The sun, the stars and the moon - icons featured in the grand 1929 ceiling design in Hartford's Horace P. Bushnell Memorial Hall - had to align just right to create a cosmic shift, especially in an arts universe.
Such were the market, civic and financial forces that came together in the mid-to-late '90s to add a second stage to the church-like structure built to honor a preacher and turn it into the new Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. The $45 million project, which has its opening next week, marks the largest capital arts campaign in memory for Hartford, or even the state.
The 90,000-square-foot addition features the new 907-seat Belding Theater; a 200-seat open area called the Autorino Great Hall, which overlooks Capitol Avenue; two classrooms; and new audience and corporate amenities. All of this is adjoins the existing 72-year-old 2,800-seat Bushnell memorial, housing Mortensen Hall, the Seaverns Room and administrative offices.
The idea for the new facility began in the '60s, when William Mortensen was executive director. Preliminary plans for that never-launched project bore a striking similarity to the new complex in location, size and design. Judith Allen, who oversaw the Bushnell in the '80s, renewed the talks for the new Clinton Street facility, but recessionary forces kept those dreams at bay. It wasn't until the mid-'90s that the idea became ripe for revival.
The national and state economies were blossoming, and portfolios were fattening; there was a recognition of the arts' central role in urban renewal; there was an arts-friendly governor; and there was greater box office revenue from Broadway touring shows, fueled by blockbusters such as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon."
"Our great success with the Broadway series had several positive benefits, not the least of which was cash," says Arnold C. Greenberg, president of the Bushnell board.
"Because most of the Bushnell's eggs were in the Broadway basket," says Greenberg, there were fewer dates available for local arts groups, which were among the theater's leading tenants for decades: the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Hartford Ballet and the Connecticut Opera.
The bookings that favored the lucrative Broadway series widened a schism between local arts groups and the institutional heavyweight Bushnell, which was just completing a $20-million-plus endowment-capital campaign. Some of the local arts groups, a few of which were struggling for survival at the time, privately viewed the Bushnell as taking on a primary arts mantle without sufficient benevolence.
"There were lots of tensions," says Ronald Compton, president of the board when the expansion drive began. "The ballet was going broke, and other arts groups were having problems of their own. The feeling of communication wasn't always there."
In 1996, the Bushnell began a strategic study that surveyed the community, the market, its geography (where to put the theater) and its finances (how to pay for it). While some local arts leaders saw the new facility as promising, others felt pressure to sign on during the early planning days.
Steve Campo, artistic director of Hartford's Theaterworks, recalls receiving a call from a Bushnell staffer who asked him if Theaterworks might use the new facility. When Campo said he had no use for such a theater, the staffer kept on, presenting increasingly far-reaching scenarios until Campo agreed that under extraordinary circumstances he might have use for the theater. According to Campo, the staffer said thank you and hung up. Campo never heard from the Bushnell again.
And when a press conference announced the building plans, the impression was given that all local arts groups were actively consulted and signed on to all the details of the plan, from the size of the hall to the affordability of the new venue for local groups.
That's part of the fund-raising game, say some arts leaders who have headed multimillion-dollar drives.
"The Bushnell built everything into its pitch it possibly could, but you can't deliver on everything," says Robb Hankins, former executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. "The hard thing about raising money for the arts is you've got to tap into something your contributor can relate to. Some folks may argue that the Bushnell message, in terms of its fund-raising, was a little broad, that they were making lots of promises to lots of contributors, that the building was going to be for all the small groups, for arts education or for this or that."
But the Bushnell was in a bind, too, say its leaders.
"We just didn't have enough space available for everyone's shows, not to mention product development or to present more diverse programming," Greenberg says.
Grand Plan Announced
The following year, the Bushnell unveiled a grand plan to the public - and the arts community as well - to launch a $45 million drive not only for a new building but for a multi-purpose facility, as well as additional money for more programming and an endowment to help subsidize the operating costs and increased programming.
"Doug trumped the idea," says Greenberg, referring to Douglas C. Evans, former executive director of the Bushnell through the '90s.
The campaign began with a blast of federal and state tax dollars: a $10 million grant from Gov. John G. Rowland coupled with $2.5 million in federal funds. Ronna Reynolds, managing director of the Bushnell and later interim executive director for much of the campaign, said the project brought out a bullpen of heavy-hitting donors: Fourteen gifts exceeded $1 million, including gifts of $4 million from Ruth and Maxwell Belding and $3 million from Anthony Autorino. There were also 12 other $1 million gifts from individuals, most of whom prefer to remain anonymous. The largest corporate gifts were $500,000 each from United Technologies Corp. and Aetna ING.
Now entering the fourth year of a five-year campaign, the drive has raised $42.8 million. The project total breaks down: $35 million for the new building, $3 million for renovations to the older building and $7 million for special programming, campaign costs and endowment. (Reynolds says fund-raising will continue after the campaign formally ends.)
