Is the PAC on the right track?
August 28, 2008 · Updated 5:49 PM
Arlington's beautiful performing arts center will not only provide students with a window to the arts, but will also serve the community in countless ways from education and entertainment to boosting revenues for local restaurants and retailers.
That's what the City of Arlington envisioned when it bought a partnership with the Arlington School District in 2004. The $500,000 taxpayer buy-in included a caveat of sorts, a stated goal for the theater to someday become self-sustainable.
It was surprising to find the $6.5 million Byrnes Performing Arts Center missing from a recent story on Snohomish County's booming arts and entertainment scene and it's venues' spring schedules. Surprising, however, until one considers that 10 months after the Center's opening, there are still area residents who aren't aware of a theater in town. Some others have forgotten its existence.
A possible reason for this ignorance is that, with few exceptions (most notably a great December series of holiday entertainment) the PAC has offered few non-school related events and more importantly few events the average Arlingtonian wants to see.
Why has the Byrnes Center been so slow out of the gate, so to speak? The first answer would be because successfully managing a civic arts center is a very difficult, very complicated proposition that takes time; it's a full-time profession.
Last year, the city volunteered to pay the marketing director's part-time, $36,000-plus-commission salary; it then tapped one of the people responsible for the center's fundraising success for the job. As chair of the Arts Alive! committee, Cindy Huleatt coordinated an award-worthy effort, helping to raise $2.5 million toward construction costs; with a long history of volunteerism in the school district, she maintains a close relationship with Superintendent Byrnes and other prominent members of the community.
While Huleatt brings charisma and charm to the job, she did not bring a Rolodex of entertainment contacts which comes in handy when trying to cobble together a fledgling theater's first season, while simultaneously booking acts a year or more in advance.
Are next year's performers being booked? If Huleatt attended the annual Northwest Booking Conference in Tacoma last October a crucial opportunity to learn, network and promote she didn't present her experiences to the city.
Which leads to the topic of oversight and accountability: there doesn't seem to be any. The Center is guided by an advisory commission that meets not every other week, not once a month, but four times a year. Formed in 2007, the commission's membership has apparently been limited to those directly involved in the center's fundraising, as well as ambassadors from the City Council and city-related committees. The school district, including Deputy Superintendent Warren Hopkins and board member Dr. Jeff Huleatt, naturally maintains a significant presence on this commission.
This advisory group has not yet established an operating budget, a business plan, or even a complete mission statement. It's responsibilities and authority remain vague, even to it's own members. It's only compelling act is to create a rental fee structure that some have found to be prohibitive toward local performers. For some reason, the Center apparently prefers to be rented, rather than directly book events which is akin to tying one hand behind the back. Also, the theater's operation inexplicably lacks non-profit status.
Music is also apparently an issue. More specifically, country and rock 'n' roll. "Electric" adult contemporary bands have challenges performing here, because the understandably acoustic-focused theater lacks some equipment necessary for such shows; additional microphones, monitors, etc. would have to be rented at the act's expense. And the performer would be required to have liability insurance, as the PAC is only insured for school-related functions.
Thankfully, the generous Boulton family recently stepped up to the plate, co-sponsoring Elvis' arrival at the theater in March. But other rock, pop or country concerts generally the biggest money-maker for PACs will be scarce unless policies and perhaps attitudes, change.
As the Center approaches its one year anniversary, it seems that a top-to-bottom evaluation of its affairs and approach are in order. An examination of how a comparable theater has met similar challenges might be helpful.
A former reporter for The Arlington Times, Steve Stav moved to Arlington in 2004 with his wife who grew up here. He resigned from The Times to continue freelancing for magazines and Web sites. Stav started his writing profession in Seattle in 1998, reviewing music for various Seattle publications, including three years at the Rocket. Stav arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Minneapolis in 1976 at age 8. He lived in California twice before settling in the Pacific Northwest.