Uncharted Territory For Hartford Arts

The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts has taken a triumphant giant step into the new millennium with the completion of its $45 million building project, including its handsome 907-seat Belding Theater and the smaller but also classy Autorino Great Hall with its capacity of 200.

Virtually everyone in the Hartford arts community warmly applauds the bold, open and inviting appearance of the sparkling 90,000-square-foot project.

But now comes the acid test that raises some concerns among local arts presenters, even among those who express love for the facilities' good looks and pristine sense of promise.

Now the $45 million question is how well this behemoth project will fly. More specifically, how will it play with patrons and with the local nonprofit groups who, the Bushnell administrators hope, will bring a grass-roots element to productions in the new, luxurious digs?

Even with the most careful research, planning and scheduling, the giant venture - in particular the pivotal new Belding Theater - is, for all its enormous potential for the city and the region, really uncharted territory for the Hartford arts community, Bushnell Executive Director David Fay says.

"No amount of research, no amount of projections can give you answers until you open the doors, put programming in there and try it out," he says. "And one thing I'm telling everybody: I absolutely promise this season that we will make some mistakes. That I can promise you."

In a Hollywood baseball fantasy, the motto is, "If you build it, they will come." But in the real world, where costs and risks are high, there is no easy or guaranteed happy-ever-aftering.

So, as a safety net, the Bushnell is creating a financial cushion just in case the Belding Theater and the Autorino Great Hall lose money in their start-up seasons.

"We have an understanding that we are going to be running a deficit the first year and probably the next year as well. Hopefully by the third or fourth year we're going to be able to get to a break-even position," Fay says.

The size of the cushion is being considered now, he says. "It's kind of a moving target this year because of the economic downturn and because of the Sept. 11 tragedies. After Sept. 11, we felt box-office reductions as high as 30 percent on some shows. But that seems improving since the numbers for the holiday season look very strong," Fay says.

All this, of course, is weighed against the many potential pluses provided by the Belding and the Autorino Great Hall. Among these are new, improved opportunities for local nonprofit arts presenters; a more modern image of a more accessible, less staid Bushnell (what Fay calls "the Bushnell loosening its tie"); as well as an economic shot in the arm for downtown Hartford from patrons attending shows ranging from The Second City comedy troupe March 23 in the Belding to legendary cabaret singer Julie Wilson in the cozy Autorino Great Hall Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

In the arts community, cheers, good wishes and high hopes for success are tempered with basically a cautious attitude of "let's wait and see how this all plays out."

Opinions on the impact of the new Belding range radically from the warm, optimistic endorsement of Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage, to the stinging dissent of Steve Campo, artistic director and founder of TheaterWorks. Others have expressed concerns about the costs of mounting performances in the Belding Theater and whether the market in Greater Hartford has already reached the saturation point in terms of arts and entertainment options.

"I think the Belding is going to enhance our image of Hartford as being a city that is truly known for not only institutions of higher learning but also for its phenomenal arts institutions," Wilson says.

"With a 900-seat proscenium house, the Bushnell is going to be able to enhance the critical mass of the arts-going audience here. My hope is that it's going to have a kind of collateral effect on the arts institutions in town." .

Wilson and the Hartford Stage Company, in fact, have put their money where their mouth is by moving "Hartford Stage's A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas" from their own stage to the Belding stage. Wilson's adaptation of Dickens' tale will be presented at the Belding Dec. 11 through 30. By tapping into the Belding across town on Capitol Avenue, the stage company reaches a wider audience while simultaneously freeing up the calendar for its home stage on Church Street.

"Our goal is to begin a real collaboration with the Bushnell. Early signs are that the `Christmas Carol' is going to be a great success there," Wilson says. "And that could open up the doors for us when we have a project that might be better suited to a proscenium stage as opposed to the thrust stage here. We see the Belding as a resource that could be made available to Hartford Stage."

Fay views the agreement with Hartford Stage as a successful working paradigm for similar cooperative ventures with other nonprofit presenters.

"The Bushnell is the shepherd of this venue. It's not ours. It's the community's. We're the ones who have been given the responsibility to oversee it and operate it as effectively as we can," Fay says, stressing his mission to build bridges to local arts groups.

Campo, on the other hand, says TheaterWorks, with its 17 years of quality, in-house productions of off-Broadway fare, is threatened by the Belding's theater offerings. By presenting such dramas as "Stones In His Pockets," the Bushnell, Campo charges, is cutting into TheaterWorks' long-held, well-cultivated turf in Hartford. The 900-seat Belding, he says, will become an irresistible lure for touring companies who pick from the cream of the crop of off-Broadway fare. That could leave his 194-seat house out in the cold in many instances, he says.

"A national tour producer would have no interest in a venue any smaller than the 900 seats at the Belding," Campo says. "In years past, they've circled Hartford because they didn't have a venue here with the right number. But now the Belding's 900 seats is just right for them. Is it of concern to us? Yes. Is it going to make it impossible for us to do business? No." .

