Arts renaissance in downtowns Cities: An exhibit in Washington highlights how several locales are trying to foster a rebirth of cultural life -- which Baltimore also seeks.

Urban Landscape

May 14, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

WHILE SOME ARTS organizations always seem to be struggling to survive, the arts in general are playing an increasingly important role in the rejuvenation of America's cities.

As Baltimore moves to transform the old Hippodrome Theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. into a $35 million performing arts center, civic leaders can take lessons from many other cities that are capitalizing on the arts to revive their downtowns by building museums, performing arts centers, theaters, opera houses and concert halls.

Six cultural facilities that are helping to bring new life to urban centers are the focus of "Building Culture Downtown: New Ways of Revitalizing the American City," a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington.

The featured projects are the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas; New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark; the San Jose Repertory Theater in California; Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati; Arizona Science Center in Phoenix; and Science City at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo.

The exhibit was created by guest curator Deborah K. Dietsch, former editor in chief of Architecture magazine, and coordinating curator Michael Harrison.

Dietsch said she and Harrison selected projects from around the country, representing new construction and historic preservation, private funding and public, to show the breadth of this national trend.

"The idea for the show really came from the museum's interest in urban issues," she said. "There's so much investment in the arts in cities. We wanted to show the ramifications of these projects."

While the projects represent a wide range of styles, Dietsch said, all share a common response to their urban surroundings.

Instead of standing as isolated objects -- as did earlier projects such as Washington's Kennedy Center -- the new facilities generally are designed to be "street-savvy buildings" that relate to other structures nearby and reinforce connections to the city. Many are seen as anchors for designated cultural districts and catalysts for spinoff commercial development.

Today's museums and performance halls also incorporate a mix of functions -- including stores, restaurants, meeting rooms and rental halls -- to attract a diverse clientele when galleries or theaters are closed.

The mixture extends to cultural offerings within each project. New arts centers can accommodate several types of performance -- theater, opera, concerts, dance and comedy -- while science museums have flexible spaces that can house a wide range of exhibits.

Dietsch said the exhibit does not make critical judgments about these projects because all are less than 3 years old, and "the true benefits for their downtowns remain to be determined." But all of them, she said, demonstrate the role the arts can play as part of a larger strategy for reviving cities.

"Building Culture Downtown" will run through Jan. 3. The museum, at 401 F St. N.W. in Washington, is open daily. Admission is free.

Dietsch will discuss the exhibit in a gallery talk at 1 p.m. Saturday.

At 6 p.m. June 30, the museum will sponsor the symposium "Towards a New Museum." Panelists will include writers Victoria Newhouse and Suzanne Stephens; J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art; and architect Daniel Libeskind.

Md. Stadium Authority enters a new stage

It builds stadiums. It builds convention centers. Now, the Maryland Stadium Authority has been enlisted to help create the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center.

When the Maryland General Assembly appropriated $1.7 million last month to begin design work for the Hippodrome complex, the state specified that the funds go to the stadium authority when they become available July 1.

According to the state operating budget for fiscal 1999, the authority may "enter into contracts, engage consultants, make recommendations and take other actions" to renovate the Hippodrome.

The authority was instructed to work with the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts -- the group that leases the Mechanic Theatre.

Despite the budget language, planners say they don't know exactly what role the authority will play in renovating the 1914 theater, which seats 2,250.

Diane Hutchins, director of governmental relations for the Greater Baltimore Committee, which pushed strongly for the TTC theater conversion, said the authority's role will be determined as part of the planning process.

But she said the project's proponents all agree that the stadium authority is a logical agency to be involved because of its record in overseeing complex redevelopment projects.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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