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And then there were five

Arts Council President Sarah Lentini on the arts center planning


Since talk of a large performing arts center began nearly 15 years ago, there's been no shortage of public-private committees organized around the effort. At one time, there seemed to be a firm plan for a three-theater complex located at Midtown Plaza. (See the Erica Curtis article, "Looking for a room of their own," in this issue for more background on the arts center deliberations.)

            Then came the proposal to build a performing arts center in the Renaissance Square project planned for the northwest corner Main and Clinton. The idea, as it stands, is to incorporate a bus terminal, Monroe Community College satellite campus, and performing arts center into one central downtown location.

            In early June, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks announced the formation of the five-person Main & Clinton Development Corporation to "spearhead" the Renaissance Square project. The corporation consists of Brooks, Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, MCC President Tom Flynn, Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority Chief Executive Mark Aesch, and Greater Rochester Arts and Cultural Council President Sarah Lentini.

            In a recent interview with City Newspaper, Lentini described how she's still feeling her way on the young corporation as a representative of the many local arts groups who could become tenants of a new arts center. She also discussed the decisions the corporation will face --- from determining an operating structure to paying for construction and operating expenses --- when it comes to building an arts center. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

City: How would you describe the Arts and Cultural Council's role in the community? What is it you guys do? What's your mission?

            Lentini: The Arts and Cultural Council is an umbrella organization and a membership organization for all the arts --- visual, performance, literary --- in the 10-county Greater Rochester and Finger Lakes area. We have roughly 1,000 members. And we have a variety of roles: a funder, a convener, a planner, an advocate, a service provider. If I had to distill our mission into its simplest form, I would say it is to strengthen the cultural community and to promote it.

            As the umbrella organization for all of the arts, as the only organization in Rochester that represents all of the arts, locally we have a unique role. If you're looking for one organization, we become the logical place.

            City: So how does that fit in with your role on the five-person corporation overseeing the Renaissance Square project? Are you included in talks about the other aspects of the Renaissance Square plan --- the bus terminal or the MCC campus?

            Lentini: Certainly any significant effort to both address but also to help promote and make visible the high-caliber arts organizations in our community is representative of our mission. And as far as this small corporation is concerned, well, we've just started. We've had one meeting.

            Part of what I need to understand better is my role and responsibilities as they pertain to the arts center portion and the project as a whole. I need to understand what I've agreed to. And I need to understand my role well. I want to make sure I understand the sort of corporation it is and what sort of rules apply, for me as someone who has taken a stewardship role. I'm in the process of getting a better understanding.

            So far, what I see as my role on the group is to continue to work with --- at a minimum --- the key arts organizations in our community and membership who have already expressed interest in the performing arts center. I've got to continue to get input and feedback from them and to them, and act as a liaison between those key arts groups and the table.

            There is strong interest on the part of everyone sitting around the table, but especially the County Executive and the Mayor, in having the corporation augmented by auxiliary structures that would really start to compile community dialog and community input. There are conversations about structures that have to emerge beyond the five or six people who have been pulled together.

            City: How often are you guys going to meet?

            Lentini: We've talked about doing it every two weeks. So, right now, that looks to be the plan.

            City:And what about all this talk about a downtown casino? Part of that proposal includes the construction of a 2,800-seat performing arts venue. What sort of impact has this stuff had on your discussions?

            Lentini: We haven't talked about the casino --- not directly, not formally, not at any table meeting I've been to. It emerged so prominently in the media only recently. In fact, things really didn't start to come out until after our first meeting, so it wasn't a topic for discussion. And no one has shared a proposal with us.

            When it comes to the casino, my main source of information has been the media. And I would have to see some more detail to feel informed enough to form an opinion.

            A reporter from WXXI recently called me about this. He was telling me that New York State and the federal government potentially have the ability to make this happen without much role or involvement on the part of the local community. If that's true, maybe that's energy better spent elsewhere.

