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.
Strathmore makes a better case study than the Hylton, simply because it has been presenting longer. Now in its sixth season, it is a model for both the advantages and disadvantages of presenting outside city limits.
“The suburban location was both an asset and a challenge,” says Monica Jeffries Hazangeles, who took over in the fall as Strathmore’s president but has worked at the center for 16 years.
Proximity to Washington was considered an advantage. Yet despite Strathmore’s location at a Metro station, the audience remains predominantly local, largely from Montgomery County.
Strathmore isn’t alone in this. The Hylton center, at the Manassas campus of George Mason University, might seem redundant given that GMU’s performing arts center at its Fairfax campus is only 20 miles away. Yet, “only 1 percent of subscribers to the Fairfax campus came from Prince William County,” says Jean Kellogg, the Hylton Center’s executive director.
The old paradigm has shifted: Today, the arts have to come to the audience rather than the other way round.
A local audience has its own tastes. What plays in a metropolitan area may not have the same appeal in the suburbs. The Washington Performing Arts Society has worked for years to develop an audience, and that audience is willing to travel to Strathmore to hear, for instance, Joshua Bell, who is playing there Jan. 26. “Our audience members are artist-driven,” says the society’s president, Neale Perl. But Strathmore’s own audience is another matter. When Strathmore presented soprano Dawn Upshaw in 2009, there were only a few hundred people in the large hall — something decidedly not the case when she has sung in Washington. “We learned it was a relatively narrow-based audience,” Hazangeles says. “Focusing on that high end of performer was new to us.”
Urban audiences tacitly understand that there are different venues for different kinds of performances: classical artists at Kennedy Center, big pop concerts at Verizon Center. These distinctions are less clear to a suburban audience that wants artists it recognizes at its local center. When Strathmore’s 2009-10 season was announced in The Washington Post, commenters bemoaned the lack of rock-and-roll on the program; why, one commenter asked, couldn’t they get a show by Elvis Costello?
The Hylton has encountered the same phenomenon. “The Nissan Pavilion is down the road, with 20,000 seats,” says Kellogg, so audiences are used to big pop shows. “ ‘Why don’t you bring them to the Hylton?’ ” they say. “We have to keep telling them, ‘This is a 1,100-seat house — how much do you want to pay for tickets?’ Or, ‘Great! Do you want to sponsor it?’ ”
The economics of a big touring road show are beyond the reach of a small performing arts center. Strathmore does present acts such as Kris Kristofferson, Patti LaBelle and Johnny Mathis — all appeared or are appearing there this season, and all have sold well.
Strathmore’s small size does allow for unconventional approaches. Traditionally, performing arts centers set their schedules well in advance to sell subscriptions and gauge interest. Strathmore just eliminated subscriptions altogether, which approaches heresy to presenters.
These days, subscriptions are plummeting in virtually every art form, and single-ticket sales are rising. Audiences don’t want to commit to events long in advance. Strathmore’s experiment has borne this out: Its ticket sales have soared, said Shelley Brown, vice president for programming. And because there is no subscription plan, nobody minds if the center adds last-minute concerts — which has helped Brown enhance this year’s ongoing guitar festival, since a lot of the artists she’s booking aren’t used to scheduling long in advance, either.
Strathmore has also been thoughtful about its community role. For the hall’s fifth anniversary last season, it offered one local group a chance to perform for one night at Strathmore. Brown says part of the motivation was, “Let’s see what people come up with. I was hopeful that it would be a big breath of fresh air and someone would see a use of the place that I hadn’t even thought of.”
What happened, though, was that dozens of local organizations came up with polished, professional but perhaps conventional proposals. The prize was so alluring — renting the hall and publicizing the event as Strathmore does would cost about $27,000 — that groups stuck to the hall’s conventional uses.
“The costs associated with a venue like this are so prohibitive,” Brown said, “that people wanted it much more than I had imagined.” (The winner, the American Balalaika Symphony, performed at Strathmore last January.)
This story highlights a challenge for suburban halls. They may be built for the community, but can the community afford them? Even the relatively modest fees at the Hylton Center are exorbitant for local performing arts groups that have been, in Kellogg’s words, “performing in a church, doing virtually everything themselves.” To perform at the Hylton, she said, “most of them are tripling their rental costs.”
At the moment, “they’re still coming out ahead,” because of the influx of people interested in seeing the new hall. Audience interest, though, often ebbs in the second season.
And these local groups will face new competition from professional groups lured out by the prospect of new audiences and rental fees much lower than those in the city. The Fairfax Symphony and Virginia Symphony are appearing at the Hylton this year; Opera Lafayette, which regularly appears at the Kennedy Center, is trying out a preview performance of its next production, Gretry’s “Le Magnifique,” at the Hylton on Feb. 4.
A larger question is what kind of service such centers provide to the community. Performing arts centers are slightly like museums; they represent the institutionalization of the arts. In taking a geographical step away from familiar urban settings and redefining the location of “culture,” suburban centers are doing a signal service; but the real measure of their value lies in their individual curatorial abilities. Some centers, such as the Workhouse Center or the polymathic Artisphere, are mainly focused on providing space where artists can work. Others, such as the Hylton, have taken on a missionary function, educating an audience unfamiliar with live performance.
But is every local organization ready to become an institution? A new performing arts center can certainly transform one. The Montgomery Chamber Orchestra got a huge boost when it became a resident company at the new Strathmore; it’s now the National Philharmonic, giving about 35 concerts a season, about seven times more than any of its competitors.
The start of the NOVA Manassas Symphony’s season indicates a similar turn for the better. But this community orchestra doesn’t have any great ambitions to compete with the pros.
“Because it’s a volunteer group, we’re pretty much set on what we do,” says Andy Loerch, bassoonist and chair of its publicity committee. “It’s not like we’re going to add a lot of concerts, because [the players] don’t have time.”
Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.