The Interview: Tom Gabbard, President and CEO, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center

After a year of listening, the most powerful arts leader in the city is ready to be heard

In the absence of a leader for the Arts and Science Council, Tom Gabbard holds the most powerful position in the arts community. As head of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, he oversees four separate performance spaces and Spirit Square. Altogether, sixteen arts groups, from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to the Community School of the Arts, call the Blumenthal home. The Belk Theater also hosts well-known Broadway touring shows, such as this month’s The Producers.

This summer marked Gabbard’s one-year anniversary in the job and in Charlotte. He replaced Judith Allen, who retired after leading the center for its entire decade-long existence. He has worked in Los Angeles; Boulder and Denver, Colorado; and Green Bay, Wisconsin. I sat with the gregarious and animated Gabbard in his tiny office upstairs from the Blumenthal box office in Founders Hall. We discussed the state of the arts here, the ambitious arts funding plan, and the Blumenthal’s role in Charlotte. We also talked about the still-lingering effects of the Angels in America dustup, Charlotte’s taste for the mainstream, the power of the Arts and Science Council, and what to do—or not to do—with the Carolina Theatre.
Let’s start big picture. You’re more qualified or as qualified as anybody else to answer this: What is the state of the arts in Charlotte?
I’d say it’s relatively strong. We’re blessed to be in a community that’s interested in the arts. When you look at the attendance rates for these organizations, not just the Blumenthal, but when I look across other institutions, I think they’re relatively good. That’s in a climate, [in] which across the country, people generally are struggling a bit. And, knock on wood, we’re holding up a little bit better than a lot of other places. I think people here from a community-leadership standpoint understand the importance that the arts play in creating a healthy community and a vibrant place to do business. That’s something a lot of communities don’t get, and that certainly works to our advantage. There are not many communities right now that are looking at an expansive plan for potentially adding new facilities in their community as we are right now. There aren’t many communities that have had corporate leadership that have stepped up to the table and threw down really an enormously ambitious goal to the community to support.
How does one measure strength in the arts? Is it just attendance? Is it donations? Is it community interest?
It’s all of the above. I don’t think there’s any single measure. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it difficult for people to get their arms around this business sometimes, is that if you focus exclusively on attendance or contributed income, you only understand one part of that puzzle. There are organizations that will sell out their concerts and frankly not be very well connected to the community. There actually is a downside to selling out every one of your events, and that is there’s not an opportunity for newcomers to find their way into your venue. So when you look at the relative strength of these organizations, certainly the financial side comes first, because you have to be financially viable to have any future life, but ultimately seeing how well connected an organization is into the community, its service to the community, its level of respect in the community, I think those are very, very important measures, especially for the long-term health of that organization.
So what do you see as the Blumenthal’s role in serving the community?
Boy, it is such a diverse role and there are niches of who we are that frankly are not as well known as they deserve to be. People know us best for bringing in those really popular shows—like this week we’re playing Mamma Mia. We also do a variety of concert things that really try to fill in the gaps, looking at all that is going on in the community. We try to do some shows that nobody else in town is going to do; unless we take the leadership to bring that company here or that artist here, they’re just not going to be in Charlotte. But we’re very active in the community through our education institute. We’re very proud of the role they have directly with the schools in utilizing arts-integrated curriculum to improve learning. . . . We’re in one school and adding a second school in CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools]. We’re in Gaston County schools, we’re adding Union County and developing curriculum that integrates the arts into day-to-day teaching and is having tremendous results in actually improving the scores of these students in basic skills like reading, writing, and math. We’re also a home to sixteen different resident companies that we nurture. Everybody from groups you hear about every day like the symphony and Opera Carolina to some groups that maybe are lesser known, like the Light Factory. We take an important role in helping them to succeed, providing a variety of services, actually facilitating their performances if they’re a performance group to handling their ticketing to helping them with their marketing, so those sixteen groups, in particular, we really try to help them succeed in their respective businesses.
What did you do your first year?
