide some practical, ongoing dialogue. ... to question out-of-town consultants' views of what they think might be good. In my opinion, consultants can have their own agendas.
Do publicly funded arts centers need feasibility studies?
You need a number of feasibility studies. There's one that looks at your ability to fund raise, one that addresses the need to build and one [concerning] the cost of whatever it is you want to build. Two of those three studies were done in Richmond: Fundraising and operations. But the need for a new building was never really addressed in a feasibility study.
Have you ever seen a feasibility study from a consultant that told the client not to build, not to go through with the fundraising?
Yes, I have. But it's unusual. These ideas take many, many years. And usually somebody has a passion to get it done, and do something. And that's a good thing. But it's got to go through a lot of maturation and a lot of changes before it can happen.
Is having an artistic director, or a hands-on presenter, important?
It would appear that there are nine artistic directors [at CenterStage]. That means there are nine artistic directors, one for each company. So by committee, maybe we have one voice that will put forward some kind of vision to the community. But what I haven't seen is a leader. No one seems to have emerged as a spokesperson or as a leader. When I was part of the process, I was looked upon as a leader because I had experience in all phases of a building's operations, plus promoting shows and dealing with the arts groups.
Do you think that if others from the arts community had spoken up, as you did, we could have avoided some of the controversies and the mistakes?
All of the strong leadership was in the foundation's board of directors. And within the board of directors of all of the [arts] organizations, there were varying degrees of compassion and strength and ability to disagree. I don't know of an organization in Richmond that doesn't receive marketing or charitable contributions from the Ukrops family, whether it is through the bank or the grocery store or through the foundation. So I think there was a natural reluctance on the part of the major arts groups to question anything that they were involved in for fear that they would lose contributions down the line.
If asked, would you run the Carpenter again?
You never say no. But I've learned a lot about myself in recent years. I'm 110 pounds lighter. I'm strong and healthy. I've been able to see friends and family I haven't seen in years, and visit places around the world. I don't see my returning to the Carpenter as something that is very realistic. I was told by a board member that Jim Ukrop told him, “Y'know, Joel was right about all of this.” But Mr. Ukrop never said it to me, nor would he give me a letter of reference for any job I sought after I left his organization.
One motto that we've heard from the foundation, stolen from the film, “Field of Dreams,” is “Build It And They Will Come.” What do you think of that philosophy?
I think it's naive. I think it's been proven to be untrue in sports, and with retail stores. ... You've got to prove yourself everyday to gain the loyalty and the respect of your customer base. And when you let them down, you have no one to blame but yourself. SMG and CenterStage Foundation and whoever else has come through with a beautiful, high-functioning building but they now have to come up with a program that gets the public excited about coming downtown again.
Have we learned anything from the arts center saga -- about how to do these kinds of projects or about what kind of arts center might be successful downtown?
I hope so. I know that any number of big ideas have come and gone over the last few years, and I think it was because of what happened between the foundation and the mayor's office.
[This is] a difficult community to change. And instituting new big projects requires change. ... change in attitude, change in personnel, change in vision. When I came here 15 years ago, it was kind of quiet, kind of sleepy, controlled by people who lived in the same ZIP code. The population has changed dramatically since then, many companies have come and gone. Many of the old leaders are too old, too tired, too dead. So I don't know. The jury is still out.
The closest thing we have to a vision here is what Kathy Panoff has left behind - by increasing the Modlin Center's presence downtown [with the forthcoming Modlin Downtown series]. The Modlin needed a large facility to bring acts like the full company of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. ... so I think the Modlin's commitment to downtown is significant to the reopening of the CenterStage facility. [It has] a vision, it's multicultural, it will bring people together and it's going to bring new people downtown. Kathy's moved on [to the University of Texas] so we can only be appreciative of what she was thinking about a year ago, two years ago, when she set this up.
I hope [CenterStage] is successful. I know that it will have a great honeymoon period because everybody will want to see what's happened. But they have to deliver on their promises now. There has to be good close parking and restaurants and all that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, to me, I don't care if you are in a barn in an “Our Gang” comedy or the finest performing arts center in the world, what happens on the stage when the light's go down is what's really important.