Arts Desk

Arts Commission Puts Lincoln Theatre Up for Lease

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has abandoned its search for a licensee for the Lincoln Theatre, opting instead to lease the historic venue to a qualified commercial or nonprofit entity. The Washington Business Journal reports that the arts commission's request for proposals didn't "generate quality responses."

That makes sense, because when I asked DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas for an update on the search for a licensee in late November, he said the commission was still in the midst of the Request for Proposals process. The original plan was to have someone in place by Dec. 15, or this Saturday. That, obviously, did not happen. What went wrong?

Well, the commission's original search established some terms that may have scared off qualified operators. For starters, the licensee would have only gotten to occupy the theater one year at a time, with four one-year options. Also, under the old RFP, the licensee would have been asked to maintain a "close working relationship" with the District. It sounds like that would have gotten old fast: The operator would have been roped into mandatory quarterly meetings and annual reviews that looked at ticket sales, event scheduling, and ticket pricing. Sure, it's important for the District to make sure the Lincoln is being run efficiently—especially given its record of mismanagement—but many promoters probably would have gotten a whiff of that and turned on their heels.

Now, the commission has decided to go with a lease, and it's stretched the term of occupancy to five to 10 years with one five-year renewal option. Oversight is more relaxed under this new arrangement, too. "We would still build in evaluations," Thomas writes in an email, but "we want to allow the entity a certain amount of artistic freedom."

Thomas says this latest search "has extended the terms and time period to attract a broader group of offerors, which would look more favorably at a longer term investment opportunity. We also want to clearly define that commercial entities are welcome." He adds, "We learned a lot from the previous search, which informed the search this time."

According to the city's request for LOI (Letters of Intent) to Lease, it's now searching for an operator with at least 10 years experience successfully running a 400-plus seat theater. Letters are due Jan. 18. Read the request on the Department of General Services' website.

This is the latest phase in the city's ongoing attempt to jumpstart the opulent but underused Lincoln Theatre, which it owns. The dysfunctional nonprofit U Street Theatre Foundation ran the venue until Jan. 1, 2012, when DCCAH took the reins; since then, the arts commission, with the theater's general manager, has managed to book occasional public events at the space—including a run of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—but for the most part, the "Jewel on U" has remained as dormant as it was before.

If the city can't find a qualified renter, the Business Journal's Michael Neibauer raises the alternate possibility of selling the place. To that, I say, remember: Blues Alley owner Harry Schnipper wanted to buy the Lincoln Theatre in 2011.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass used under a creative commons license.

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