I listened a lot. To everybody I could talk to. It was important for me to understand what made this place tick and what Charlotte was all about. I’ve been in the arts-management business twenty-six years, so the task per se of running this place and functionally what needed to take place, there wasn’t frankly a lot that was new and different there. What was new and different was this particular community, and it has been and will continue to be really important to me to understand what makes this place tick, and what people want from this facility.
So is the Blumenthal heading in the right direction?
I think so. We are continuing to grow. In some respects we’ve hit a ceiling to that growth, because the facilities themselves have been maxed out. To grow around that right now, there’s very active discussion of building a 1,200-seat theater and we’re confident—thanks to a very creative plan that Wachovia has come up with—we’re confident that that plan is going to proceed. That 1,200-seat theater will allow us to expand our programming, not only the 1,200-seat theater but by shifting some things to the 1,200-seat theater, it’ll free up some time here. So that’s an opportunity for growth that we think is really exciting. Also, this current Broadway Lights season we’re trying something totally different and that’s trying a small off-Broadway show. It’s a little show called Triple Espresso. We actually are still considering a site for it. We have a couple in mind, so no announcements to make on that. But we’re going to be going outside of Blumenthal into a small off-Broadway type of place to do a play that will be there a minimum of four months. We’re going to launch it on the Broadway Lights season and then just see how demand warrants from there. This little show has had great success. Our colleagues in little Des Moines, Iowa closed it this past week after sixty-six weeks. So that represents another initiative towards growth, realizing that our facilities here are maxed out, and the only opportunity to grow is to step outside these facilities and go somewhere else.
Something like that, is that an attempt to get Charlotte on the circuit of shows that may not play in L.A. or New York but will stay in a city several months and tweak it and see how the audience reacts?
It really is a sincere effort to create a show that does have some life, that is mounted just for that run. You’re right, it is not out on a national tour. There has been a tremendous growth of those smaller productions. We’re not the first of those that present the big Broadway shows to sort of step out and try some of these smaller shows. I’ve done some myself in other jobs, so it does represent a niche that’s had some success. Hopefully when a show clicks it has the opportunity to be there and frankly become a little bit more of a tourist attraction and it’s always there for a period of time and people that are coming into town have a chance to see it. So many of our shows are here and gone so fast that there’s just not an opportunity for them to get a following that they might deserve. So a smaller show that’s much less expensive gives us that opportunity to kind of plant it and let it root for a while.
Having the 1,200-seat theater would enable you to do more of those type shows I would assume, but what would you shift over there from the current schedule?
One key anchor to that new theater would be North Carolina Dance Theatre. This 1,200-seat theater would be a much more appropriate size for much of their work. So The Nutcracker would still be here at the Belk, but many of their other shows would really be enhanced by being in that smaller space. Right now in, fact, as a part of their season the last couple of years they’ve had a program called Innovative Works, and they’ve been doing it at the Booth theater. That run nearly sells out just on subscription. There are very few seats remaining for single-ticket buyers, and that goes back to the problem I was mentioning before that if you don’t have an entry point for newcomers it’s not a healthy situation for a company. So that kind of program, rather than just selling it out on subscription in the Booth, this 1,200-seat theater would have room for more single tickets to be sold that have the ability to generate more earned income so it would help them be financially stronger. We would expect that the symphony has plans to continue to grow, and they’ve had success with their smaller chamber music programs, the Mostly Mozart programs, and so this would be a good home for those smaller programs. And also if the North Carolina Dance Theatre moves, it would open up some time in the Belk Theater that they could expand their season. The opera has had great success, they are looking to grow their season as well. So it would have more time in the Belk Theater for them to use. They’d also from time to time have done some chamber operas, like Amahl and the Night Visitors. And a small chamber opera would work wonderfully there [in the proposed theater].
Now, the Blumenthal—and I’m sure if you were listening then you heard this—seems to have a reputation of big and mainstream. And even when it steps out of that and promotes that "we’re going to do something different this year," it’s Def Poetry Jam or David Sedaris, things that are still—they’ve been here before, they’re time-tested. How much of the Blumenthal’s role do you see is pushing audiences and exposing them to types of performance art that they have never seen before in Charlotte?
