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The cultural committee report of Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) recommends investment in the arts as a means to restore and build the local economy. Stages Left? While City Hall dawdles over the future of New Orleans' performing arts center, local cultural institutions make do with temporary homes. By Will Coviello On the last day of French Quarter Festival, Wynton Marsalis and Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy led a second-line parade from the Back Street Cultural Museum in Treme to Armstrong Park, where they premiered their joint composition, "Congo Square."

The piece opened with a tambourine and Marsalis singing a call-and-response introduction, much of it evoking Katrina, FEMA and people left behind in flooded New Orleans. It then segued into Mardi Gras Indian beats before exploding into polyrhythmic drumming from Addy's group, followed by a duet between the stage's two hemispheres, seamlessly melding jazz solos and Ghanian drums, chants and ballads in a venue that is a touchstone for both genres.

Just days before Katrina hit New Orleans, Marsalis had announced plans to debut the piece in Congo Square, but his dedication to doing so took on more meaning as the city rebuilt. As a member of Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, Marsalis became an active and vocal advocate for the arts in New Orleans. It added another layer of relevance to the Square's significance as a historic site and a place of rebirth.

The rousing performance sent a heartening message of rejuvenation. But it may be the last fine arts performance in Armstrong Park for years to come.

Both the Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts are shuttered -- and the city has terminated its contract with the national company that managed both facilities.

Both buildings were severely damaged by the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Beyond pumping out flooded basements and removing soaked carpet and water-damaged debris -- all paid for with FEMA funds and completed by early December -- nothing much has happened in either building, and neither is currently being restored.

Matters of damage assessments, applications for additional FEMA funds and the beginning of the city's bidding process have dragged on for months. Without electricity (and the dehumidifying effects of air conditioning), both city properties will continue to deteriorate through the hot summer.

The Mahalia Jackson Theatre had been home to the New Orleans Opera Association, the New Orleans Ballet Association and several larger galas and concerts staged annually by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The groups all delayed and adjusted their 2005-06 seasons after Katrina by using other available spaces. They also have planned their 2006-07 seasons accordingly. But as they begin the planning process for the following season (2007-08), no one knows if the Mahalia will be available -- even by the end of that season. One estimate puts repairs on an 18-month schedule, but no one knows when repairs will commence.

The Mahalia Jackson Theatre offers the best hope for bringing back local fine arts organizations, both in terms of its suitability and available funding. Most local theaters aren't large enough to support opera productions, don't have appropriate floors for ballet or modern dance and don't have seating capacity to support adequate ticket revenue. The Mahalia has all of that.

Consolidating cultural venues in the theater is attractive also because FEMA is a ready source of funding for needed repairs. If FEMA agrees with the scope of work listed on a "project worksheet" (the formal paperwork required before FEMA agrees to fund a project), the agency will reimburse 90 percent of the costs of repairing the theater. The city only needs to produce the other 10 percent.

Just days into Nagin's second term, city officials and Strategic Hotels & Resorts, which owns the damaged New Orleans Hyatt Regency, announced plans for the development of a National Jazz Center to be built between a renovated Hyatt Regency Hotel and a new City Hall and court complex along Loyola avenue. The jazz center plans have costs already estimated at more than $715 million, derived from various private and public sources. Strategic Hotels is putting up much of the start-up funding for the project, which is expected to include a large performing arts theater.

While there is great enthusiasm for the jazz center project, the city took six months after initial FEMA-funded remediation work to scrape together just $1.1 million for repairs to the Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia in Armstrong Park. The City Council approved the funds on June 8.

Even after approving that expenditure, the city's course of action is unclear. Fine arts organizations say they are getting mixed messages from City Hall and little indication of what kind of long-term support City Hall will offer them.

"The issue is not do they have the money," says former District C Councilmember Jackie Clarkson, a longtime arts advocate. "It's will they do anything."

LIKE MANY NEW ORLEANS BANDS, THE Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) has toured the nation since Katrina. Though the musician-owned orchestra doesn't normally travel much beyond the River Parishes for annual plantation concerts, it has played venues from California to Nashville to New York City in the last year. It even played with the New York Philharmonic in a side-by-side concert in the Big Apple.

"The rest of the country has stepped up -- in the music world -- in many, many ways," says LPO managing director Babs Mollere. "It was very affirming to us."

Since the storm, the LPO has seen an outpouring of support, which has included money from more than 60 orchestras, grants from the Mellon Foundation and help from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The LPO has retained its entire 66-musician roster, and individually the musicians have played with 58 other orchestras around the country in the last year.

