for the Arts
Armstrong wants to raise $163 million in public and
private funds to support Richmond's performing arts and
downtown revitalization. The causes are worthy. But is
he asking too much?
you spent a morning chatting with Brad Armstrong, as I
did last week, you’d have to be a philistine not to
leave his office dazzled by his vision for the Virginia
Armstrong, who left his job as a partner in the
three years ago to breathe life into a set of
architectural renderings, makes a strong case for
investing in the arts center.
first and largest phase
of the $163 million project would
transmute a full city block of musty, boarded-up
buildings into an architectural gem – creating a
first-class venue for song, dance, theater and music,
and completing the revitalization of a convention/hotel district in the heart of downtown. The complex
house a renovated
jazz club, a high-tech music hall and facilities for
community-based groups such as the Elegba Folklore
Society and Richmond Boys Choir.
have no doubt that the arts center would be a tremendous
asset for Virginia’s
capital city. Yet I am conflicted. The master plan,
which also includes renovations to the old National,
Empire and Landmark theaters, calls for a massive
commitment from the community. Financing would require a
local meals tax, a regional lodging tax, roughly $30
million in state support and multi-millions in private
unquestionably would be worthwhile, so would a half
dozen other civic projects in the Richmond
that are vying for funding – and dozens more that may
never be conceived. The arts center is so grandiose in
scope, I fear, it will preclude consideration of other
movers and shakers feel so tapped out by existing
commitments that they
have little appetite for new
projects of any kind.
Armstrong is the prototype of what I call the “civic
entrepreneur” – that rare individual at the
intersection of government and the private sector who
possesses the imagination to conceive a bold new project,
the diplomatic skills to rally people behind him and the
determination and creativity to surmount the inevitable
obstacles. Civic entrepreneurs are indispensable:
Without them, our communities would be greatly
impoverished. But if their ambitions are too grand, they
can suck up the political and philanthropic oxygen that
might support other projects.
would be horrified, no doubt, at the suggestion that the
crowding out other initiatives. He regards the project
as inherently inclusive: an umbrella for performing arts
groups from around the city, including those from the
African-American and Hispanic communities that have
never enjoyed access to state-of-the-art performance
halls. One of the reasons for the high price tag of the
Performing Arts Center is that it includes a $15 million
endowment that would subsidize access for not-for-profit
groups that could never afford first-rate facilities on
efforts are praiseworthy, but they take place in a
vacuum. The arts complex is on center stage largely because
Armstrong put it there through an exertion of will. Of course, Richmond is no different than any
other region in Virginia. Indeed, it may even be a step
ahead of the game. At least Richmonders have commenced a
conversation about what it takes to prosper in a
globally competitive economy in which prosperity springs
primarily from its ability to develop, recruit and
retain human capital. But there remains a disconnect
between the new ways of thinking about the future and
the civic projects that have been moving through the
are the kinds of questions that Richmond -- and every
other Virginia region -- needs to be asking:
should communities prioritize their allocation
of finite political and philanthropic capital
-- to projects that bolster their wealth-creating
capacity, projects that promote
social justice, or projects that improve the general
quality of life?
should lay a great claim on resources? Hard
infrastructure like roads, industrial parks and real
estate developments? Universities, research centers and
other knowledge-creating institutions?
Civic booster projects like downtown face-lifts,
convention centers and ball stadiums? Or investments in
“quality of life” such as healthcare, parks and
trails, clean rivers, museums, performing arts or -- too
rarely considered -- the pattern and density of land
to Richard Florida’s path-breaking work in the Rise
of the Creative Class, communities like
comprehend the necessity of investing in quality-of-life
initiatives. To prosper, regions must succeed in
recruiting and retaining members of the “creative class,” those
artistically, scientifically and entrepreneurially
gifted people who contribute disproportionately to
That means providing the kinds of
amenities that the “creatives” enjoy.
that could be construed as an argument in favor of
building an arts complex. But another question arises:
What kind of arts do the younger, mobile members of the
creative class – particularly the so-called Young & the
Restless in the 25-34 age range -- prefer? Do they
frequent grand ballrooms and theaters, or are they, as Florida
suggests, more drawn to music and art that arises
organically from “the street.”
given that a region can afford to support only a finite
number of civic projects, how should leaders manage the
regional “portfolio” of initiatives? Should leaders demand a measurable return on investment? If
not, are they willing to acknowledge failures and pull
the plug? What appetite for risk does the region
have? Should it invest in high-impact projects with high sunk costs
and big risks – like Richmond’s
failed Sixth Street Marketplace – or spread the
risk by supporting more grass-roots initiatives where
the cost of failure is negligible?
idea for a performing arts center originated seven years
ago when Armstrong was serving as the volunteer
president of the Arts Council of Greater Richmond. The
Council and a spin-off, the Alliance for the Performing
Arts, began pushing for a master plan to develop the
region's arts "infrastructure" -- theaters,
music halls and other facilities. Over the next few
years, these allied interests scraped together enough
money to hire consultants and put
some credible numbers together.