That’s certainly a part of our mission, but the reality is, it has to be a limited part of our mission. Because we do operate on a very, very tight financial model here. Most performing arts centers across the country, if you look at most of our peers, and we do participate in a survey of thirty of those peers annually, most of them get about 60 to 65 percent of their budget from earned-income sources and the rest from tax support and fund-raising. But the Blumenthal typically will generate 85 percent of what it takes to operate this place from earned-income sources and only 15 percent from tax dollars and fund-raising. So as a result, frankly, our ability to take risks does have some limitations to it. With that being said, we are eager to try to stretch the envelope a bit, and we are trying to find some creative ways to do it right now. We’re finishing I think what’s been a tremendously successful first-year program called City Stage, working with the local fringe theaters. And that has been really a tremendously successful first year for that program. We’ve never done anything quite like that before. This next year we’re going to be presenting a residency including some performances called The Mystical Arts of Tibet, where there will be some monks actually working here in Founders Hall on a sand mandela [a traditional meditation piece] throughout the day for a couple of days, and they’ll be doing some lectures as well as two public performances.
Even in a commercial sense we have, I think, tried to encourage new work and the creation of new shows. The Blumenthal has been a leader in helping to capitalize new theatrical productions, and this is something that I was involved in as well in my previous job. . . . And we’re continuing that. I just finished right now putting together with our colleagues across the country a million-dollar capitalization for the upcoming Broadway production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. On the one hand you can say, well this is commercial stuff, but on the other hand you can say it is brand new work. And even commercial stuff like that, nothing is certain with a brand new show.
When you say you led a million-dollar campaign, where does that money come from?
Most of this comes from similar places across the country—other performing arts centers that we ask to put in $25,000 towards the effort. Some of them are commercial operators, commercial presenters of Broadway shows.
So the show would end up at their venue as part of their investment?
You said earlier when you were listening for a year, you were listening for what makes this place tick. What do you think makes it tick?
It is fascinating to me to see how business gets done here. Obviously corporate leadership has historically had a much more active involvement in this community than is the case in many other communities. I was in Denver for a number of years, and in Denver, even though they have some major corporate presence, there is not a corporate-headquarters city. These are second-tier offices. And when you don’t have the headquarters there, the influence of that business is not felt nearly to the extent that it is here. So that is certainly a huge difference. You know, I think because the financial world underlies the community here, I think people are probably a little more financially oriented than I’ve seen in other communities. Again going back to Denver, people there were much more interested in being actively involved in the arts. They were interested in taking classes and commissioning new plays, and the creative process was really a much higher priority there. You know, I think here there are a lot more people that are in sync with business plans and thinking in financial terms. So I think I learned that historically the arts here have been more buttoned down than in some cities. But I sense that’s changing a little bit, and I sense there is a desire to see things loosen up. Even little things like encouraging street musicians. That’s something in the past that wasn’t necessarily considered. So I think there is a desire to stretch a little bit. We’ve seen some healthy indications. You mentioned Def Poetry Jam. That frankly was a brand that did not succeed in a lot of cities—that particular show—as it toured across the country, and there was only one tour. It did in Charlotte. We found a nearly capacity audience for that show and are bringing it back because of that success. The Full Monty was another show that, in a lot of cities, did not succeed. There were a lot of people in some cities that stayed away from it because they thought it was going to be a kind of tasteless Chippendales thing. And Charlotte embraced that show. It did better here than it did in most cities. I look at those as just two indicators that Charlotte is willing to stretch beyond what other communities may be willing to embrace.
Is that something that you find encouraging, or just something that you observe?
I find it encouraging. I really see an energy and a dynamism with that that’s really healthy. You know, there’s no question that the Angels in America situation a few years ago left an incredibly deep mark on this community, including the arts community. And so talking about presenting anything that potentially is controversial—Def Poetry had a lot of interesting language to it, The Full Monty, they actually took it [all] off [backlighting obscured the nudity] and had some language issues. Those are things that I think people still are very sensitive about because of the whole Angels in America thing. I, as a theater professional, heard about the whole Angels in America business myself and so I think there is a real desire to make sure that we not repeat that same kind of public relations problem, but at the same time that we are doing progressive things on our stages, and again the success we’ve had with things like Def Poetry and Full Monty give me real hope that it is possible for us to do things that are contemporary and up to date and not be offending people either.
