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The Creative Campus: Sharing the Scene

What it will take for small campus performing arts centers to survive-and thrive
University Business, Dec 2007

The arts center is a venerable presence at some 2,300 of our nation's 4,000 higher education institutions. There are even more on the way, and other established campus arts centers are being renovated and expanded. But rapid cultural developments and new technologies in recent years have altered the audience for which arts centers were originally intended. Nationwide demographic data reveal an aging generation of traditional patrons and a student population schooled on digital images and indirectly personalized arts

experiences, as opposed to direct ones. The most difficult audience to attract to live performances on campus is now the one living steps away from the auditorium door.

In spite of media emphasis on entertainment's millions, the ROI for arts facilities is not in revenue.

Such circumstances present new challenges for sustaining the performing arts on our campuses and confronting the realities of the annual institution budget. Financial managers looking for positive cost-benefit analyses in arts center operations are bound to be disappointed. Even the smallest of theatres is expensive to heat, cool, maintain, and staff, and a decision to construct an intimate space will reduce the population impact figure entered into the calculation.

Some higher education administrators have been surprised to learn that in spite of media emphasis on entertainment's millions, the return on investment for their new arts facilities will not be in revenue. In performing arts, breaking even is the historic standard for success, and very few arts centers pay for themselves.

A report called "The Creative Campus," now three years old, still provides the most comprehensive perspective on the role of the arts center in higher education. It was created after the 2004 convening of The American Assembly at Columbia University, which brought together dozens of higher ed administrators, performing arts presenters, artists, and representatives from government, business, nonprofits, and the media. The group concluded its initial work (which one might refer to as "Act One") with recommendations for a new mission profiled by the report, subtitled, "The Training, Sustaining, and Presenting of the Performing Arts in Higher Education." Ironically, the report contains little comparative data on arts centers, which became familiar presences on campuses in the last century. Yet the report's call for new research and other initiatives has the potential for stimulating a nationwide discussion that will inform and clarify the role and expectations of the arts center in the new century. "The Creative Campus" is a must read for both the current and next generation of administrators.

A principal steward of the Creative Campus initiative, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), has commenced an "Act Two"-taking things a step further-by building an unprecedented network of arts managers and campus officials. Sandra Gibson, executive director and CEO of APAP, reports other positive developments, including several new consortia, a multi-year performing arts research initiative incorporating new domains, documentation of campus-based arts activities, and a new website. The Creative Campus Innovations Grant Project, requiring connections between curricula and new works by artists, has completed its first cycle of awards, and grant recipients will gather to share their projects.

But as positive as developments in the areas of training and presenting have been, these two major components of the Creative Campus initiative will ultimately depend upon the third area-the premises and means for sustaining the performing arts. And sustaining comes down to the reality of an institution's annual budget. Although the briefest in the Creative Campus report, the section on financial support is the most important.

In pursuing the Creative Campus report's formidable recommendations, it is essential to consider the individual characters of our arts centers. They differ in ways critical to their role and operation, such as classification as an academic building or auxiliary service, operating and programming budget, staffing levels, endowments, relationship to curricula, and support of various arts and other academic majors, to name a few.

They also, of course, differ in size and number of performance spaces. Anyone who has been to a concert in a 2,000-seat auditorium can appreciate the special intimacy of a small theatre. Not every institution can afford an arts center with multiple performance spaces, but the small audience experience can be equally if not more transformative than experiences in larger venues.

Small campus arts centers ("small presenters," with houses of 400 or fewer seats) are in particular danger of being considered secondary facilities as APAP's Creative Campus efforts unfold.

With minimal seats to support rising event costs, marketing and advertising expenditures for a single event can easily exceed the cost of the performing artist. Small venues, like larger ones, have personnel requirements for the management of an event schedule, yet administrators and financial managers -subscribing to the popular myth of effortless dollars- have often expected their small arts centers to generate box office, sponsor, and grant revenue in proportion to a larger facility, with fewer staff. A limited staff must assume multiple jobs, and often depend upon personnel from other campus departments, for fundamental event support tasks. While used to achieving the improbable, the challenges of small presenters are labeled impossible by some arts managers.

Larger arts centers are stealing the scene. Small arts centers have roles as extras.

Sustaining the performing arts in higher education will depend upon institutional budget structures that display an understanding of the realities of arts management and that guide institutions in removing operational constraints. The new research domains manifested by Creative Campus can provide this perspective by generating detailed comparisons of arts center budgets, standards for staffing levels critical to effective operation, realistic revenue expectations, and even strategies for revisiting arts center missions.

Financial managers-absent at the Columbia meeting-should be key participants in informing the new research. College and university officials have a responsibility to define the premise and means for sustaining their campus arts centers, regardless of size. But without research that generates useful fiscal models and strategies in Act Two, the obligatory scene of Creative Campus's "Act Three" will prevail, with larger centers stealing the scene and small arts centers relegated to their familiar roles as extras.

The Creative Campus initiatives have the potential to transform small arts centers into the protagonists of their campus settings. Just as many grant awards are judged on their outreach to underserved communities, the Creative Campus Innovations Grant program must generate award categories based not only on creative approaches to training and presenting but also on incorporating a matrix of size, staffing levels, support structures, and operating budgets for small arts centers as well as large. A grant-supported project of an endowed, fully staffed, and subsidized campus arts center with multiple performance spaces, however rich in training and presenting components, is of little value as a model for a small arts center with minimal staff and resources for sustaining.

The stewards of Creative Campus initiatives need to ensure that small arts centers share the scene with larger venues and are not upstaged. To that end, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters should employ its new networks to establish a Small Presenter Task Force. The Task Force would be charged with connecting the important conclusions of the Creative Campus report with the added challenges of small presenters, providing them support for taking the next steps of the initiative and ensuring a deeper and more robust participation in national discussion. Only then will the rightful place of the small arts center on campus be truly realized.

Robert J. Smith is director of The Carol Autorino Center for the Arts and Humanities at Saint . Joseph College (Conn.), which houses the 365-seat Hoffman Auditorium.

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