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News / Life / Clark County Life

Seeking a unified vision for a new performing arts venue

City, symphony, smaller arts groups dream of place to perform

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 15, 2019, 6:06am
24 Photos
The 150-seat Magenta Theater auditorium on Main Street also doubles as a rental for musicians and dancers desperate to perform someplace in downtown Vancouver. Last year, the nonprofit theater won a grant that helped pay for a lighting upgrade.
The 150-seat Magenta Theater auditorium on Main Street also doubles as a rental for musicians and dancers desperate to perform someplace in downtown Vancouver. Last year, the nonprofit theater won a grant that helped pay for a lighting upgrade. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

The new Vancouver waterfront’s swanky riverside restaurants are great, but you know what would really improve Vancouver’s poor-cousin reputation? A beautiful, $40 million, 1,500-seat center for the arts that rivals anything in Portland.

That’s one long-standing vision of the future of performing arts in Vancouver, championed by local philanthropist Paul Christensen and fellow lovers of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

“We are the third most populous city in the state and we have this amazing orchestra. Our community has reached the point where we’re no longer a drive-through,” said VSO chairwoman Kathy McDonald, Christensen’s spokeswoman for this effort. “We are at the tipping point.”

Vancouver is indeed inching closer to some kind of performing arts facility, but with a more modest — and some argue a much more realistic — approach. The city is studying the possibility of a 600- to 700-seat venue just east of downtown.

Seating capacity at Clark County’s notable venues

Sunlight Supply Amphitheater: 18,000.
Cowlitz Ballroom at ilani: 2,500.
Skyview Concert Hall at Skyview High School: 1,150.
Royal Durst Theater at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics: 549.
Washburn Performing Arts Center at Washougal HS: 394.
Kiggins Theatre: 340.
Magenta Theater: 150.
Love Street Playhouse (Woodland): 79.
The former Old Slocum House Theater in Esther Short Park (closed in 2012): a tight 65.

Caught between the two visions, local performing arts groups have pressed ahead. Some figure all the action is in Portland, and find opportunities and venues down there. Others are building, remodeling and sharing their own small performance spaces to fill the void. Although they’re frustrated, arts groups say they see a glimmer of hope in renewed conversations about a performing arts venue.

“We … have been talking to many groups who are working towards either one large building holding two or three theaters, or several smaller venues with one theater,” said Karen Madsen of nonprofit agency ARTSTRA, formerly Arts of Clark County. “Our community seems very ready to embrace this for the future.”

Premature or late?

The idea of building a prominent arts center in downtown Vancouver has simmered for decades. It was championed by the late state Rep. Val Ogden but stalled a decade ago during the Great Recession.

When the economy and Vancouver waterfront development revved up again, philanthropist Christensen relaunched the effort to bring downtown Vancouver a concert hall with as many as 1,500 seats.

That vision ran smack into the realities of rising land prices. Christensen’s Southwest Washington Center for the Arts website now says the group “had to table” the effort to site a building on the waterfront. Exploratory discussions are still underway, McDonald said, but it remains “premature” to say anything about them now.

Nonetheless, she’s confident there’s both demand and backing for such a center. Clark County’s rapid growth brings a wealthier strata of residents hungry for culture, she said, as well as employers eager to make their philanthropic presence felt.

“We’re attracting the HPs, the SEHs, now even the DiscoverOrgs,” McDonald said. “These high-tech people want high culture.”

The orchestra currently performs in Skyview High School’s 1,150-seat, acoustically sophisticated auditorium. It has been a terrific home for the group, but it’s becoming less ideal all the time, McDonald said.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra misses out on a crucial stream of revenue — alcohol sales — because they are prohibited in the lobby of a public school. And the orchestra is outgrowing the space.

“The symphony is selling out. We are dragging in extra chairs,” she said. “We filled Skyview four times last year.”

Other arts boosters are skeptical about the viability of a grand 1,500-seat concert hall and arts complex right on the waterfront.

“The Christensen group has beautiful plans and I really applaud their vision,” said Barbara Richardson, executive director of Metropolitan Performing Arts theater company. “But I don’t know if something that big is what this community really needs.”

Maureen Montague, a member of Vancouver’s new Culture, Arts and Heritage Commission, also expressed doubts.