Do you think we need to show people new and progressive art, or do you give ’em what they want and give it to them over and over again?
I think for us to succeed as a community, we have to be inclusive and understand that people in a community of this size have lots of different takes and interests that on some level need to be accommodated, and satisfied. It’s not to say that everything that happens on our stages is for everybody. Not everybody likes classical music. Not everybody likes country music. But yet those people that like those art forms deserve an opportunity to enjoy those art forms. And the same thing could be said for things that are a little more contemporary, a little hipper. It’s important for us to communicate clearly up front if there’s going to be something that somebody might be offended by. So people will see in our ads . . . an adult content warning, because we want parents and folks who may have concerns about language and subject matter to be alerted that this show has things in it that might be a problem for them. So as long as we’ve effectively communicated up front, I think that’s the fundamental obligation. And then to provide a diverse community what a diverse community is looking for. 
When you were talking about Denver, I think you were alluding to a dichotomy that I’ve heard other people talk about in Charlotte. You said in Denver that people are interested in actually engaging in the arts, whereas in Charlotte I’ve heard people describe that people want to give money to the arts, and surely the heavens suggest that they do, and it becomes almost a political issue at times. But then it’s not always backed up by people going to see the shows, or going to see something at the Mint. Have you observed a similar dichotomy?
I wouldn’t put it so much in terms of attending events, because I think those attendance rates are actually pretty good. I think what we need to do better on is participation that goes beyond just passively coming to see something. Where people actually delve a little bit deeper by taking a class or getting in a pottery studio or doing something that actively engages them a little bit more. That’s where I think we may see a little bit less than in some cities. That being said, my sense is that people really are hungering to be given more opportunities, by people like us, to dig deeper. We tried last year just testing some preshow lectures we call "Interesting Insights" and we had such tremendous success with that that now we are adding that for every one of our Broadway shows, where on Wednesday night there will be a preshow discussion and members of the cast will be there to talk to the audience. And I think we’ll see more and more of that. My sense is the public wants more of that. We are looking at adapting some of our publications to give people more background on things we do here, because my sense is that people want to understand more. But there is a huge time constraint for people here and I think that’s a problem. That’s probably the number-one problem we face even with just attendance is that people here are really stressed for time, so making time in their schedule to actually come to events or making an extended commitment to take a class, or whatever, that’s hard for folks, trying to figure out how to sandwich stuff in, and over and over from our discussions with ticket buyers we hear that issue of boy, it’s just hard for me to find time to come to eight shows a year. I want to do it and I’m going to just do it on single tickets, but it’s hard for me to make a commitment to just being a subscriber because I’m traveling so much with my job or my kids are in soccer and Little League and I want to be there, but I just don’t have enough hours in the day.
That could be a big problem for you if 85 percent of your income is earned income, right?
Absolutely. It means we have to be frankly more flexible and more savvy in how we market to folks and how we accommodate their time constraints. That’s an issue that is not unique at all to Charlotte. Across the country if you talk to my counterparts, a lot of them will tell you the same thing, and we’ve all seen buying patterns shift tremendously to where more and more people are buying at the last minute, and a lot of that is because of those time restrictions. . . . It’s become a huge problem in New York, where literally 50 percent of the tickets for a Broadway show now can be purchased the day of the show.
I hear from the smaller theater groups, non-Blumenthal groups, that really are struggling with attendance, and they say the same thing about single-ticket sales, but they also point to that perhaps the Blumenthal is the 800-pound gorilla, that if you’re going to wait to buy a ticket, and then all of a sudden it’s the weekend and you’ve got Mamma Mia and you’ve got the symphony, and you’ve got Actor’s Theatre for example, they end up choosing the bigger-name show.