The symphony's 2005-06 season opened in October in Nashville, and it was able to return to New Orleans for a 12-week season and joint performances with the opera and ballet. Locally, they used theaters at Tulane, Loyola and the First Baptist Church on Canal Boulevard. They've planned their current season for the same venues, plus several shows at the Morial Convention Center. With reduced administrative staff, operations are gradually returning to normal, and planning is under way for the 2007-08 season.

Being flexible allowed the LPO to negotiate the last season successfully, but eventually the storm-related disruptions will become more than a distraction. From the LPO's new 21st floor administrative offices on Common Street, Mollere can gaze down upon the orchestra's former home at the Orpheum Theatre, which was severely damaged by floodwater during Katrina. Today the Orpheum is for sale, but it sustained so much damage that no one knows if buyers are even interested -- or how long it could take to reopen under new ownership. The building had water up to its stage and has not been gutted. Finding a new home is vital to the LPO's long-term stability.

"There are practical things," Mollere says. "Orchestras sell seats to people. Now we have pews [at the First Baptist Church]. We had to go to general admission. Next year we will go to seating them by sections."

Adjusting to new theaters is not easy, and it will eventually wear on their musicians. Moreover, ticket buyers at some point will expect more than just putting on a production in post-Katrina New Orleans. "People -- musicians and patrons -- have been enormously loyal," Molliere says. "But we don't want to think about that too far out."

The LPO has been fortunate that its orchestra is fairly portable. The opera and ballet face greater constraints. Opera productions require a large stage and wings offstage. Only the Mahalia Jackson Theatre has proper dimensions. The New Orleans Ballet Association, which brings in top dance companies from around the country, needs properly sprung floors to attract professional companies. Professional dancers won't perform on concrete stages. Wood floors need to be sprung in a particular way to meet ballet standards.

Stage size also matters. The Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet had originally been scheduled to do a special presentation of Romeo & Juliet on Mahalia's 50-foot-deep stage this past season. With special sets and a large troupe, it would have been the largest production in the New Orleans dance association's history. Joffrey rescheduled its performance after Katrina, but the original production had to be scrapped for a new presentation of several shorter pieces created for Dixon Hall's 23-foot stage on Tulane University's campus. The original performance also was to have been accompanied by the LPO, but a pared-down orchestra had to be used to accommodate the smaller space at Dixon. Joffrey's performance was remarkable, but the changes wrought by Katrina show how the ballet association is constrained in scheduling top dance companies when it can't stage their productions.

Nationally, other than dance festivals, there are very few organizations like the New Orleans Ballet Association that schedule the major national or international touring companies. Those companies have a strong interest in being able to come to a market like New Orleans. The dance association has made the most of things and has staged successful productions in the theaters they have used during the past season, but all local arts organizations want to know whether their future is about just getting by or returning to full-scale, major productions.

"The Mahalia Jackson Theatre is built for the performing arts," says ballet association executive director Jenny Hamilton. "It's wonderful. It has a big orchestra pit, good acoustics, wing space -- it opens up the possibilities of what you can present."

All of which fuels interest in restoring the venue.

"We want to do what we are capable of," says Mollere. "We played side-by-side with the New York Philharmonic. We are capable of that. We don't want to do it just in New York. We want to do it in New Orleans. This can be world class."

GIVEN NEW ORLEANS' CURRENT CHALL- enges, fine arts may not be the highest priority. Shortages of housing, police, courtrooms and hospitals top the list of most pressing basic needs. The arts are one more concern in a field of many.

Fortunately, others have expressed a willingness to take the lead in restoring the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, but the city has turned a cold shoulder to such overtures -- leaving many unanswered questions about City Hall's ability, or desire, to respond to outside initiatives or to help provide for the performing arts.

Prior to and immediately after Katrina, both the Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theatre were managed by SMG, which also manages the Superdome, the New Orleans Arena, the Pontchartrain Center and many other facilities nationwide.

The storm flooded the basements and damaged the roofs at both the auditorium and the Mahalia. All of the auditorium's mechanical and electrical systems were located in the building's basement and thus were destroyed in the flood. The theater faired better because its electrical and air-conditioning systems are mostly located on a platform behind the facility.

In early fall, arts organizations started to ask when the theater would be reopened. In October, the city brought in a Shaw Group subcontractor to do initial remediation, says Doug Thornton, regional vice-president of SMG. The work was paid for in full by FEMA and completed in early December.

"It's the equivalent of gutting your house," Thornton says. "You pull out all of the damaged materials that could promote mold growth."