Fay says he'll take a close look at the situation and "engage in a dialog with TheaterWorks."

"I do not want to be competing with a local nonprofit," Fay says, "but I do want to fill my venue. The way to do that is to have a conversation and find where we can work together and where our two companies can actually benefit in a relationship."

For Margaret Wood, general director of Dance Connecticut, the Belding "is a fabulous theater" but pricey for dance productions. "I think we need to use the Belding and test it and see what the costs are and see what the community response is," she says. "And if it becomes too expensive, probably go back and see what can be done. If you have to raise money every time you go in there, you're raising money in a community that has a limited number of dollars."

Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, reflected even deeper concern about the burden any additional fund-raising, whether by the Bushnell itself or other arts groups, might cause in dividing the local fund-raising pool.

"If the Bushnell goes in the red and activates even more of its fund-raising potential, it then becomes a competitive situation for other nonprofit arts groups in the city," Wilkins says. "If the Belding ends up being a financial drain on the Bushnell, it could become a drain on everybody else as well. That would be my fear."

Wilkins does give the Belding decent grades on programming. "It's nice to see that the Bushnell is presenting something as cool as the Urban Bush Women [a dance group booked at the Belding Jan. 19]," he says. "It's not really anything new for Hartford. And the Belding is presenting some jazz, but it's not like people weren't already doing that in Hartford. But the Belding does have some things I will actually go to."

Willie Waters, general director of Connecticut Opera, is looking forward to next season, when his organization presents Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti," an opera he believes is ideal for the modest size and warm intimacy of the Belding.

"Because this is a chamber opera, we feel that the Belding gives the audience a chance to hear this great Mozart opera the way that it was intended to be heard, in a small theater," Waters says. "All the seats are good. The sight lines are excellent from every place in the house, and the orchestra pit is large enough to accommodate the size orchestra that we need."

If there's a problem for local arts organizations, he says, it could be in the diminishing availability of dates in the new venues. "They're being eaten up very quickly, not only by arts organizations but by other organizations as well that want to use Autorino Great Hall for parties, weddings, receptions and other kinds of things. We were looking at doing an event there next season, which was slightly problematic, because there was going to be a wedding reception the same date in the Autorino Great Hall.

Charles Owens, executive director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, has his fingers crossed that the Belding's acoustical system will be as good as expected.

"It lifts your heart just to walk in the Belding," he says. "But it remains to be seen, until we actually play our first rehearsals and concert there on Dec. 5, what its acoustical properties are. We feel it's going to be a terrific place for music, a perfect setting for chamber music, music of the Baroque and early classical periods through Mozart and Beethoven, ideal for string quartets and brass groups.

"The one cautionary note I'd add is whether we haven't reached or are close to reaching the saturation level of certain types of programming in this community," Owens says. "This is a small town with a thriving arts community. But at what point do we reach saturation levels?"

Or, as Dollie McLean, executive director of the Artists Collective, says, "We seem to have gone from famine to feast."

Fay says the Belding can be a tool for developing new "niche audiences" that could not use the spacious 2,800-seat Mortensen Hall but just might discover the right fit with the Belding. "The Belding opens up the opportunity to have a dialog with a number of cultural organizations and ethnic groups. It will bring more diversity to the Bushnell's offerings. We want this to be a venue for Hartford. It's not a venue for the Bushnell, for me or for the board," Fay says.

"We're excited about this, and it's opening our eyes to a lot of stuff. We have to have dialogues with local groups. For us to sit in our ivory tower and to try to book world music on our own, for example, is something I don't even want to think about. Maybe we'd be lucky two out of four or five bookings if we tried to do it ourselves. But if we do it with an individual group, we can shape the program to fit their needs, which is what we want to do."

McLean was delighted when Fay, an arts CEO who doesn't stay hunkered down in his office, actually showed up one day at her Albany Avenue headquarters.

And she's flattered that the Bushnell has taken up her lifelong cause of promoting jazz with its "Accenture Jazz Series." Long before the collective moved into its posh, new center on Albany Avenue, the African American arts and culture organization had been one of the city's most ardent missionaries in spreading the word about jazz. McLean's husband, celebrated saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean, rings in the jazz series at the Belding Nov. 30.

Dollie McLean says the Belding's 900 seats might be a hard number to fill for jazz in Hartford. The collective's new theater seats 350 to 400, which is more within the range of the audience for the collective's jazz and dance productions.

"But the Belding does provide a good alternative house," she says. "We tried several times to fill the old Bushnell Mortensen's Hall, with little success. We even had Ray Charles there and Nancy Wilson in that big house and had turnouts of only 1,000 or 1,500 in an auditorium that seats 2,800. I'd still worry about filling 900 seats, but we still might want to do one of our programs in the Belding."