You know, I think… I appreciate that situation, and having operated smaller venues myself, I’ve been there, [but] I don’t know that that’s necessarily a competitive problem. These are distinctively different niches. Number one, the price of the tickets are distinctively different, and there are some people that absolutely—either they can’t afford or they’re dead set against paying fifty-five or sixty dollars a ticket, and so these smaller companies represent a much bigger value for some folks. You know there are other folks who also really want to support local companies. As somebody who has worked in the professional theater for a lot of years, I’d say my parents have always preferred a community production to a professional show. It was always a little bit of a frustration for me. I’d be involved with these shows—I was very proud of them—and my parents would say, "Well, that’s neat, but you know we saw this community-theater thing that was really, really nifty." And so these are different niches, and I’m not sure . . . one takes away from the other.
I do think, clearly, we can afford to place more advertising and create more public exposure, and that creates a challenge, and that’s one reason why we created this City Stage festival. We wanted to create a full-fledged marketing effort that would bring recognition to at least four of these fringe-theater companies. And I think we’ve succeeded to a great degree in helping to raise the visibility of these companies by putting our marketing muscle behind that.
Forgive the cynicism, but did you do it because you wanted to give the fringe theaters a chance on the big stage, or was it to just help fill a theater that might not have been rented during the month?
No. Number one, they were not on the big stage. They were in the Duke Power Theatre [a smaller theater within Spirit Square]. But it really came out of… Part of my listening was visiting the Metrolina Theater Association, which is this group of about sixty-five theaters. As a part of that meeting, Anne Lambert [a local producer and consultant] stood up—and I hadn’t met Anne before then—and she said, "I really challenge you to do something to make Spirit Square more affordable and accessible to these companies that wanted to be back there." And I said, "You have my pledge that I will do everything I can to do that," and I put my business card up on the wall and I said, "Anybody here that wants to talk to me about how we can make Spirit Square more available and affordable to people, come see me, let’s have a cup of coffee." And it really genuinely came from that challenge in figuring out how we make Spirit Square affordable for these companies to do business in.
In your opinion, then, why have these other theater companies struggled in the past year or two with attendance?
I think the marketing piece of it is one thing. It is expensive just to do the littlest thing that shows up on the radar in the community. It is so difficult. This is a moderately expensive media market, so when you look at paid media, everything from the Observer to television, radio, when you look at paid media, it’s nearly impossible for these smaller companies to afford any of that. The reality is, too, it is a niche business, and some of these things too reach out to a smaller segment of that population, and trying to figure out how to narrow-market to that niche, that’s a challenge. Fortunately, now we’ve got the Internet and the ability to e-mail and all that stuff, so there is a way to communicate better with people efficiently that represent that niche. But I would say that promotion-cost issue is a key obstacle that smaller companies face.
Have you been to any of the smaller companies’ shows?
Oh, absolutely.
What do you think of the quality?
I think the quality is quite good. Really quite good. And the diversity is tremendous out there. And I see people that are trying all sorts of things. I think it’s a good healthy mix, from those productions that are more traditional community theater doing established works to things that really are out on the edge.
OK, back to the big-picture stuff. I read in an interview with you that you were struck by the top-down decision making [in the city by corporate leadership]. I believe what you said was, basically, "things get done." There has also been another side in recent years, where people are saying we’re tired of that. Because it’s not inclusive. Do you think the way decisions have been made here is a good way?
I think people search for some middle ground. So I don’t want to sound as if I’m dodging this, but I think both viewpoints are important. I’ve seen situations, again going back to when I was in Colorado, Boulder was a city, I guess because of academic environment, whatever, these people, they would talk things to death and everybody would have a chance for input, and nothing ever got done. Was there a lot of opportunity for involvement? Absolutely. But I’m not sure that in and of itself is a badge of honor. So I admire the fact that people are trying to find that common ground and find an opportunity for broad input, but on the other hand there is a place I think for corporate leadership and community leadership to ultimately . . . say, "Let’s do something and this is our vision of where we need to go and we’re going to put some money behind it." I admire that courage and admire that decisiveness, but it certainly does need to include some opportunity for public discussion.
