Performing Arts Centre Shouldn’t be Built on a Field of Dreams

By Jason Menard

A proposed performing arts centre in London must be built upon a foundation of more than wishes and dreams.

The London Free Press ran an article stating that a committee examining both proposals for a performing arts centre were lacking. What people should be most concerned about is not that the proposals were merely found deficient, but that neither proposal bothered to concern themselves too much about developing a sound business plan.

I’d be shocked, if I hadn’t been exposed to the centre’s proponents’ main argument — a Field of Dreams attitude that states if you build it, they will come.

You see, when we build this ‘Costner Centre,’ apparently a currently underserviced marketplace demanding nightly, high-end (and high-priced) elite arts will emerge to ensure the viability of this venue long-term.

At least, that’s what I’ve been presented with, because no one’s giving me facts.

I’ve asked, repeatedly, on social networks and in another blog for someone to show market research that clearly indicates a need for this type of venue. But no hard numbers come back. Instead, we get variations of the “But there’s no venue here for high-end [insert art form of your choosing] in London.”

That may be true. But the more important question that must first be answered is, ‘Is there a market that would support high-end ballet, for example, on a regular basis?’

Not once or twice a year. Not a week-long run.

Every night, six nights a week. Every week. For multiple years. A market that will pack the proposed ‘Costner Centre’ to the rafters and fill its coffers.

Those are the questions we need to ask — and have answered. We need to ask if we can compete with those nearby centres, like Toronto, that have venues of this nature. More importantly, we need to ask whether we need to. Do we have that critical mass of citizens and potential tourists that can support a venue of this sort — one that doesn’t necessarily have to pay for itself, as arts can be subsidized, but should draw enough of a gate so that it’s not sucking the public coffers dry.

And we need to ask why, if this market exists, are there no private investors willing to step up and foot the bill on a sure-fire money maker?

Otherwise we’re left with the potential of a nice-to-have feature out of place in a mid-sized city at best; a publicly-funded vanity project at worst.

The Grand’s proposal is great. For the Grand. Yet what about those smaller theatre companies who are already challenged in finding appropriate — and affordable — venues to produce small and medium-sized productions? Of course, this will not be an issue once this deep-pocketed, nightly arts patron customer base emerges from its hiding place.

Orchestra London is doing its best to Montreal Expos itself out of business. You see, in the later years of the baseball franchise, its owners loved nothing more than to tell everybody how terrible of a venue Olympic Stadium was in which to watch a baseball game. Shockingly, after constant reminders, people started believing them and stopped going to games.

The biggest thing I know about Orchestra London right now is that its present location is terrible and not worthy of an orchestra. Which is certainly a sales pitch that’s motivating me to go buy tickets.

Arts are an integral part of our community’s growth. They’re not a luxury. But a performing arts centre in a city of 350,000 that’s not exactly a tourist Mecca may be. The money to be used in creating the ‘Costner’ Centre’ may be better allocated amongst other smaller multi-purpose venues. They may not be perfect, but we have to stop letting perfect get in the way of better.

Look, maybe we can support a performing arts’ centre. But maybe the ‘Costner Centre’ is a luxury that we can’t afford to pay for out of the public coffers at this time. If a private, or public-private partnership that’s heavy on the private, steps forward to take the lead and fill this allegedly can’t miss opportunity, then I say more power to them.

When it comes to the arts, some prefer fantasy, but when it comes to my tax dollars, I prefer a more faithful representation. Until you can show me that there’s a real, existing, sustainable market that can support this level of performing arts on a consistent, ongoing basis, then I’ll take a pass on seeing any shows in the ‘Costner Centre.’

1 thought on “Performing Arts Centre Shouldn’t be Built on a Field of Dreams

  1. rockinonldn

    I may have some of this wrong. My memory is not what it once was but I recall another time when the Grand Theatre was deep into build-it-and-they-will-come-thinking.

    It was just a few decades ago that the artistic folk at the Grand veered onto a repertory company path under the guidance of Robin Phillips of Stratford fame. The London theatre was going to be on par with the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival.

    And Phillips almost delivered the dream. London, Ontario, got coverage in The New York Times and Time magazine. Buses filled with theatre goers arrived from distant places in the States and Ontario.

    Sadly, despite the great press and a solid start, revenue did not continue to soar, fund raising sputtered and the Canadian winter worked against filling seats with tourists. The general manager resigned, folk were laid off and in the end Robin Phillips resigned. I believe the grand plans disintegrated, leaving behind nothing but massive debts and some great memories.

    You raise some good questions. A more complete plan is necessary. It must be demanded. We’ve taken the field-of-dreams approach; We built it and they didn’t come. Some of the best theatre in North America was in London, Ontario, during the Robin Phillips time at the helm but even so the necessary seats could not be filled. I believe one production played to a house less than half-filled.

    We must remember the past as we plan for the future. (I hope you have some luck getting the right people to give you a listen.)


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