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Expanding NH's Cultural Centers

Published Thursday Feb 15, 2018


Peter Macone, operational manager for Republic Cafe in Manchester. Courtesy photo.

Long before the dancers tap onto the stage for a Cole Porter musical in October at the 880-seat Palace Theatre in Manchester, a line of would-be diners lingers impatiently outside the Republic Cafe on Elm Street.

Peter Macone, operational manager for the farm-to-table restaurant, preps the cafe tables for what he predicts will be a hectic evening. He says crowds swarm an hour or so before the curtain lifts at the restored  playhouse; they intensify even more so at his other eatery, Campo Enoteca, which is even closer to the Palace.

Business in the last couple of years has been brisk, says Macone, adding the Palace Theatre is part of the lure bringing visitors to Hanover Street, one of six blocks downtown designated as The Cultural District. The walkable neighborhood also includes the Manchester Historic Association and the NH Institute of Art.

Manchester's Culture District. Courtesy of Colliers International.

With the anticipated metamorphosis of a defunct dance hall on Amherst Street into a hip music venue, eponymously named for its previous incarnation as the old Rex Theatre, Marcone says Manchester’s arts scene is a beacon for visitors seeking entertainment.

The Rex Theatre owners, Gray Chynoweth and Liz Hitchcock, are negotiating a partnership with the Palace Theatre’s board of trustees to share the Palace’s ushers and box office staff for the new venture. Peter Ramsey, executive director for the Palace, says the construction of the Rex LLC is at least a year away.

Restaurateur Macone is also excited about other new arrivals on Hanover Street like the Kelley Stelling gallery, which displays contemporary pieces in 2D and 3D forms, and Jupiter Hall, a creative space that has featured storytelling and local exhibits. ArtFront, an organization that seeks to empower Manchester residents to “re-energize the city through participation, intellectual exploration and development of the arts,” rented Jupiter Hall in October to present its multidisciplinary three-day showcase of Manchester’s diversity in a piece aptly titled, “Culture Shock.”

"Culture Shock" a three-day showcase of Manchester's diversity, was produced by ArtFront, and held at Jupiter Hall. Photo by Matthew Lomanno.

There’s a patter on the pavements on any given Saturday evening in Manchester that not only rouses the city’s energy, but also infuses the coffers of area establishments.

Ginnie Lupi of the NH State Council on the Arts, points out that the economic impact of the arts is well documented, referring to a 2012 study in NH of 161 nonprofit arts and culture groups that demonstrated an annual $115 million impact, according to the Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. and New York. Arts organizations in NH spent $53 million in marketing, maintenance, payroll and other necessities. And their audiences doled out $62 million in event-related activities.

Four regions in NH—Greater Concord, Greater Portsmouth, the Monadnock region and Rochester—commissioned the Americans for the Arts for a separate study based on 2015 data. In Portsmouth alone, non-profit arts organizations purchase $21 million in goods and services.

Portsmouth’s Artistic Flair
Few industries generate the type of event-related spending that the arts do, says Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at the Americans for the Arts. The typical Portsmouth attendee spends around $30 in activities like dining and shopping above the price of admission, collectively spending upwards of $36.6 million a year.

Roughly a third of attendees are out-of-towners. Perhaps because they want to remember their experiences with a token, or stretch the evening with additional activities, “arts tourists spend more and stay longer,” says Cohen.

Every city needs an anchor to thrive, and for Portsmouth, it’s The Music Hall, one of New England’s largest and oldest operating theaters and one of downtown Portsmouth’s biggest employers. It’s no coincidence that within a three-block radius of The Music Hall, at least 30 restaurants offer an eclectic emporium. Booking big name acts like Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis demands a robust budget. And headlining the first American tour for Benjamin Clementine, a singer/songwriter found busking on the streets in Paris, requires stamina for risk, says Executive Director Patricia Lynch. In the arts, “you’re always riding on white water.”

The lobby of the Music Hall in Portsmouth. Dan Gair/Blind Dog Photo, Inc.

With a $6 million budget, Lynch says The Music Hall relies on ticket sales and memberships with a 77:23 ratio, above the national average of 60:40. Private donations and corporate sponsors like C&J Trailways allow the venue to subsidize its ticket prices and provide free admission to school groups.

Since Lynch’s arrival at The Music Hall in 2004, when she caught raindrops from a leaky roof with buckets and witnessed plaster crumbling off the walls, the theater with 900 red velvet seats invested $11 million in renovations to install, among other items, HD projectors, lighting and sound equipment and electronic ticketing. It’s only in the last three years those investments paid off with hardy reserves, she says.

As it has with its interiors, The Music Hall is revitalizing its exterior by enhancing the plaza outside its doors. It is contributing half of a $900,000 Chestnut Street redesign to improve drainage, bury utility lines and install non-slip pavers to make walking safer.

The most striking element of the new streetscape is the public art component. Much like the gilded proscenium arches with carved cherubs that grace The Music Hall’s stage, an illuminated archway will preside over a pedestrian plaza, connecting The African Burying Ground Memorial and Vaughan Mall to the Northern Tier.