I’ve heard people say more and more that they find the Arts and Science Council a bit stifling. That every year the requirements, the questions, the "what we need to do" is more and more strict. You’re newer to Charlotte. What do you think of the Arts and Science Council’s role and their power in determining what art gets shown and performed in Charlotte?
You’ve asked that question from a number of different vantages, and I think you have to break it apart a little bit. First of all, anytime there’s someone that gives you money, there’s always strings attached. So to expect that you’re going to get money and not have to be accountable for it or have to work within a certain structure, that’s just, that’s unreal. So I accept that. In our case, frankly, I think there’s been a huge misperception about the role ASC funding has played. Right now we get basically about $250,000 from the workplace-giving program that last year generated about $10.3 million. There’s a larger number that’s reported, but it’s really just pass-through money from the city and county for maintenance costs of the Blumenthal and Spirit Square. So we get a really modest amount of money. Money that I’m grateful for, but it is a relatively modest amount. I think the issue of control over these organizations, when you look at dictating what happens, I think there probably is some reason to be concerned about that, but on the other hand looking at all the sensitivities that grew out of Angels in America, for instance, I can appreciate to some degree there is some oversight, because they absolutely don’t want to repeat that kind of PR problem. I also think, too, everything I’ve heard about how the cultural community has grown, a few years ago, frankly, a lot of these organizations did not have the professional management that they do now, and so I would expect some of these things to get a little less onerous as they acknowledge that there is some more widespread professional management of these organizations. . . . But I think the ASC is at a time in which there will be changes. The leadership change is under way right now. I think they are actually making as a part of that search someone who is not unwilling to be a change agent. They’re not being hired to maintain the status quo. I think there is a fundamental sense that things need to change. In Denver, the corollary to the ASC is a group called the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which is [funded by] a one-tenth of one percent sales tax. It actually generates more money, but it’s also distributed to even more groups. To be honest, there are things I’d like to cherry-pick between the two, but fundamentally at its heart, I’m proud that Charlotte has a workplace-giving program as compared to a sales tax program, because people are making a genuine decision to give as compared to Denver, where it’s just slipped in as part of your sales tax.
Lots of bank employees would argue they’re not making a genuine decision, but we won’t get into that. Cherry-pick one thing from the Denver program.
In that program, most of the money is distributed on a formulaic basis, so frankly the application process is much simpler, because the grant is numerically determined. So there’s not nearly as much time necessary coming up with all sorts of applications and background materials for panels to assess and things like that.
In your year of listening, you listened for perceptions of the Blumenthal pro and con. What’s a pro that you heard and what’s a con?
First of all, I think the pro comments really outweigh very significantly the cons. And what I’ve learned is that this place is very well loved, very well regarded. That people who have lived here since before the Blumenthal really appreciate what the Blumenthal has done to bring uptown back to life, and that that success story involved a lot of players, but that the Blumenthal clearly has been a major part of that success story. They’re very grateful for that. Let’s see. On the con side, oh boy, on the con side, I think try as we might to be as inclusive as we can, I think there’s still niches of the community that don’t feel we’re as welcoming and embracing as we need to be, and it’s not been for lack of effort to try to be inclusive, but frankly a performing arts center by its nature has these elitist impressions that are always difficult to overcome. So there are people who still feel uncomfortable coming through our front doors. They feel that somehow they’re not going to be welcomed. They feel that this is a place for somebody who dresses differently or is a different color or in a different economic class, so there still is work to be done to make this not only more inclusive but a warmer, friendlier place.
The center is fifteen, ten years old?
Just over ten. Opened November ’92.
If it was a basketball arena, they’d be tearing it down and building a new one. But the theater itself—does it need work?
No. Number one, people who’ve been to events here all talk about how great the acoustics are, the Belk in particular. So there aren’t any significant improvements that are necessary. We just completed completely repainting the inside of it. And we replaced the orchestra-pit lift. So we are doing things to make sure it remains state of the art and that it remains pristine and a beautiful place, but these are great facilities and there’s not a necessity for any major retrofits.
