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Grand Park holds grand potential for Music Center

Originally posted by the Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2012

“There’s no there there” is how Gertrude Stein famously summed up and put down Oakland, her old hometown. For the Music Center, which manages much of the prime cultural real estate in downtown Los Angeles, the problem has long been the opposite: There’s too much “there” there.

To the public, by and large, the glamorous hilltop place known as the Music Center overshadows the identically named but ill-defined organization that’s been in charge of venue logistics since it opened as the city’s performing arts hub 48 years ago.

The glory at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and REDCAT accrues mainly to the impresarios who put on the shows. The Music Center generally plays impresario only for a dance series of about two dozen performances each season. It also orchestrates a $3.9-million-a-year youth arts education program that’s vital but less high-profile.

For the most part, the Music Center plays landlord. After the applause dies down, it provides the ushers and security staff for a safe and orderly exit, then sends in the cleanup crew. But now its shot at greater acclaim is at hand. In May, the county Board of Supervisors put the Music Center in charge of running the new Grand Park, which stretches downhill for four city blocks from the Music Center’s own doorstep to City Hall’s.

If the 12-acre park teems with cultural attractions and other forms of fun, chances are that it will redound to the Music Center’s glory. What’s more, civic leaders hope success at the park will kick-start efforts to spruce up the Music Center itself and further improve the whole cultural hub.

“It dovetails with what we’re trying to do in the 21st century,” says Stephen Rountree, who recently marked his 10th anniversary as the Music Center’s president. “That’s to be a more engaging, inclusive, active place.”

Rountree is a tall, husky, affable Pasadena native with a pinkish complexion and a relatively low profile despite more than 30 years’ experience planning and running major L.A. arts venues.

In his 20 years at the J. Paul Getty Trust, he oversaw construction of the $1-billion Getty Center in Brentwood, which opened in 1997, and helped lay the groundwork for the mid-2000s renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

On Rountree’s Music Center watch, Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, and the dance series became a fixture, its funding solidified with a $20-million endowment gift from Glorya Kaufman. When the 2008 financial crisis hit L.A. Opera amid its ambitious mounting of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, it turned to Rountree, who spent nearly four years running its business affairs on top of his regular duties. Under him, the opera cut its budget drastically after mid-2010, when the “Ring” ended; it recently finished paying off a $14-million loan he helped engineer with county backing to get the opera through its cash crisis.

Turning the opera company’s executive reins over on Sept. 15 to its new president, Christopher Koelsch, has meant that “I don’t work so late at night and I sleep better,” says Rountree, whose 2010 earnings totaled $716,000 from the Music Center and $202,000 from Los Angeles Opera.

Rountree said that early in his Music Center tenure, he defused tensions between the resident companies by jettisoning the “mysterious and nontransparent formula” that had been used to calculate how much annual rent each would pay, leaving suspicions that not everybody was getting a fair shake. Now, he said, they’re presented a bill for how much rent the Music Center needs overall to balance the venue operations budget — about $2.8 million each of the past two fiscal years — and they decide among themselves how to split it, based on how busy each company has been.

In 2004 Rountree oversaw the launch of Active Arts, a free, grass-roots program that made the Music Center an early adopter in what has become a burgeoning trend for performing arts groups: inviting the public to participate in amateur performances. In one recent offering, 350 ukulele players got together for a pre-Christmas jam in one of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s lobbies.

Rountree sees plenty of potential for carry-over at Grand Park. “We found a way to engage people outside the classical European art forms,” he says. “Listening to Plácido Domingo sing, and people singing themselves — both are valid, both are important.”

Two recent Rountree hires will help determine how things go in Grand Park. Lucas Rivera, the park director in charge of daily operations, is a veteran arts manager from Philadelphia, and Thor Steingraber, the Music Center’s vice president in charge of programming, will orchestrate park events while also trying to come up with innovative uses for the Music Center’s traditional venues.

One example will be the August run of “Re-Rite,” a digital installation developed by former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, in which audiences will walk among video screens and speakers set up on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, experiencing — or even playing along with — Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” as if they were inside the orchestra.

To introduce the park, Steingraber said, everything will be free through June. Ticketed events will come after that, but he says they will be the exception rather than the rule.

From late July through November, Grand Park hosted about 40 events. Some were bids for a mass audience, such as a Dia de los Muertos celebration that drew a crowd estimated at more than 4,000 people, while others aimed to grab passers-by.

On Jan. 20, Grand Park will continue a “Park Your Politics” series that began on Election Day with video screens carrying news coverage of the returns. People who want the buzz of being part of a crowd for Barack Obama’s second inauguration will be able to find it in front of a huge screen on the upper quadrant of Grand Park.

Rountree hopes it will be the site for big public rituals — the L.A. equivalent of Manhattan ticker-tape parades for national heroes or conquering local sports teams.

“That portico is just begging for some great headliner events,” says Steingraber, and it doesn’t take the eye of a veteran opera director, which he is, to imagine the spectacle. “It’s a great, important civic spot.”

It will take resources to make Grand Park a grand attraction, and it remains to be seen whether they will amply materialize. The Board of Supervisors allocated $3.3 million for the first year’s operations, but Rountree said that’s mainly to cover logistics such as security and maintenance, with only $100,000 for programming.

(The Music Center has added about 25 full-time park employees to what had been a staff of about 215; it also has about 300 part-time or temporary workers.)

Nevertheless, Steingraber aims to spend $1.1 million on programming Grand Park in the fiscal year that ends June 30. That depends on hoped-for donations coming through, along with earnings from concessions and park rentals.

Over the summer, members of the Music Center’s board donated $500,000 to create a fund for new programming initiatives that includes the park; this month, the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation granted the Music Center $500,000 over three years for Grand Park programs.

Chairing the Music Center’s board is Kent Kresa, a former longtime Northrop Grumman Corp. chief. Fundraising “is just in its formative stages,” he says, but he’s hopeful. “People are excited to get in on the ground floor of a new program that reaches a diverse audience.”

Considered from the supervisors’ suite in the Hall of Administration that borders it, Grand Park turns into a cog in a larger strategy that could bring more splendor to a growing downtown. “Part of why I’m excited and hopeful … is that it’s potentially catalytic,” says Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, long the board’s most vocal arts advocate, lays out a vision in which a booming cultural park could be an extremely valuable political chip.

The stakes include two major improvements: $300 million for a long-deferred renovation and backstage expansion of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and a reconfiguration of the Music Center’s plaza that was drawn up in 2001 and left undone, and the potentially transformative leveling of two government buildings — the Hall of Administration and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. Moving their functions elsewhere would clear the way for an expanded Grand Park, with an eye-pleasing view of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to the north.

It probably won’t be possible, Yaroslavsky says, without a change in state law to allow cultural bond issues to pass with 55% of the vote rather than the currently prohibitive two-thirds requirement. Success would also depend, he says, on high-rolling philanthropists stepping up to cover half the cost of the Music Center improvements.

Ridley-Thomas says he’ll soon call for formal planning, focused on whether and how to proceed. Yaroslavsky, who’ll leave the board after 2014 because of term limits, says one of his priorities for his last years in office is to get the Music Center renovations and Civic Center transformation “out of the starter’s gate.”

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