Granite seating walls and verdant shrubbery will invite theater-goers to linger and discuss the performances, or perhaps intersect with other tourists who’ve recently finished a walking tour, dined at a restaurant or discovered Portsmouth’s slave history. Scheduled for completion by June, the streetscape will also make The Music Hall easier to see from anywhere in the city.

Nashua’s Growing Arts Scene
It’s this type of cross-collaboration that gives cities energy, or what economic development directors call creative placemaking, which in laymen’s terms means using the arts to develop an area where people want to live, work and congregate.

As Tim Cummings explains, creative placemaking isn’t only about attracting visitors. Cummings is the economic development director in Nashua and says that cities need to provide a well-rounded, high-quality standard of living to attract the talent necessary for innovative businesses to thrive.

Nashua is home to the International Sculpture Symposium and Symphony NH. It has more public murals than anywhere in the state and a large auditorium for community theater and concerts. Its arts scene is vigorous.

But it lacks an essential component: a performing arts space like the ones in other NH cities and towns of comparable population.

Recently, Cummings proposed to the board of alderman bonding $15.5 million to convert the former home of Alec’s Shoes on Main Street into a two-story performing arts center with 500 to 700 seats. The space would also accommodate events, stores, restaurants and art galleries.

The majority of the board of aldermen gave the plan the thumbs up, but its financing structure required 10 votes. Only eight were in favor. Nevertheless, the board moved to put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot asking residents if the aldermen could look at the plan again, and the measure passed.

A new slate of aldermen will take their seats in January, renewing the discussion once again. However, funding for the new venue remains in dispute, and it hinges on private investments of at least $4 million.

Cummings says making the arts a focal point of a Main Street identity is a good strategy being employed across the country. “We need to provide these amenities [the arts],” he says, “or it could be to our peril.”

Creating Cultural Centers
Convincing a community to dole out funds for a nonprofit performance venue is no easy task, as the board of trustees behind The Park Theatre in Jaffrey found out. Since 2006, they’ve been meeting with individual donors and businesses to construct a new building on the original site of the 1920s movie house. Due to environmental hazards and accessibility issues, the trustees had to demolish the original site and start from scratch.

CEO Steve Jackson says the board has raised more than $5 million to date, with $2 million coming from a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office.

In the interim, The Park Theatre operates next door to the building site in what is perhaps the smallest performance space in New England. Known as the River Street Theatre, it holds only 28 upholstered seats.

A rendering of The Park Theatre in Jaffrey. Courtesy photo.

Nonetheless, says Jackson, since January 2017, one third of ticket-holders have come from beyond NH’s borders.

Jackson says, nationally, the average time span between what begins as a living room discussion to the unveiling of a community-based performance center is around 12 years. “If that’s true,” he says, “we’re on the mark.” Before the end of the year, construction crews plan to break ground on a 385-seat auditorium with a second space that will have 100 seats. The building’s design has an art deco motif, paying tribute to the 54-year era when The Park Theatre was the cornerstone for art and creativity.

The Park Theatre project is one aspect of the Monadnock Region’s cultural sector. The Americans for the Arts survey found the impact of the arts on the region has been growing. “What is most encouraging is the recent growth—more than 11 percent in the last six years—we are seeing in the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in the Monadnock Region,” says Alec Doyle, executive director of The Colonial Theatre in Keene. “Considering the critical role arts play in cultural tourism, this trend bodes well for the future health of the hospitality industry, other local businesses and our communities.”

The study found that a quarter of cultural event audiences are from outside the Monadnock region, and those audience members spent an average of $31 in the community (excluding the ticket price) each time they attended an arts event. It also found that 89 percent of non-resident audience members came to the region specifically to attend a cultural event. In the Monadnock Region, these dollars support 131 full-time-equivalent jobs and generate $311,000 in local and state government revenues.

The region’s nonprofit arts and culture industry leverages about $5.3 million in event-related spending by audiences, according to the report. Jessica Gelter, executive director of Arts Alive!, a nonprofit that works to advance the arts and culture sector in the Monadnock region, points out those figures only reflect the 34 nonprofit organizations that participated in the survey, and those numbers would increase significantly if other creative enterprises and for-profit arts organizations were included.

“Our creative sector has had steady, sustainable growth,” Gelter says. “If you look at the cultural calendar on our website, you would see more than 30 different events in our region each weekend.”

Other arts organizations are expanding as well, she points out, including  MoCo Arts, an arts education center in Keene, which broke ground on a new facility this past summer and is one of the largest employers of creatives in the region. The Keene Library is also investing in a performing arts space as part of a renovation project it is undertaking, she says.

Students from Teens Musical Theatre at MoCo Arts in Keene pose at the end of a musical number from ‘Singin’ In the Rain Jr.’ Courtesy photo.

“There will be a huge economic impact from these infrastructure investments,” Gelter says. “It’s very exciting.”

Capitol Center’s Expansion Plans
All across the country, urban planners are clustering historic and cultural assets in walkable, compact areas, much the same way the retail corridor defined downtowns before the 1970s. It’s that clustering that makes downtown Concord a cultural destination, says Nicolette Clarke, executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts-NH (CCANH).

The Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. Courtesy photo.

