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Director of Carmel performing arts center says venue will be 'amazing'

August 24, 2009

Steven Libman is optimistic in his vision for Carmel’s $80 million performing arts center.

The recently hired executive director believes he’ll have no trouble raising money for a $3 million operating budget. He plans to pack the calendar with a mix of performances by local groups and touring acts. And he feels confident that the names on the marquee will be big—the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall.

That’s not all he has in mind. He hopes the Regional Performing Arts Center can grow to a budget of $7 million to $12 million and become a player on the national and international stage by launching touring shows and commissioning original works.

“I would say, buckle up and put your seat belts on,” Libman said in a phone interview. “This is going to be an amazing performing arts center.”

Libman’s hiring is a major milestone for the Carmel Performing Arts Foundation, which will run the center under a long-term lease from the city. Libman, who starts work in mid-September, is the person who can finally begin to answer questions about how the center will operate.

The building itself is supposed to be finished in late fall of 2010. It’s being financed with revenue from a surrounding tax-increment-financing district.

Carmel estimates that the performing arts center will require $3 million a year to operate, but it’s unknown what portions will come from renting the venue to local groups, ticket sales, and private donations.

An affiliation with singer and Great American Songbook promoter Michael Feinstein will be key to Carmel’s national presence, Libman said. The foundation chose Feinstein as the center’s artistic director, but he has not yet signed a contract.

Carmel appears to have nabbed a ringer in Libman. The 49-year-old is an arts management consultant who in recent years led the award-winning La Jolla Playhouse in California.

Libman said he wanted to move to Carmel for both professional and personal reasons.

“Very few people have the opportunity to build a performing arts center from the ground up,” he said. “You really get to be quite entrepreneurial at this stage.”

He and his wife also would like to live closer to their daughter and grandchildren in Cincinnati.

The foundation will pay Libman $200,000 in the first year of his three-year contract. His pay will rise to $250,000 by the third year.

His first task will be to settle the question that has hung over the performing arts center since its inception: Which local groups will perform there?

As many as 20 arts groups from the region are interested in various rental arrangements, Libman said.

“We will be as flexible as possible with the organizations,” he said.

The big question, especially for small not-for-profits, is what the center will charge. Libman said he wasn’t yet familiar with the rates, but he’s already managing expectations.

“It may not be a good fit for every group,” he said.

Don Farrell, co-founder of Carmel-based Actors Theatre of Indiana, said the most expensive venue his troupe used last season was the Pike Performing Arts Center. It cost $500 per performance, or at least $5,000 for a two-week run of 10 shows.

Actors Theatre can’t afford to keep paying that kind of rent, and Farrell hopes Carmel will provide an alternative.

“They’re going to have to find ways to make it affordable to non-profits,” he said.

Only the Carmel Symphony Orchestra is calling itself a resident of the performing arts center so far. The orchestra, which has a budget of about $379,000, has not struck a formal agreement on rent and performance dates.

Libman will also have to recruit a board.

“We want to attract trustees from all over the region, and possibly from all over the United States,” he said.

At this point, the foundation is run by three city officials: Mayor Jim Brainard, city spokeswoman Nancy Heck, and city attorney Doug Haney. Libman said Brainard, who championed the center as part of downtown redevelopment, will likely leave the board this year.

Libman knows the performing arts center has become a lightning rod for Brainard’s critics. He shrugged off the negative impact of local politics.

“I suppose the optimist in me would say, ‘I guess the regional performing arts center will be in the news every day.’”

Carmel’s performing arts ambition also drew criticism—though it was less public—from established organizations.

The 500-seat theater would be too small to compete with the for-profit Murat Centre or Clowes Memorial Hall in hosting Broadway shows, but the concert hall takes direct aim at Hilbert Circle Theatre, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The fact that master cellist Ma is at the top of Libman’s wish list illustrates the potential for competition with Indianapolis. Ma is scheduled to play Hilbert Circle in October, and it will be his first appearance here in more than 10 years.

“I think there’s enough dates on the calendar—we’re all going to be just fine,” Libman said.

Simon Crookall, chief executive of the ISO, declined to talk about the Carmel competitor.

As to whether the ISO will perform at the new hall to the north, spokeswoman Jessica DiSanto said via e-mail: “Simon is looking forward to meeting Steve Libman, welcoming him to the community and looking forward to more conversation about the possible opportunities with the ISO and CPAC.”

If the Regional Performing Arts Center does start with the $3 million budget, it would be on par with Clowes Hall at Butler University. Elise Kushigian, executive director at Clowes, said she hopes Libman will become part of the cadre of arts executives who help promote one another’s venues.

“The key thing is getting people to enjoy the arts,” Kushigian said.

Libman has tentative plans to book half the year with touring acts. He’s envisioning a broad range of artistic styles, including classical, jazz and dance. He doesn’t hesitate to throw around noteworthy names. In the interview, he mentioned the possibility of working with or booking the London Symphony Orchestra, Juliard String Quartet, Tokyo String Quartet, and Elvis Costello.

Much of Libman’s ambition hinges on Feinstein’s signing on as artistic director.

“He’s got enormous connections,” Libman said. “He can open doors for us that none of us can open.”

Feinstein performs and promotes the Great American Songbook, which is the work of George Gershwin and other early 20th century popular music composers.

He’s already involved in Carmel’s performing arts center. He decided last year to move his foundation and songbook-related collection from Los Angeles to Carmel.

Libman feels the Indianapolis-Carmel market is large enough to accommodate another large venue hosting national classical and popular acts.

“If Indianapolis was a dying community, neither Michael Feinstein nor I would be interested in this project,” he said.•

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