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The Smith Center: A home for the arts --our arts

Smith Center

You’d be hard-pressed to find a soul in Las Vegas who isn’t happy about this month’s opening of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. But few are happier than members of the center’s two resident companies, the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre.

“We have great plans for the philharmonic, and The Smith Center is the catalyst to accomplish those plans,” says Jeri Crawford, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Beth Barbre, executive director and CEO of Nevada Ballet Theatre, says, “This puts us on the map, nationally.”

Being a resident company isn’t exactly what the name implies; the ballet and orchestra haven’t picked up and moved — tutus and trombones in tow — into the new facility that anchors Symphony Park. Nevertheless, the arrangement will require the same delicate give-and-take that keeps any cohabitation harmonious. And after the honeymoon of their hype-filled 2012 half-season is over, the hard work of living happily ever after begins.

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Falling in love

If being a resident company doesn’t mean residing physically in the center, what does it mean? It usually means an arts group is based in the same town where a venue is located, and that the group performs in the venue when it performs locally.

“The majority of what we do, unless it’s strictly contract work, which takes us to different locations, will all be done at The Smith Center,” Crawford says. “We’ll be performing there almost monthly.”

Neither the philharmonic nor the ballet has offices, or permanent dressing rooms or lockers, at The Smith Center, but during periods of daily rehearsals for upcoming shows, artists can leave belongings in lockers overnight so they don’t have to haul them back and forth from home. And the organizations can use the facility for rehearsing, meeting donors and subscribers, and doing educational events and other community outreach.


Having a direct line to the community distinguishes resident companies from the large touring acts that will appear at the center. James Canfield, artistic director for the Nevada Ballet Theatre, says being a resident company means “the artists live in the community, and they make and perform the art in the institution for the community.”

Both the ballet, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in May, and the philharmonic, which will begin its 15th season this fall, have deep community ties. Their dancers and musicians perform for school kids and attend cultural events such as First Friday, creating a human connection with the public that constitutes the center’s audience. Of course, lots of local troupes do that, but to be chosen as a resident company in a world-class performing arts facility requires more than just being sur place and having fans.

Nancy Houssels, who is on the boards of both the Nevada Ballet Theatre and The Smith Center, says the role of resident companies was part of ongoing discussions during the center’s development.

“I think it evolved more into (asking) who were the professional companies in Las Vegas that had regular performances, contracts with their artists and a seat-full season,” Houssels says, “and the Nevada Ballet Theatre and Las Vegas Philharmonic met those criteria. It was sort of a graceful evolution of choosing. Their residency became part of the plan.”

By the time Barbre took her position at Nevada Ballet Theatre in 2006, she says, residency at The Smith Center was a done deal — in fact, it had a lot to do with why she and Canfield both made the move to Las Vegas.

Besides ballets and orchestras, performing arts centers also often have resident opera and theater companies. Houssels and Myron Martin, president and CEO of The Smith Center, say they may add residents in the future, but the candidates would have to demonstrate sound business practices, financial strength, the ability to fill seats and, above all, artistic prowess.

[HEAR MORE: Listen to an interview with Smith Center President and CEO Myron Martin on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]

These criteria suggest a flip side: the risk of losing resident company status if a group doesn’t measure up. Although the center will review the ballet’s and philharmonic’s contracts annually, they’re already booking performances a few years away, suggesting they’re snugly tucked in for the foreseeable future.

Going to the chapel

The official arrangement the Smith Center has with the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre underlines the resident companies’ independence; essentially, it’s a landlord-tenant situation. The companies still do their own fundraising and marketing, while the center sells tickets to their events in the building.

However, because the resident companies are regular tenants — and because they’re local nonprofits that propagate arts in the community — they get special treatment. Martin says they pay lower rent than a regular nonprofit might, because the center wants to help cultivate their success.

“We know what our rent will be and, at least for the first season or two, that amount is locked in,” Crawford says.

Perhaps more important — and potentially contentious — than rent are dates on the Smith Center’s calendar. Martin says, “We fill (the resident companies) into the calendar before we start accepting commercial bookings and weddings and state of the city addresses.” But while they’re top dogs locally, they take second billing to big-time productions such as “Wicked,” which will delay the Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season by nearly a month compared to its usual start.

Dione Kennedy, president and CEO of Performing Arts Fort Worth, which owns and operates Bass Hall, says scheduling can offer a center the chance to collaborate with its resident companies — or be a source of friction. It all depends on whether everyone can sit down and hammer it out together.

“Every performing arts company has a subscription series, and they have to get in a certain number of performances to fill their subscription, so everyone will be trying to get those dates and working around the other groups that want those dates too,” says Kennedy, who’s been in the business 20-plus years. “Everybody wants to spread their shows out. Nobody wants to do things back to back, and everybody always wants to be on the weekends. It can be a struggle. In a new center, like Smith, which will be in high demand, it can be especially challenging.”

After the first few years, though, a routine develops. By the time she arrived at Bass Hall, Kennedy adds, everyone knew the drill. Her main job was to make sure everyone had a seat at the table.

The honeymoon

Being resident companies at the Smith Center gives a gigantic boost to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre. The title represents an artistic maturity that will be trumpeted far and wide.

“It gives them a world-class stage to perform on,” Martin says, “and in doing so should elevate their level of performance, make them more visible, increase their audience and, hopefully, make them more successful.”

The relationship benefits The Smith Center, too. Both the ballet and philharmonic have large, loyal audiences. Crawford says her group has some 1,200 annual subscribers — a number that’s risen 15 to 20 percent per year during the recession.

