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More and more theaters


This is a corrected version of this column.

Rochester has a new performing arts space on East Avenue: a breathtakingly beautiful, acoustically wonderful place named the Lyric Theatre. And it provides something several studies say Rochester lacks: a mid-sized theater for performances needing a smaller venue than the Eastman or the Auditorium. The odds for its success, then, seem pretty good.

The Lyric occupies the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, building, bought earlier this month by Rochester Lyric Opera. It's a preservation success story as well as an arts story, and the community owes the church's small congregation a huge thank-you for preserving this significant structure.

So this is a very positive development, in many ways. But it raises a big question: How many performing arts venues can Rochester support?

We're about to find out.

In addition to the Lyric, the push continues for a new venue for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League. City and county government are on board, and City Hall is now reviewing proposals to study which location would be best for it: the Midtown site or farther west on Main, between North Clinton and St. Paul. It would likely need state funding, though, and that's not guaranteed.

As multi-use performance spaces, the Lyric and an RBTL theater would join the Eastman Theatre and its smaller siblings, Kilbourn and Hatch Halls; the Nazareth Arts Center; the Auditorium Theatre; the Main Street Armory; RAPA; Hochstein; MuCCC, and several churches and schools that host outside events. And that doesn't count Geva, Downstairs Cabaret, Blackfriars, and the Jewish Community Center's CenterStage, which have their own performance spaces.

Is that too many?

The new Lyric is already being put to use. Lyric Opera is holding several events there this spring, summer, and fall, and it'll be a venue for this year's Jazz and Fringe Festivals. Representatives of the Rochester Philharmonic and the Eastman School have applauded the new theater, and both hold performances that might very well use a hall this size.

A big plus: Lyric Opera owns the building, but the Jazz Festival's Mark Iacona and John Nugent will manage it, and after renovations, they'll be in charge of booking a variety of performances. As they've proved over the past 14 years, they know what they're doing.

Then there's the proposed theater for RBTL acts. RBTL doesn't want to own the theater, says board chair Arnie Rothschild, but it does want to operate it. The hope is that given RBTL's big audience draw, the popularity of touring Broadway shows, and the potential for a variety of additional bookings, a new theater will be considered a good public investment and an entity like a public benefit corporation will build and operate it.

Rochester could end up with a lot of theaters, then. That could be terrific, for our own quality of life and for attracting businesses and residents who want a lively, arts-oriented city. But it costs money to operate theaters. Building or renovating is just the first step. To keep them going takes big endowments, ticket sales, and continual fundraising, from big donors and small.

Rothschild points to a 2010 study that says a new performing arts facility for Broadway roadshows and similar events can operate without a deficit. That study assumes that the new theater would have nearly double the performances that the Auditorium Theatre has, but Rothschild insists that there'll be no deficit. The folks involved with the Lyric were optimistic about its stability when they announced its creation, too.

Still, Rochester will have a lot of arts groups and venues competing for support: for audience and for funding. And as I noted recently, according to the latest ACT Rochester report, state funding for the arts in this region dropped by almost 60 percent from 2001 to 2013. Kodak was once a huge arts supporter.

Even without the Kodak of the past, though, this is a relatively wealthy community. And many of us are passionate about the arts - all kinds of arts. Are there enough of us?

We're about to find out.