Carmel performing arts center betting big on fund raising

October 3, 2009
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Carmel’s $137 million performing arts center is still a year from completion, but Executive Director Steven Libman already is pounding the pavement for donations.

Libman hit the local appearance circuit as soon as he began work in mid-September. “People are really excited about what’s going to happen—very, very excited,” he said in a recent interview.

His efforts will need to bear fruit soon, if he’s going to achieve a $3 million operating budget and cover expenses for a growing team of top professionals.

The Carmel Performing Arts Foundation, which operates the center, has signed singer Michael Feinstein as artistic director. Libman is actively seeking a building engineer and someone to spearhead fund raising.

Feinstein

Salaries, he said, will consume roughly half the budget—most of which remains unfunded.

Mayor James Brainard conceived of the venue as a donor-funded project, but fund raising has been minimal so far. In fact, the foundation is using $525,000 in grants from the Carmel Redevelopment Commission to cover Libman’s and Feinstein’s pay.

Libman will earn $200,000 in the first year of a three-year contract, while Feinstein will earn $100,000 the first year. The next year, his pay jumps to $400,000.

The foundation hired Libman, who formerly led the award-winning La Jolla Playhouse in California, partly because of his track record in fund raising. He’s optimistic about his prospects. One of his strategies is to leverage the affiliation with Feinstein, a champion of the Great American Songbook.

Libman said he expects the donor base to include philanthropists from the East and West coasts who “believe in the American Songbook.”

Feinstein’s role in the center’s operations remains undefined.

Tom Carto, CEO of the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wis., said he’d never heard of a venue hiring a big-name entertainer like Feinstein.

“That’s really interesting,” he said. “I’d be curious to see what that relationship is, and how that’s done.”

Feinstein’s title of artistic director typically applies to someone who curates in-house productions. Libman said he and Feinstein would like to one day launch shows from Carmel. At this point, the plan is to rent space to local organizations and present national touring acts.

Jane Chu, CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., said Feinstein’s involvement would “send out the message that the Regional Performing Arts Center has the ability to attract talented performers.”

Carmel isn’t the only city trying to launch a performing arts venue in the midst of the worst recession since World War II.

The $413 million Kauffman Center, still under construction, changed its fund-raising strategy midstream because of the economic slump, Chu said.

She switched from trying to land large donations to creating naming opportunities for smaller amounts. The Kauffman’s seat-naming campaign asks for $2,500 to $10,000.

A year after the September 2008 market collapse, prospective donors are once again willing to talk about large gifts, Chu said.

Carmel’s Regional Performing Arts Center is on track to be completed in late 2010. The venue will include a 1,600-seat concert hall and a 500-seat theater. Its $137 million price tag includes the new construction, as well as equipment.

If the center opens as scheduled, the first full season would launch in the fall of 2011. Libman is tentatively planning a $6 million budget for that year.

Should the center fall short of its fund-raising goals, he said, “We would probably trim expenses in a future season.”

The fact that Carmel’s arts center didn’t require a capital campaign could make raising money for operations difficult. That’s what managers at the Overture Center encountered, Carto said.

Madison’s $217 million venue was completed in two phases in 2004 and 2006, and a single gift of $205 million covered 94 percent of the cost.

The nature of that incredible gift had one drawback.

“There was no donor pool that had already given to the construction of the center,” Carto explained. “Those relationships had to be made after the fact.”

Before hiring Libman, the Carmel Performing Arts Foundation’s fund-raising activities were limited. Several hundred thousand dollars were raised and spent on consulting fees.

Initial financing for the center came from an $80 million city of Carmel bond issue. The redevelopment commission tapped a tax-increment financing district it controls to cover the remaining costs.

The center’s $137 million cost could grow further, if the redevelopment commission approves adding a 200-seat black-box theater.

Les Olds, executive director for the commission, said cost estimates for the small theater space vary widely, depending on the design.

One option is to build it inside Office Building 1 at Carmel’s City Center complex, he said.•

 

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