Why Huffington Post Is Wrong About the Lincoln Theatre
Huffington Post D.C. contributors have not quite wrapped their heads around the Lincoln Theatre.
Recently, DC Advocates for the Arts chair Robert Bettmann beat a familiar drum on the issue of the theater's still unsolved fiscal crisis: Throw more public money at it. Last week, Eli Lehrer, a vice president of the libertarian think tank Heartland Institute, countered that the Lincoln should be dumped because it's not "culturally notable."
Both Bettmann and Lehrer are wrong. The Lincoln Theatre should not be propped up indefinitely, nor should it be abandoned. Lincoln has hosted strong programming recently, including two Arena Stage seasons, an NEA Jazz Masters concert, the go-go awards, and a two-day Indian arts festival. But promoters I spoke to said it desperately lacks a competitive edge.
Mayor Vince Gray was right when he called the Lincoln's business model "not sustainable." In FY 2009, the Lincoln didn't pull in enough to cover its payroll. The theater was dark for more than half of 2010. Lack of programming revenues has left the theater's board scrambling, evidenced by its recent, unfulfilled request for a $500,000 emergency cash infusion. Fortunately, changes may soon come to the U Street Theatre Foundation, the 501(c)(3) that operates Lincoln Theatre. Victor L. Hoskins, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, is supposedly coming up with a plan to restructure the theater's governance and operations. Those negotiations began more than two weeks ago. (Hoskins did not return my requests for an update.)
But in his HuffPo piece, Bettmann sidesteps any discussion of restructuring in favor of a guilt-trippy plea for public cash. The District has invested millions in new arts infrastructure, but it should cover basic operating expenses, too, he says. Why? Arts venues like Lincoln can't weather the crunch on nonprofits and an increase in competition:
Rental revenues are a critical component of budgets for the majority of theater venues, and with more available venues there has been increased competition for a shrinking number of rentals. The general recession has reduced the ability of outside non-profits to rent theater space. The Lincoln and other theaters are suffering from a Trickle-Up Effect of reduced earned revenue.
OK sure, nonprofits are hurting, and that probably does have an impact on some rentals. Until two years ago, the city awarded Lincoln a subsidy that would allow the theater to cut a better deal for nonprofits. Rahim Muhammad, chief instructor at the Hung Tao Choy Mei Kung Fu Academy on U Street NW, told me that he got a "slight" discount when he hosted fundraisers at the theater. No more.
But nonprofits are not the only entities who rent venues in this town. What about private promoters, like IMP, which co-hosted a Civil Wars concert there yesterday? Some of them think the Lincoln is too expensive to rent. In a public tweet she declined to elaborate on, Live Nation talent buyer Stacie George said of the Lincoln: "I tried so many times to do shows there. Most expensive theatre in all of D.C." Birchmere promoter Michael Jaworek agrees that Lincoln's price is high for its seat count (around 1,200). "It's smaller and not significantly less expensive in the marketplace," he says, which is part of what renders it "not financially competitive to entice promoters and artists' reps and artists to perform there versus other alternatives." Lincoln's one-day base rental fee is $3,450, on top of a combination of other fees that cover staffing, cleanup, and technical services, among other costs. Lincoln's general manager Darlene Brown says a single event generally costs $7,500 and above. (The 1676-seat National Theatre, by comparison, charges a rental fee of $5,000 per night, and its labor expenses are higher than Lincoln's—stagehands at National are unionized under IATSE Local 22.)
For highbrow promoters, that rate might be pretty doable. Debra Harrison, CFO of the Washington Performing Arts Society—which booked Esperanza Spalding at the Lincoln last year—told me it's "viable." She doesn't recall the crew being that expensive, either. Compare $7,500 to the Kennedy Center's astronomical rates, and the Lincoln starts to look pretty good.
What complicates matters is Lincoln's lack of a robust promotional strategy. Without marketing chutzpah, says Jaworek, the Lincoln is not able to even "minimally compete with the strongly entrenched promoters and other theaters that are funded in the marketplace." The Lincoln Theatre employed a marketing staffer as recently as 2010; when she left, she was not replaced. To make matters worse, wealthy arts patrons still view U Street NW as a scary, crime-ridden place. "It has an old reputation of being in a tough neighborhood where people don't want to go," says Harrison. She calls Lincoln Theatre one of D.C.'s "best-kept secrets." For an attractive venue located right in the center of a bustling entertainment district, that is pathetic.
Public money alone can't solve that problem. But new management and a strong public relations strategy could help.
Photo by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass used under a creative commons license.