You’re in the theater business. We have an old theater, the Carolina Theatre. There are a lot of camps on what to do with it: renovate, tear down, art museum. What do you think?
For it to be a functioning, active performing-arts theater, it’s not gonna make it. The stage house is too small, there’s not a way to expand it. I actually did a very similar renovation a few years ago in Wisconsin. We took a Fox Theater that was about 1,500 seats and through the remodel we brought it down to just over 1,000 seats, so a very similar situation. And the dilemma is you can spend a lot of money on those projects—a lot of money. And end up not really having the space and the modern amenities that the local groups need. Can you do some limited concerts and do some old movies and all that kind of stuff? Sure, and there’s a place for that. But right now when the priority’s been how do we, number one, provide additional performing space for our existing groups as well as some new acts and new shows that are out there, there’s just not the space there to support that kind of activity. If somebody has money to do a true restoration and enjoy it as a beautifully restored theater, great. But I don’t think anyone was able to identify funding that was really intended just for restorative value.
So what do you think we should do with it?
What do I think we should do with it. Boy. Restoring it fully for use as a performing-arts theater, I don’t think would be a wise investment. I think it would take too much money for too little return. They’ve come up with an interesting idea about some adaptive reuse as a part of the Bechtler Museum [one proposal converts what remains of the theater for use in a new contemporary art museum]. That’s part of what the task force [appointed by Mayor Pat McCrory to study the arts funding request, including the 1,200-seat theater] is looking at. We’re really at the point where we’ve concluded it’s not a wise investment as a performing-arts theater to satisfy the needs of our local groups as well as the touring shows. Once we reached that point, then to some degree I kind of step back to say this is not anything that really is of great interest to us. If there are other people that have ideas as to how to do it, more power to them. But it really was not what we wanted to invest our time or resources [in].
So you’ll let the task force decide.
We’ll let the task force decide. And the city council.
[Speaking of] the city council. I hear the term a lot—return on investment. We hear, "We’re giving this much money to the arts, what’s our return on investment?" How do you explain a return on investment in the arts?
That’s difficult, because frequently… In fact, I’m actually working on a task force now to do an economic impact study for touring Broadway [shows] nationally. And just doing the baseline economic impact study only tells part of the story. Because ultimately I think some of the value comes down to the energy and the excitement that the arts create in the area. That becomes difficult to quantify, and it becomes more anecdotal. When you talk to residents about, "Well why did you move into this new high-rise?" "Why did you move your office down here?" You hear anecdotally from folks, "Well I’m there because this is the most exciting piece of real estate in town. There’s just an energy and excitement that keeps me creatively vital. I can walk out of my office and take a fifteen-minute walk break and come back ready to go at it again." I think frankly sometimes it’s more anecdotal than anything. There certainly have been a lot of success stories across the country that I think anecdotally will attest to that. I spent a lot of years in Los Angeles and what’s gone on in downtown Los Angeles is pretty phenomenal. California Plaza where the contemporary art museum is. Really the contemporary art museum was a rationale and a reason to create this great mixed-use development of condos and offices, and people love being down there right now. The contemporary art museum was really a magnet to make that happen. Now they’ve added the new Disney concert hall that Frank Gehry designed, and there are a lot of people in Los Angeles that would say this is one of the most exciting pieces of real estate to live or do business in, in that whole city. So I think the case is there [that investing in the arts offers a positive return]. It is unfortunate it isn’t as quantifiable as one might like.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen live?
Oh, so many things. But I think probably The Lion King. I saw The Lion King pre-Broadway in Minneapolis and then New York and I’ve seen it in London and I saw it here in Charlotte. I have such admiration for what Julie Taymor [the director] did. But my tastes are really eclectic. I enjoy all sorts of things, and that’s one reason why I’ve been in the performing-arts-center business is because those tastes are so wide ranging. That I can leave a symphony performance really just energized. This last year, when the National Symphony was here with Leonard Slatkin, I thought was one of the finest symphonic performances I’ve heard. It was wonderful.