February 2001, the arts community unveiled its vision
for a three-phase project, beginning with rehabbing the
"Thalhimers" block downtown -- the location of
the long-defunct Thalhimers department store -- moving
on to the Empire and National theaters on Broad Street,
and then rehabbing the Landmark theater adjacent to
Virginia Commonwealth University.
the same time, the business leadership was looking for a
solution to the Thalhimers block. The city had invested
some $180 million to build a new convention center, and
it dawned on civic leaders that the adjacent Broad
Street corridor was a festering eyesore of tacky stores,
vacant buildings and poor people switching bus lines --
not the kind of ambience likely to attract major
conventions. The Performing Arts Center looked like a
way to inject some economic vitality back into the area.
had a great job at the time as a partner in the Martin
Agency, the largest advertising agency in the
Southeastern states. Having brought the arts project
this far as a volunteer, he had no thought of taking it
past the concept stage.
But grocery magnate Jim Ukrop, hotelier Booty Armstrong
and attorney John Bates put the squeeze on him. As
someone who bridged the arts and business communities,
they told Armstrong, he made the ideal candidate to
bring the project to fruition. Ukrop arranged office
space for the Performing Arts Foundation at his First
Market Bank office downtown, while various private entities
kicked in for Armstrong's salary.
set about recruiting a Foundation board, with twin goals
in mind: reflecting the ethnic and geographic diversity
of the region, and finding people who could help raise
funds. He called the first board meeting, at 8
a.m., Sept. 11.... 2001. On the day the terrorists
struck, the stock market took a dive, philanthropists'
net worth shriveled, uncertainty reigned, and civic ventures across the nation put their plans into the deep
Richmond doesn't have the luxury of waiting for a
contends. In 2007, Virginia will celebrate 400th
anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony --
literally, a once-in-a-lifetime event. One million tourists are expected to visit
Central Virginia and nobody wants Broad Street, the
city's main thoroughfare, looking like dog dreck. Last
year, the city approved a Community Development
Authority that raised $66 million to tear down
dilapidated buildings, build parking lots and install
streetscapes -- an investment that in turn sparked
private commitments to build a new hotel across from the
convention center. Soon after, Congress appropriated
funds for construction of a new federal courts building.
The only missing piece is the Thalhimers block.
Performing Arts Center will fill that hole with a
signature piece of civic architecture. The design has a timeless
quality -- not tied to any specific era -- yet it
maintains consistency with downtown's architectural heritage.
The main facade on Broad Street will display
traditional elements such as stone building materials,
columns and cornices. At the same time, extensive use of
glass will invite people to view the activities inside, be
Elegba dancers practicing on the ground floor or guests
milling in the
reception hall. Seven statues will represent music, dance, theater and other art forms within.
immediate challenge is finding roughly $113 million to get the
Thalhimers phase of the project up and running in time
for the Jamestown quadricentrennial. The complex will
bring in some rental revenue -- including receipts from traveling
Broadway shows -- but not enough to cover operating
expenses. Armstrong anticipates an ongoing annual deficit
of $750,000, to be funded through a $15 million
endowment. No arts center in the country, he notes,
makes an operating profit.
city of Richmond has committed to the first $27.8
million by imposing a one percent increase in the meals
tax. Meanwhile, Armstrong is pushing a regional hotel
occupancy tax to raise another $14 million. That tax, he
notes, is backed by the
hotel/motel association on the grounds that a performing
arts center would help attract more conventions and mean
more business for everyone.
Unfortunately for Armstrong,
Chesterfield County has yet to warm to the tax. Chesterfield politicians
can be forgiven for wondering how much a performing arts
center in the city would stimulate the hospitality
industry south of the James River.
Foundation has twice approached the legislature for
some $30 million in state financing -- considerably less
than the amount that
could be issued in bonds and supported by an estimated $3.7 million a year
in taxes generated by the state -- but, given the fiscal
crisis of the past few years, did not get an encouraging
Armstrong's case to
the Commonwealth has holes. Even assuming that the
$3.7 million in state tax revenue can be legitimately
attributed to the arts center, as at least one economic
impact study concludes, it's not clear how much
of that sum would represent a net gain to the state. If
Virginians weren't spending their entertainment dollars
at the arts center, they would be spending them
somewhere else -- most of it, presumably, in Virginia.
The arts center, it can be argued, wouldn't be creating new
economic activity as much as it would be redistributing
it from one venue to the other.
of that tax revenue would represent a gain to the state,
Armstrong argues. Many affluent Richmonders patronize
the arts in other cities where the facilities and
amenities are superior.