The public stands to reap the greatest rewards. There are philosophical gains, such as The Smith Center’s mission of cultivating local talent. There are psychological benefits, such as a patron’s joy at claiming a certain seat in the same theater, show after show, for his full subscription. And there’s the emotional charge of seeing fine art performed live, with music and elaborate staging, the way its creators intended.

Canfield says, “It’s the relationship between art and artist and music and movement and audience. It’s live! You don’t push ‘go’ and it’s like last night. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Most important to the community, arts officials say, the marriage between the performing arts center and resident companies benefits children. The ballet and philharmonic both have educational programs that expose kids to dance and music; the facilities at The Smith Center — and the proximity of the Discovery Children’s Museum and other cultural institutions downtown — open more time and space to expand those programs. Both Crawford and Barbre are planning collaborations with the children’s museum.

Abstractions aside, there are plenty of material advantages. Here’s one everyone can applaud: jobs. Mario Garcia Durham, President and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, says, “We know from the National Endowment for the Arts that Las Vegas is one of the leading employers of performing artists in the nation.” A great big new space equals more jobs for these local folks.

The philharmonic employs scores of musicians — as many as 80 per performance — and pays them union-scale wages. Crawford says her goal is to see the group become a full-time orchestra, playing up to 30 weeks a year. She admits it’s a distant goal, but the optimism marks a notable turn for an organization that, three years ago, had to cut staff (including its executive director) to weather the plight of disappearing donations.

The ballet, too, saw revenue shrink during the recession, but both resident companies expect to grow now that they’re at The Smith Center.

Barbre says, “We’ve moved from a 550-seat theater at (UNLV’s) Judy Bayley Theater, to the Paris Theatre, which has 1,500-plus seats. We’ve been able to grow while Caesars Entertainment has hosted us, and now we’ll grow more.” “The Nutcracker,” which she says generates about 75 percent of the ballet’s earned revenue, will take place in The Smith Center’s 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall.

Crawford says she gets as many as five calls a day from agents and artists interested in performing with the philharmonic, because they’re eager to take the stage in the new hall. And big-name guests translate to higher ticket sales. 

She also believes the center will help further the philharmonic’s efforts to attract more Asians, Hispanics and young people. “A brand-new facility offers the opportunity to expand the repertoire we can perform, and enhance the concert experience for an even broader audience.”

Couples therapy

All these gains, of course, come with some costs.

Martin says the center loses money when the resident companies are in-house, because they take dates away from higher-paying shows and because the center charges them less in rent than it costs to operate the building.

Despite the break on rent, the ballet and philharmonic are paying more than they did at their former venues. That’s not to mention the unknown, back-of-house costs. Services like catering, and light and sound engineering are not provided by the center, and nobody knows yet what their tab will be.

All that’s on top of the companies’ existing costs, such as marketing and salaries. Crawford says musician pay alone can add up to $75,000 per concert today. The ballet raises funds specifically to cover the expense of live music.

Also, having a bigger space and selling more tickets won’t automatically translate into greater donor support. The pool of big-name arts philanthropists in Las Vegas is small, and all three entities (the ballet, the performing arts center and the philharmonic) are already vying for their dollars.

“Our subscription sales account for about 40 percent of our costs,” Crawford says. “We have at least another 60 percent to raise.”

Asked whether the resident companies would have any promotional opportunities at the center to recognize sponsors, other than in programs, Martin says, “There are people who will be exposed to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre for the first time, simply because it’s Friday night and they want to go to The Smith Center, and that’s who’s performing. We’re actually going to help grow audiences for them. It’s up to them at that point to put on a show that people like enough that they want to come back.”

Any couples therapist will tell you: Money matters cause the most tiffs.

“Sometimes you have the landlord versus tenant feeling,” Kennedy says. “Again, that’s best addressed by talking face to face and recognizing that if things didn’t go the way you wanted, it’s probably not because the other party intended that.”

The chemistry

Overcoming any domestic struggles that may arise will be worth it for the shows. In The Smith Center’s inaugural season (or half-season, since it’s just the spring), The Nevada Ballet Theatre will put on “One Step Closer” in the Troesch Studio Theater and perform for its 40th anniversary gala in Reynolds Hall. (This will also be the first time the philharmonic accompanies the ballet at the center.)

The Las Vegas Philharmonic has its first gig at The Smith Center March 24, performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” in Reynolds Hall. At the same time, it’ll unveil a new brand. The group has two more performances there this spring, forming a mini-series that Crawford says sold quite well.

In 2012-2013, things heat up. The philharmonic expects to have nine performances for the season, not counting the times it plays for other groups, such as the ballet’s “The Nutcracker” in December. The ballet opens its season with Balanchine’s “Jewels” in October. In an unusual twist, a different company will execute each of the three movements — Salt Lake City’s Ballet West will dance “Emeralds”; the Nevada Ballet Theatre will do “Rubies”; and the Pacific Northwest Ballet will take “Diamonds.”

Both groups are notably excited about their new performance home. Canfield says the ballet is totally overhauling “The Nutcracker” for the first time in more than 10 years. “It will allow us to do everything we can with it — involve the community, raise awareness of dance, educate audiences, bring in more revenue to the company. We’ll be able to recognize not only corporations and foundations, but also smaller businesses and allow them to participate.”

Crawford is mum on details for 2012-2013, hinting only that there will be stellar guests. But what a hint it is: “It will be our most dynamic season ever.” 

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