The City Council heard suggestions last month that it toss the Doña Ana County Arts Council out of the Rio Grande Theater and put the Theater in the hands of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Fortunately, the Council didn't seem to warm to that idea.
I watched movies in that theater forty years ago. In 1998, when Allen Theaters finished using it, granddaughters of the original owners wanted to preserve and protect the place and possibly restore it. They gave their half to the Arts Council, which bought the other half. The idea was to create a community facility that would also house the Arts Council.
The Arts Council raised $3.2 million, and dealt with demolition, construction, and asbestos problems. The Arts Council has operated the Theater. Several years ago, $250,000 in state money was available. A governmental entity had to be the fiscal agent. The City said it could do that only if it had title to the place. Thus the Arts Council deeded this $3 million cultural asset to the City, to get the $250,000 to help keep operating it, with an unwritten agreement that the Arts Council would continue having its offices there. Later, after a general tightening up of rules on non-profits being housed in municipal facilities, the City contracted with the Arts Council to run the place. The contract made clear that the Arts Council wasn't getting a free ride.
Now there's a proposal to toss out the Arts Council. Aside from the unfairness of that to the Arts Council, and those who donated money, the issue highlights a deeper question of who we want to be.
The Theater is a community resource. It's a major part of making and keeping this a community. It presents events the whole community can enjoy. That's important. Not just to artists and patrons, but to the City. Creating a community people enjoy, where they're stimulated culturally, is not insignificant to drawing visitors and even businesses concerned about their employees.
The Theater might never be self-sustaining. Such theaters elsewhere generally are not. With just 450 seats (compared to 2,000 at El Paso's Plaza) our Theater can't bring in big acts at reasonable ticket prices. The City shouldn't view the Theater as a potential profit center, any more than our parks or plaza are. It's a major contribution to quality of life with a price tag kept reasonable by ticket sales – in a building the City obtained free. Judging it as a profit center guarantees “failure” and probably the sale of the place.
The CVB folks at the December work session didn't appear to know much about running a theater. I don't. The Arts Council now does, having run one for years, meeting a variety of challenges and learning a lot of important lessons.
I'd say that the ideal solution is for CVB to work with the Arts Council on this, in a true partnership giving us the best of both. The Arts Council has extensive knowledge. If CVB has ideas that can help bring in more people or more dollars, great!
Tossing out the Arts Council ain't right. The Theater is a gathering place where wesee a variety of local performers – plus unusual and interesting performances from elsewhere. City Manager Stuart Ed calls it “a unique and beautiful asset” that helps distinguish Las Cruces from other communities.
Having heard citizens passionately defend the Theater, Ed said, “I'm very appreciative of all the input from the community.”
Ed says Cruces won't break its contract with the Arts Council; but that contract is renewable July 1. A February 13th work-session will discuss the issue.
[Not everything of value has to be a money-maker. I'm all for performance measurement and accountability; but these need to be reasonable, and tailored to the circumstances. Here, there's a lot the Theater does and will do that has value without turning a monetary profit. As, again, our parks don't. Expecting the Theater to be a money-maker is probably nonsensical, unless city officials know something the rest of us don't (or want to set up a "failure" that would justify them in taking it over to "fail" in their turn); but expecting it to provide shows and performances and lectures and events of interest, and trying to keep an eye on costs, certainly sounds reasonable.]