“Part of my life’s mission is to advance arts and culture and help them grow in the town I was born and raised in,” Montague said. She’s a veteran of arts nonprofits that have struggled and failed, like the former North Bank co-op art gallery and studio space on Main Street.

“Seeing nonprofits and art businesses displaced from the downtown core has made me incredibly cautious,” Montague said. “Finding the right formula and the right business model is everything.”

Key to that is ensuring the venue serves the whole community, Montague said. “It’s not just for the hifalutin folks who go to symphonies. We are a working-class city of ports and shipyards. It needs to build that kind of community audience.”

Modest, multiuse

The city of Vancouver is pursing the possibility of a venue less than half the size of what Christensen and the orchestra boosters seek.

The city and Vancouver Public Schools have teamed up to plan a new “arts and innovation” elementary school campus where the library administration building sits at Fort Vancouver Way and Mill Plain.

The campus would include a new 600- to 700-seat performing arts venue, in addition to “maker space, studio space, maybe an Exploratorium” in the remodeled, repurposed library building, said Jan Bader, Vancouver’s cultural services manager.

“We’re still at the brainstorming stage,” Bader said. “We want to get all the issues on the table. What size would it be? How would it be configured? What’s the rough magnitude of the cost?”

The city is ready to hire a consultant to conduct a new feasibility study for the project. The study should be finished early next year, Bader said. It could still be a decade or more before actual construction, she added.

Although the city recently budgeted $800,000 across two years for its new arts commission, that money is earmarked for grants and preservation projects.

Any new capital project would require substantially more, Bader said. It would take a blend of gifts and endowments, grants, concessions, ticket sales — and likely a new 5 percent tax on citywide ticket sales.

A new nonprofit organization would have to be launched to build, own and operate the facility, Bader said. Because it would operate separately from the school, lucrative grown-up concessions could be part of the plan, she said.

‘Our own space’

Worsening traffic between here and Portland may prove to be the impetus for finally building a performing arts center in Vancouver.

Andre Bouchard of Vancouver-based Walrus Arts Management worked on a 2016 feasibility analysis for Christensen and his Center for the Arts group. The report found that a new arts facility up here of any size would certainly win over patrons who are increasingly deterred by nearly endless traffic jams to the south.

“With traffic to Portland getting worse and worse, it’s an intuitive choice to build something here,” Bouchard said.

Metropolitan Performing Arts, a Vancouver theater school and company, has been enduring those traffic jams for years. “Spamalot,” the madcap Monty Python musical, is only the latest show that MPA rehearsed up here but performed down there. MPA’s “Spamalot” ran at the Brunish Theater in downtown Portland earlier this year.

“This is our 10th season, and the majority of the community has no idea we are here,” said MPA’s Barbara Richardson.

MPA explored using school auditoriums and found they are expensive — not to mention inconvenient for play preparation. Schools need their auditoriums for daytime uses, so a theater company that’s renting the space still has to vacate during the day.

MPA crunched the numbers and decided to move from a tight Hazel Dell storefront to a bigger suite of rooms on Mill Plain Boulevard where it can stage performances in a central space that can serve as a versatile “black box” theater.

“It’ll be great to have our own space for performances,” Richardson said.

The move doubled MPA’s rent. The group is trying to raise $30,000 to remodel. Richardson believes the winning formula combines grown-up concessions and keeping the place as busy as possible with outside rentals. Richardson even envisions renting out items from the MPA costume shop.

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“You can’t run a theater based on tickets alone,” she said.

Vancouver and Southwest Washington used to boast a rich, diverse, thriving theater scene — until rising rents and other economic realities hollowed it out.

Old Slocum House Theater, Blue Parrot Theater, Vancouver Community Theater, Arts Equity and Serendipity Players are all gone. Magenta Theater is the only company with its own downtown space: a 150-seat auditorium on Main Street that’s also become a popular rental for desperate music and dance performers.

One resurgent local company, Pacific Stageworks, has even resorted to staging plays in an East Vancouver hotel conference room.

“There’s no space for anything” in Vancouver, said company leader Heather Blackthorn. “In Portland, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a theater company.”

As it moves forward, Vancouver must think not just about today’s needs but tomorrow’s too, Bouchard said. A facility that’s built to match current needs only will be quickly outgrown.

“Think of it as a space to grow into,” he said. “Vancouver is growing and evolving, we know that. You don’t build capacity for what you need right now — you build capacity for the future.”