There's no way to pin down a figure, he concedes, but it
substantial. Additionally, an estimated 17 percent of the $3.7 million in revenue
to the state would come from
out-of-state tourists. "We use this conservative
estimate in our analysis and note that we would expect
that the [actual] proportion of out-of-state visitors
would be higher."
Armstrong says, the economic impact
analyses don't include revenues from increased
convention traffic, which would include many
out-of-state visitors and would boost the $3.7 million
number higher. Nor do they take into consideration
the benefits to local industry: If Richmond has a vibrant arts
scene, corporations may find it easier to recruit top
executive and managerial talent. Philip Morris USA and
Wachovia Securities have relocated several hundred
employees from New York to Richmond in just the past
year. A facility like the Performing Arts Center, says
Armstrong, would have made their job easier. As those
companies have told him: "In New York our employees
have Broadway. In Richmond our employees have Broad
Street." Then he adds: "We need to make Broad
Street Richmond's equivalent of Broadway if we want to
attract the best and the brightest."
the case Armstrong will have to take to the Richmond
business and professional community. The three-phase
project requires about $55 million in private donations.
Having raised roughly $13 million in commitments so far,
he's launched into full fund-raising mode. Now that it
has unveiled the final architectural renderings, the
Foundation is offering "naming opportunities".
The name of every theater, auditorium, atrium, promenade
and courtyard in the complex is up for sale. Armstrong
is optimistic that the community will respond.
assume, for purposes of argument, that investing $55
million into the performing arts is the highest and best
use of Richmond's finite philanthropic capacity -- that
these funds are better spent on the arts than, say,
supporting higher education or healthcare. Is building a
giant arts complex really the best way to stimulate the
Armstrong draws a distinction between cultural
"hardware" and "software". By
hardware, he refers to the physical settings where the
arts are performed -- the stages, music halls, dressing
rooms and buildings that house them. By software, he
refers to the performing arts organizations themselves
-- not just the symphony, opera and ballet but the jazz
society, the theater troupes, the choirs, the ensembles
and the chamber orchestras.
arts group needs hardware: somewhere to practice and perform. By
addressing the needs of all groups in a master plan -- a
plan that provides a wide range of settings from a
1,150-seat music hall to an 80-seat experimental theater
-- the Foundation will provide first-class facilities
that every arts organization craves but very few could
afford on their own.
what's more important -- the stage or the performer?
Could that $55 million be better spent on software: supporting arts
course there must be a balance," says Armstrong.
"It would be foolish to spend all of our resources
on facilities and have nothing left over for the
organizations that use them." That's why the Arts
Council has set up an umbrella arts fund, which operates
like the United Way to allocate charitable donations
where they can do the most good, whether to large,
established organizations, smaller groups or start-ups.
sounds great in theory. How will the Arts Fund work in
practice if major donors are funneling their
contributions into the Performing Arts Center? We'll
have to wait and see.
more question: Are the performing arts inherently
elitist? There is a vibrant "street" music
scene in Richmond that doesn't rely on government funds
and philanthropy. It thrives because young people are
actually willing -- get this -- to pay what it costs to
put on the shows. And it thrives because there's a
demimonde of clubs, bands, agents and concert organizers
who, in the purest of free markets, hustle to provide
people with the kind of entertainment they want.
most of these people come out only at night, this
netherworld is largely invisible to Richmond's business
leaders. And if the nightlife entrepreneurs did step
into the light of day, the tattoos and lip rings
probably would frighten off most Main Street sponsors.
But the clubbing scene is where much of Richmond's
artistic energy resides.
publishers of SaveRichmond.com -- who have contributed
to Bacon's Rebellion (See "Boats
Against the Current," Feb. 2, 2004) -- have
listed a series of inexpensive reforms and initiatives
that could stimulate the local music scene. Lighten up
on the nightclub regulations. Hold an annual music
festival. Release a CD of locally recorded music.
Publish an annual entertainment guide. Encourage the
development of independent media.
is genuinely very ecumenical in his support of the arts.
He thinks many of SaveRichmond.com's
suggestions are great ideas and would like to see them happen.
the thing: The city has imposed a meals tax -- which
falls disproportionately on Richmond's for-profit
nightclub culture -- to raise funds to support
Armstrong's not-for-profit arts crowd. To my knowledge,
none of the tax dollars is being set aside to advance
the SaveRichmond.com agenda.
51 years old, married, with a six-year-old at home. My
wife and I aren't up to partying past 2 p.m., drinking
beer and listening to hip hop in a Shockoe Bottom
nightclub. The Jazz Club in the Thalhimers complex
sounds more like our speed. Personally, my artistic
tastes run much closer to Brad Armstrong's than to those
of, say, my two teenage daughters, both of whom love the
do I think it's fair to tax Richmond's young people to
support my lifestyle? No, I really don't.
I think a performing arts complex is the best place for
private donors to invest $55 million for the betterment
of the community? At least they're giving their own
money away. I can see both sides of the issue. I'm
still chewing that one over.