            City: What's the Rochester Theatre League's role in the Renaissance Square discussions?

            Lentini: RBTL is now part of this smaller group.

            For the better part of the past year, the Arts Council convened the government, the community, and the arts community around this topic of a performing arts center. And, more recently, we were asked to look at the usefulness of the Main and Clinton site with a smaller ad hoc group of arts organizations. [These discussions included representatives from Garth Fagan Dance, RBTL, Geva Theatre, and The Eastman School of Music.]

            We asked these groups to identify needs, requirements, and issues that would need to be addressed by any and all of them to feel comfortable moving forward with any kind of a downtown center. RBTL was part of that. As I'm sitting at the corporation table, I'm also continuing to meet with all the same organizations that were part of this Ad Hoc Committee. They will --- I hope they will --- continue to be very much part of our process.

            We spent a lot of time getting to the point where we could make those recommendations. Everyone around the table needed to be comfortable with the recommendations. That's the roadmap we put together as the path forward, for us, and to recommend to the leadership of this community. [A PDF of the Ad Hoc Committee's report can be downloaded at]

            We feel the ad hoc group is a good representative segment of the arts community. And they identified a need for a 2,800-seat theater, a 1,800-seat theater, and then essentially identified the need for smaller performing arts space for smaller arts organizations. Since we didn't have representation from that constituency around the table, we bookmarked it.

            That's where the highest volume of organizations exists. Quite a number have a need for space and an interest in playing a part in a collective performing arts venture. But to canvass them, well, is much more of a challenge, because there are so many. We started down a path, but it's much harder to pull them around a table.

            We actually put together a survey, a starting point, an initial set of questions that we sent out to all performing arts organizations in our database. We got a sense of the landscape from that, but I'm hesitant to use that as a conclusion, because we didn't have a majority of folks responding, and surveys, by definition, are limited. To do a decent job of understanding whether you've communicated well, you need to have a dialogue.

            It certainly seemed as though there was a need for something in the 300-seat area. Part of what we want to do now is have conversations that are in-depth, to reach everyone in our constituency, to see if there is a need for something between 300 and 1,800 seats. It's become clear to me that different disciplines have very different technical requirements...

            We're also coordinating, as we have been for a year, with another effort, an initiative to turn the Cobbs Hill Armory into a performing arts venue with multiple theaters. It's important that we complement that effort, and not duplicate our efforts.

City: How would you assess the financial health of the local arts community?

            Lentini: Forget the arts. Rochester as a whole is having a difficult time economically. It's a hard time for non-profits in general. And it's a particularly tough time for the arts community, because the arts community has functioned so leanly for so long. It has very little fat, historically.

            The arts in this community are really incredibly impressive, for any city, especially for a city our size... But, still, the arts [in Rochester] historically have been under-funded, under-funded for cities our size. Other communities have commitments to raising money. This city doesn't have that, never has. Even Buffalo has a better structure in place, the last couple of years notwithstanding. There's a good comparison city --- Buffalo has had its own version of an ongoing, fairly comprehensive fundraising mechanism in place. And it's both a mystery and a shame why we don't.

            City:Is it assumed that a new arts venue will help increase attendance for arts events, particularly for the arts groups that are struggling?

            Lentini: I don't think that's assumed. Part of the analysis that we're going to need to do as we put together what is a fairly complex project is to figure out who is really seriously interested and committed on the performing arts side in being a part of any downtown venue or site. Then we really need to start looking not just at development expenses, but operating expenses. We've got to look at more conservative assumptions about what kind of audience any group is likely to count on, what kind of ticket sales, what kind of revenue.

            So, while I don't think it's assumed, I do think we would hope that a nicer venue --- and the sheer strength of a collective array of exciting offerings --- would benefit everybody.

            At this moment, when Rochester has so clearly identified marketing this region --- whether to Toronto, or to tourists, or to high-skilled workers --- it is critically important that we not disinvest ourselves of our great strengths. The cultural offerings in this community are significant --- museums, the Susan B. Anthony House, the Seneca Park Zoo, Writers and Books, places like Water Street Music Hall, all the wonderful musicians that emerge out of this community....