From when the buildings were gutted through early January, nothing happened. Then-District C Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, whose district includes the buildings, started to push to get repairs under way. She organized a meeting in her office on Jan. 20 with the opera association's Ted Martin, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cynthia Sylvain-Lear and Thornton via telephone. One of the issues addressed at the meeting was finding funding to restore the buildings.

To obtain FEMA funds to restore a building such as the Mahalia, applicants and FEMA project managers must file a "project worksheet" (PW) setting forth the scope of work to be done. The PW then is evaluated not on cost but on the necessity of listed repairs. If FEMA agrees with the scope of work, it will fund 90 percent of the restoration costs, whatever they might be. The applicant must put up the other 10 percent.

Knowing the city was strapped for cash, Thornton raised the possibility of SMG paying the 10 percent match. Thornton proposed an extension of SMG's management contract, giving it the opportunity to earn back the money. The city wasn't interested. The group made a list of items they needed to investigate relevant start the repair process, and agreed to a second meeting with all major players.

Prior to the second meeting, Thornton says he was notified by Sylvain-Lear that the city was terminating SMG's contract. Though he wouldn't receive the letter until after the second meeting, Sylvain-Lear suggested that SMG come to the meeting anyway, he says.

Held on Jan. 27 at City Hall, the second meeting included Clarkson, Thornton, Martin, Sylvain-Lear, representatives from FEMA and the city attorney's office. It also included an electrical contractor who told the group that power could be restored in the Mahalia both quickly and relatively cheaply. Thornton thought they had the means to get back on track.

"Once you turn the power on, you can determine what works and what needs to be done," Thornton says. "At the Superdome, we didn't know how badly the air-conditioning and the mechanical systems were damaged. So we had to test."

"The electrician advised that we could re-route panels to restore air-conditioning for $35,000. We had the money in our budget. We offered to take it out of the operating account for the facility to restore HVAC to operation," Thornton says. "The significance is that all the remediation had been done but the building had been empty for 60 days. So we figured with air conditioning and lighting, we could determine the scope of repairs."

SMG wanted to turn the power on in order to assess damages to the Mahalia's systems, such as the stage lights, curtains, fire alarms and air conditioning. Their proposal would have used money already in the Mahalia's operating account to pay for electricity to be restored. The city declined, Thornton says, allegedly because it did not want to do any repairs unless it could complete all repairs.

Opera treasurer Ted Martin suggested having the opera put up money to restore electricity to the building, with repayment to be worked out in the organization's future rental of the space. That idea also was rebuffed as a loan the city could not accept.

At the meeting, the city produced a two-page list of capital improvements and preliminary estimates for the auditorium (at a minimum of $7.5 million) and the Mahalia (at $3.5 million), Thornton says. Some of those items were part of capital improvements that were under way at the Mahalia when Katrina hit, and FEMA generally pays only to restore buildings to their pre-storm condition, not to upgrade them. Prior to Katrina, for example, lifts for the orchestra pit had not been functioning and the theater's roof already leaked, says Jerome Sherk, production director for the opera association.

Because the auditorium's storm-related damages were more extensive, Thornton focused on the Mahalia. He reviewed the city's list a second time to see what needed to be done to open the theater on a provisional basis. He estimated that performances could resume within 120 days, but without the lifts for the orchestra pit, without carpet being replaced and without replacing the fire-alarm system, he says. Even without a fire-alarm system, the building could operate under a "fire watch," which requires the presence of a fire marshal during performances. Other buildings in the area, including the Pontchartrain Center, currently hold events under similar provisions -- but the city wasn't interested in a partial renovation, he says.

The city rejected all such proposals, both Thornton and Clarkson say. City officials were just not interested in a partial renovation and said they could not undertake a project without having the means to complete it. "We walked away feeling very frustrated," Thornton says. "There seemed to be roadblocks everywhere we turned."

Thornton soon received the letter from the city terminating SMG's contract after March 31. The city said that SMG's services were no longer necessary because the buildings were not being used. There was no mention of SMG's efforts or offers to get the Mahalia reopened.

Thornton pressed for another meeting with city officials, at which he offered to work for no fee until the buildings were restored, but the city refused to reverse its cancellation of the management contract.

Since January, the city has made no visible progress on either the auditorium or the Mahalia. On April 21, Clarkson sent a letter to Sylvain-Lear stating that all progress on the theater stopped when the city cancelled the contract with SMG. Clarkson requested an update on the city's plans for the buildings, but she never received one. She later was defeated in her bid for an at-large seat on the City Council.