Though the Broadway blockbusters gave the expansion project its financial impetus, it soon became clear that shows to replace the blockbusters weren't forthcoming, and not only a new building but a new strategy was necessary. It was also clear that the Bushnell had to look at other presenting and producing choices if it was to keep revenue streams flowing.
"We put this thing together, and what came out of it was more than a building," Compton says. The "new" Bushnell would not just have an additional stage but would aspire to have better community outreach, more diverse programming and an additional performance space that would be more affordable to community groups. "We needed a lot of `something elses.'"
Initially, when plans for the new facility were announced, Bushnell officials had few specifics for programming, vague marketing data but ambitious performance goals. They envisioned a center where anything and everything would be playing, a pu pu platter for the performing arts.
The first season for the expanded arts center features a comedy series, a jazz series, cabaret, off-Broadway and "world stage" series, all of which have yet to be audience-tested in Hartford.
More secure is the promise of increased community use, Reynolds says. The season that ended June 30 (with just the main Bushnell building available) had 113 local arts and community groups "usage dates." For the 2001-2002 season at the main building and a limited season at the new facility, there are 170 usage dates planned (26 are for Hartford Stage's "A Christmas Carol"); for 2002-2003, the first season with both buildings running at full speed, 206 local events are planned.
"What has given us pause from the beginning is not so much the ability to raise the capital to build the hall but [to] fill the hall with product that people wanted," Greenberg says. In creating the long-term plan, deficits of $500,000 for each of the first two years of operation are anticipated.
Operating-expense budgets have also been ratcheted up over the last few years in anticipation of increased activities at the arts center. Last season, operating expenses were $5.846 million; for 2001-2002, which includes abbreviated operations at the Belding Theater, there is $6.812 million budget, an increase of 16.5 percent. For 2002-2003, the budget is $7.329 million, a further increase of 7.6 percent. By the 2003-2004 season, the increases are projected to start to level off to 3.8 percent, for a total of $7.611 million.
"In the end, though, it has to pay for itself," Compton says.
Along the way from the campaign's launch to the grand opening, other plans were changed or eliminated. For instance, the building was to have the city's largest corporate dining hall, seen by many as a smart component because it would generate additional revenue (as well providing a corporate incentive in fund-raising efforts). But the cost of such a facility and how it would affect the size and operations of the new building were prohibitive, Compton says, and that element was quietly dropped.
What was always a given was where the new facility would be. Even the '60s plan had the new theater next door to the main building. Another given was that the east portico of the Bushnell remain, that the look of the addition mesh with the classicism of the existing building, and that there be handicapped access.
Other must-haves were expanded audience amenities such as a bigger box office, more bathrooms and lobby space, improved food services, a gift shop, corporate sky boxes and space for private functions.
The new building had to be less intimidating than the elegant fortress of the main building, something warmer and more welcoming, an architectural "Juliet" to the older building's "Romeo."
"We wanted it to be more relaxed, and it had to be open to people," Compton says. "We wanted to get people into the Bushnell who heretofore had not been comfortable coming here, people who think of the Bushnell as too formal or forbidding."
What emerged is an elegant, conservative building, centering on a glassed-in lobby, reflective of a trend in late-20th century arts-building architecture, such as the Shubert in New Haven, which had its facelift in the early '80s.
While the excitement of opening the first major arts structure in Hartford in decades is palpable at the Bushnell, it is mixed with other emotions as well.
"We're going to make mistakes," says David Fay, the Bushnell Center's new executive director, a comment in stark contrast with the certainty that launched the project.
"We don't claim to be that smart," Greenberg says, "but we do claim to be courageous and experimental and reasonably patient and a little anxious. I think we're all a little anxious. And that's wholly without Sept. 11."
There have already been some bumpy spots along the way, with the Bushnell sometimes booking shows at the new theater that would affect local arts groups, but without their participation or knowledge. These contretemps are to be expected, say those at the Bushnell and around town, and will be worked out as everyone tries to figure out everyone's special needs.
"People were sometimes frustrated with the Bushnell," says Ken Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, "but now the feeling is more of hopefulness about what the new theater would auger for them."
"I've been here a long time," Reynolds says. "And I've never been more hopeful about the Bushnell and the local arts working together. I have seen more signs of it in the last year, in terms of collaborative programming. It just seems that the stars are aligning." She points to connections with the symphony (with the Bushnell commissioning a new work), Dance Connecticut and Hartford Stage (with the booking of "A Christmas Carol").
"There's a lot of new leadership in town, not only in directorship chairs but on board positions," Fay says. "And there's a real different sense now compared to a couple of years ago even. It's all new and uncertain. People are wondering how is it going to work: How is it going to affect me? Can I afford it? Do I want to do shows there? There's a million questions in the air right now. And that uncertainty is frustrating to everyone, to us as well."
Regardless of anxieties, conflicts, hope and dreams, the building is now a reality
"My reason for becoming involved with the Bushnell in the first place," Compton says, "was that here was an organization that thought hard about what it should do, and then it did it. And it delivered - not just a building but a major community asset.
"As I look at it now, I think, `By golly, it works.'"Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times