            I have lived in lots of cities, including some wonderful cities in Europe, New York City (which some would argue is one of more interesting cities in the world), and Montreal, which is a wonderful city. And I was so delighted when I came here for the first time, just to discover everything that was happening artistically.

            City: Is there any sense yet of precisely which local arts groups would benefit from a new performing arts center?

            Lentini: I don't think there's anybody who's made a hard and fast commitment to this thing. At this point, no board would sign on. First, you need to know what the rent is going to be. And we're just not there yet. But all the organizations who have been taking part in our process for the last few months certainly seem likely to play a role. RBTL, Garth Fagan, the Eastman School.... But it would depend on where everything is located. As you saw in our report, we proffer a few approaches. One of those locations might draw different users than the other.

            And the technical aspects of this thing are enormous. There are very different technical requirements, different stage requirements, depending on the discipline involved. It depends on how much time and space you're sharing. And there's got to be some protocol for working together, coordinating schedules, marketing.

            At the end of the day, we hope that we can come up with some coordinated and fairly global process for promoting events, for marketing events, for coordinating usage of space. You can have the technical specs all set up, but there are likely to be some key tenants in the space, and some other tenants who would use the space more sporadically.

City: So there's been no talk about an operating structure for the performing arts center?

            Lentini: No. That's one of the many things we need to talk about. Governance is one, certainly financing the development is another --- that's kind of important. People tend to focus on development costs as the be all and end all, but in the end, operating costs tend to be more long-term, and ultimately a bigger number.

            City: We know that a substantial sum of public money has already been set aside for Renaissance Square. But is there any sense of how much public and private money is out there to fund the rest of it?

            Lentini: It needs to be a blend of both. Sort of for practical but also for some other dynamic reasons, it needs to be a blend of public and private money. We haven't asked anybody for any yet.

            It's difficult to get to the operating cost discussion when you haven't designed the space yet, or if you haven't figured out who's going to use it. There's a little bit of the chicken-egg thing. We need to get some basic design issues nailed down.

            City: Does it look like the performing arts center aspects of the Renaissance project will be built in stages, with a large roadhouse built first at Main and Clinton, and maybe a mid-sized venue built later somewhere else, like the Rascal site at Main and Gibbs?

            Lentini: It's being approached as a complete package, not even a complete performing arts center package, but a performing arts center plus two other projects --- the MCC piece and the transit center.

            We are not talking about the Cobbs Hill Armory. That's a project we are looking to coordinate with, but it's not being discussed at our table.

            Like I said, we've had one meeting. We didn't talk about sites. But I hope we will actually be tackling feasibility questions that will provide usable information for both of those sites --- Main and Clinton, and Main and Gibbs.

            The report is not a recommendation for "this or nothing." I think there are mid-sized organizations that would prefer to be at the Main and Gibbs site, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't consider being at the Main and Clinton site.

            City:The Eastman School is just now embarking on $5 million renovations to the Eastman Theatre that will make that venue an ideal symphony hall. But the RPO the Eastman School have also been involved in venue-requirement discussions with the earlier Ad Hoc Committee. Is there a danger of duplicating efforts?

            Lentini: Those were just very preliminary discussions to get a sense of groups' needs for all phases of the arts center project, and the symphony hall --- along with the small, mid-sized, and large venues --- was always one of the components of the overall project.

            But, when it comes to usage, we're really not limited to local groups. What I've understood is that there are a variety of performing arts groups and opportunities that exist outside of this community that we could bring in if we had different space, bigger space. For example, Garth Fagan has a desire to bring in dance groups from New York City if there were an appropriate dance facility to invite them to.

            This is about more than a couple of groups. This is also about our ability to attract all sorts of world-class talent. And it seems to me that would be to our benefit.