Mike Simchik, owner of the Capitol Commons building on South Main Street in Concord, says the stone’s throw distance to cultural institutions and restaurants is what prompted him to develop the Hotel Concord, which he conceived as a 38-room boutique hotel. “Being able to walk [to] everything from that location is key,” says Simchik, who expects the hotel to open by late spring 2018.

Clarke credits the proximity of the Red River Theatres, the NH Historical Society, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, as well as the $13 million Main Street improvement project, with boosting the Capitol Center’s visibility. The roadway reconstruction included wider sidewalks, brick accents and new plantings to encourage pedestrian traffic and outdoor eating.

The CCANH operates on the same model as the Lebanon Opera House, The Music Hall and The Colonial Theatre. It presents touring shows; it doesn’t produce them. That means, before dawn, for a Broadway show for example, multiple tractor trailer trucks pull up to the loading dock. A crew of stagehands quickly assesses how the sets and props will fit on the stage. And after one or two nights, they lug their paraphernalia out the door and on to another city.

Categorizing the type of acts into a single niche at the CCANH is nearly impossible, as they range from full-scale Broadway productions and reggae concerts to sing-a-longs and literary events. Seeking to expand that repertoire, the Capitol Center, whose wood-adorned offices inhabit a Victorian-style mansion with marble fireplaces and secret passageways that once served the Freemasons, is entering a new chapter in the theatre’s 90-year history. “The music industry is turning on its head,” says Clarke. The income of artists relies less on digital recordings and more on touring schedules. “We used to book two years ahead,” she says. “Now we’re in a four- to six-month window.”

To accommodate those short-notice bookings, up-and-coming musicians perform in the more intimate Spotlight Cafe, a modular area within the main building. However, because of sound bleeding from one room to the next, the CCANH can’t host two events at once. Last summer, real estate developer Steve Duprey approached the CCANH about reviving the old Concord Theatre, which shuttered its operations more than two decades ago. Duprey guided CCANH in securing an agreement to purchase the ramshackle building at 16-18 South Main St., which the CCANH will own and operate.

The CCANH is already $2.6 million into an $8.7 million capital campaign for ongoing renovations. The campaign began in 2015 and expects to hit its goal by 2020. For the vision of a flexible event space to materialize, it will invest $2 million from the capital campaign into the Concord Theatre project (money it had originally designated for the proposed small theater it was trying to create out of the kitchen behind the Governor’s Hall within the current CCA campus). The Concord Theatre is expected to open in the fall of 2019.  

What gives Clarke optimism about such efforts is the power of the arts. “People need a place to come together to celebrate the human spirit,” she says, explaining that laughter, spirituality and music connect people. “The Capitol Center can serve as that meeting ground.”

Peter Ramsey, who runs The Palace Theatre, agrees. He says that when the curtains come down during intermission, people who previously didn’t know each other lock eyes. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “We’ve stopped doing that [connecting face-to-face] in the last 30 years.”

The Palace Theatre in Manchester. Courtesy of MEDO.

Overcoming Shrinking Audiences
But theaters have to do more than share their passions to survive, especially as nonprofit theater audiences are shrinking, according to a report by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), an association for the American not-for-profit theater industry. The report shows that attendance at the 125 theaters tracked was at a five-year low in 2015, down 3.6 percent from 2011, despite a 1.9 percent increase in the total number of performances.

This is forcing theaters to try new strategies while predicting changing tastes. For example, up until five years ago, the Palace never showcased a psychic. Today, it’s a “gigantic moneymaker,” Ramsey says.

If there’s room for an upswing, it’s in the youth market, the TCG findings show. The number of children’s performances grew more than 20 percent, which led to an 11 percent increase in audiences. Ramsey and the Palace aim to appeal to a multi-generational audience, mostly because “we have to grow in kids’ hearts.” Last year, the Palace produced 19 big-production youth shows, in addition to nine in its summer series.

Typically, between 400 and 500 children are dropped off each week to develop their thespian talents.

By 5 p.m. every day, the ruckus in the box office lobby blares to a crescendo. “We can’t even answer the phone.” But that commotion is less a disturbance than a clarion call for expansion. Building on the success of programming for children and teens, the Palace Theatre is investing $150,000 to refurbish 3,000 square feet of a former bar a few steps away from its 80 Hanover Street location to host its youth programs. Ramsey anticipates the construction will be complete by December.

Such venues are vital to the economic health of communities. At least that’s the way Phillip Scontsas, whose family-run jewelry and home decor store has been doing business on Nashua’s Main Street since 1912, sees it. “People have been writing the obituaries for downtowns for years,” he says, as retail and banking no longer bring in the foot traffic they once did.

But now he sees a turnaround: Nashua is developing its riverfront, creating more downtown housing and seriously considering a performing arts center. Nationally, the nonprofit arts industry generates $61.1 billion in direct expenditures and $74.1 billion in event-related splurging, according to the most recent study by the Americans for the Arts. The sector also sustains 2.3 million jobs, supports $46.6 billion in household income, and pumps $15.7 billion into federal and state coffers. “It’s the next phase for urban centers,” says Scontsas. “It’s what we need to bring us up to date.”

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