City officials have since told ballet and LPO management that the Mahalia is a priority and that plans are moving forward. A FEMA spokesman confirmed receipt of a project worksheet for the Mahalia on May 15 with a $3.6 million price tag. FEMA also has confirmed 10 smaller project worksheets for work in and around both buildings, dating back to the initial remediation requests. FEMA still has not received a project worksheet for repairs to the Municipal Auditorium, but last week city officials notified FEMA of plans to again pump water out of the basement, a FEMA spokesman says. Meanwhile, the city and all other FEMA applicants faced a June 30 deadline for filing requests for Katrina-related building repairs at the 90 percent level. FEMA may consider a late application in the case of severe damages delaying completion of the worksheet's scope of work.

District A Council member Shelley Midura says the $3.6 million figure is an estimate of what's needed to restore the theater to the condition it was in before the storm. She says the city also expects repairs to take 18 months.

For more than three weeks, Gambit Weekly made repeated phone calls to Sylvain-Lear's office and to the mayor's communications office seeking comment on the status of the buildings. Lear responded with a single email dated June 15 stating that the buildings had suffered roof, mechanical, electrical and plumbing damage and were remediated in November 2005. The email also reported that the June 8 City Council meeting had resulted in allocation of funds to begin work at both buildings. It states, "Now that funding is in place, we intend to move quickly to select consultants, and design and prepare bid documents to initiate repairs."

WHILE THE CITY WORKS ON THE BUILDings, SMG is overseeing repairs at the Superdome, where project costs total $134 million. The dome and the New Orleans Arena are owned by the state, and Thornton went to Baton Rouge early with a recovery plan. Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed an executive order making repairs to both buildings a top state priority. The Legislature agreed and authorized restructuring $196 million in existing debt and issuing $65 million in new debt to finance the repairs.

"It all started with a meeting in the governor's office," Thornton says. "Our feeling is, 'We will find a way or make a way.' There are always going to be obstacles -- contractual obstacles, funding obstacles, legislative obstacles."

The Superdome is slated to reopen on Sept. 25 for a nationally televised Monday night football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. The building's condition will speak volumes about the state's rebuilding efforts. It will either mark an impressive rebirth of a facility once associated with the worst effects of Katrina or underscore the state's inability to cope with the storm's aftermath. Thornton is banking on the former.

New Orleans -- and by extension the Nagin Administration -- will be judged on the city's readiness to host NFL visitors and others, and by its overall appearance a year after Katrina. Among the tell-tale signs of recovery -- or stagnation -- will be whether the proposed National Jazz Center gets off the ground and what happens to the rest of the city's cultural landscape. That's another reason why arts and cultural organizations worry about the future of the auditorium and the Mahalia.

The Municipal Auditorium opened in 1930. One of the reasons it was built, says John Magill, head of research at the Historic New Orleans Collections, was to replace the French Opera House, which burned to the ground in 1919. The auditorium was part of a planned municipal complex that was intended to fill much of what is now Armstrong Park as well as extending along Basin Street. But when the Great Depression set in, plans for the rest of the project were scrapped. The Mahalia was built in the 1970s as a larger and more modern complement to the auditorium.

Over the years, the city has made the most of both buildings. The Municipal Auditorium has been home to dozens of Mardi Gras balls. It has also hosted New Orleans Brass hockey games -- back when Nagin was an investor in the team. The park has hosted high school graduations, dance recitals, mayoral inaugurations and many other community events.

And it's been the city's primary home for the performing arts.

Not having it "would be like New York without Lincoln Center," Clarkson says. "How important is that? To the oldest cultural center in America?"

Long before jazz was born, there was opera in New Orleans. The earliest opera for which records remain was a performance of Sylvain in 1796. But the fine arts aren't a preservationist project. They're living cultural and economic institutions that bring jobs and cultural tourists to New Orleans.

The cultural committee report of Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) recommends investment in the arts as a means to restore and build the local economy. The report cites several studies showing that investments in the nonprofit cultural sector leverage many times the return and are well worth the money.

In 2003, the city and state invested $2 million in the Arts Council of New Orleans. A study by Americans for the Arts found that the investment brought $45.5 million in spending by arts organizations with a total economic impact of $300 million. The BNOB report shows that San Francisco invested $56 million in the arts and realized $706 million from cultural organizations and visitors. Results have been similar in Canada and Europe.

In this case, a supporting role may be the most important part that City Hall could play in New Orleans' artistic and cultural rebirth. For now, though, just turning on the house lights has become a big production.

click to enlarge The Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts has - been empty since Hurricane Katrina flooded it, and six - months after being pumped out, the city still has not - started repairs. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts has been empty since Hurricane Katrina flooded it, and six months after being pumped out, the city still has not started repairs.
click to enlarge cover_story-13734.jpeg
click to enlarge cover_story-13734.jpeg
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