Misguided management at performing arts center
Union Tribune (2007-08-02) Gail Nye
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What was Paul Russell thinking? Russell, executive director of Art Beat Management, an affiliate of Christian Community Theater, was quoted July 12 in the Union-Tribune as saying that his job in managing the East County Performing Arts Center was to “manage the theater, not raise money to support it.”
Apparently neither Russell nor the city of El Cajon understood that virtually all public performing arts centers require subsidies and fundraising to operate. Perhaps the city might have understood this had Mayor Mark Lewis not stacked his Blue Ribbon Commission with plastics salesmen, real estate agents and developer buddies, rather than the three qualified candidates with theater experience who applied. (The commission's mandate was to investigate the finances of the theater and how to make it viable.)
It should be noted that the city expected the former managers to pay rent, while Art Beat apparently expects to be paid by the city. The former managers, the Arts Center Foundation, did lots of fundraising, including an annual Gala, stars in the lobby for big donors, and nameplates on seat backs for donors of $1,000 or more. They also raised money through outside groups such as Curtainraisers and Friends of East County Arts.
When the public became aware that El Cajon was angling to pull its support from Arts Center Foundation for ECPAC management, theatergoers pledged over $12,000, just before the city terminated the foundation's contract. Negative publicity from the city also terminated a possible $3 million deal for naming rights to the theater. Foundation members were required to pledge $2,500 per year to sit on the board, while El Cajon City Council members demanded free tickets to performances. ECPAC also received a $250,000 donation to support its acclaimed “Plug Into the Arts” program for children.
So yes, fundraising is required, and by itself, is not enough. Russell unsuccessfully managed the theater for five years before the foundation took over, so the need for fundraising should not have been a surprise.
“They don't ask the police to do a fundraiser,” Russell says. Police are essential. A theater needs public support, which appears to be in short supply in view of the attendance figures given in Art Beat's latest annual report.
Russell might be happier back on Mount Helix, where it was a unique experience to attend one of his musicals in the summer. The city would be well advised to attempt to rehire some of its qualified employees to run the theater as a rental hall for a while. This would be a near break-even solution, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission Report. At least city employees knew how to operate the box office.
With supportive city officials, public interest might slowly be revived and the theater could yet become a showcase venue for El Cajon.