In the suburbs, more - and better - performing arts centers

The Hylton is Northern Virginia's latest contribution to a veritable boom of performing arts centers around the country. The boom is reflected nowhere better than around Washington, which has seen at least eight arts centers open since 2000, including the Music Center at Strathmore. -- Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 10:51 AM

It's 7:30 on a November night in Manassas, and the ticket line is snaking around the foyer of the brand-new Hylton Performing Arts Center and nearly to the door. The box office isn't accustomed to the rush.

It's not just that the center is new. It's that the NOVA Manassas Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble of amateur and student musicians that's performing tonight, has never played to an audience much larger than 500, the seating capacity of Grace United Methodist Church in Manassas, where it has long performed. But tonight, the orchestra is starting its new season in its new home, and the community has turned out in force. More than 800 tickets will be sold, and to accommodate all of the walk-up ticket buyers, the concert will start almost 25 minutes late. It's good practice for the orchestra's second concert of the season, in December, when all 1,121 tickets for the Hylton's Merchant Hall will sell out.

The Hylton is Northern Virginia's latest contribution to a veritable boom of performing arts centers around the country. If the 1970s saw an increase in performing arts organizations, the 1990s and 2000s have seen a notable increase in places built to house them.

The boom is reflected nowhere better than in the Washington area, which - economic crises be cursed - has seen at least eight arts centers open since 2000.

These range from institutions that offer studio as well as performance space to active artists, such as the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, and more conventional ones, such as Strathmore in North Bethesda, whose 1,976-seat Music Center is the best concert hall, acoustically and aesthetically, in the region - including the Kennedy Center.

"People always go back and forth lamenting the decline of Western civilization," says A. Scott Wood, a conductor who leads the Amadeus Orchestra in McLean, the Arlington Philharmonic and a couple of amateur community orchestras. "Then you turn around and see . . . these [new] performing centers. They're not always amazing, but the standard level of what's getting put up there is so much higher than it used to be. Not to run down Constitution Hall, but it's pretty rough, and that used to be the best thing going."

Here's what's striking about these new performing arts centers: They aren't in the city.

Performing arts centers have been viewed as a way to revitalize downtowns at least since the 1960s, when the then-new Lincoln Center sparked the conversion of a seedy area of New York City into some of the most desirable real estate in Manhattan, and Los Angeles opened its Music Center in the heart of downtown.

But not everyone wants to drive into the city for art. And the rhetoric about the arts being an essential adornment to make communities attractive to prospective residents, propagated by city fathers during fundraising for these projects, has sunk in: Communities outside urban centers want a piece of the action.

So, although Washington is certainly not lacking in spiffy new performing arts temples downtown (see Harman Hall and the new Arena Stage), most of its new ones - such as Hylton, Strathmore and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center in College Park - are in the suburbs.

There are practical reasons: Land is cheaper, parking easier, facilities more readily available (some centers, such as the Workhouse Arts Center and Arlington's new Artisphere, are conversions of existing buildings). But these centers also reflect a shift in what people want from the performing arts: more hands-on participation, less formality, more availability and accessibility, less expense, more responsiveness to the needs of the community.

As the gravitational pull of traditional forms of performing arts grows weaker, meaning that people are less eager to travel a distance to spend a few hundred dollars to see a concert or play, regional centers may be the wave of the future.

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