With the Tulsa Performing Arts Center hosting the productions of dozens of local groups and hundreds of out-of-towners, rumors of a potential privatization concerns many.
If the city were to hand over management to a company like SMG, which manages the BOK Center and Ford Center in Oklahoma City, the look and feel of the center could change, as well as the personnel. Even rental fees could be impacted, a big issue for limited budget of most local theater groups.
When confronted with the privatization rumors, PAC director John E. Scott was calm, but firm.
"It's important that this is conveyed clearly," he said, visibly irritated. "The word privatization is off the table, and that concept is off the table."
Scott said the mayor's office had recently communicated that sentiment after a meeting with the PAC Trust, an account corroborated by a study examined by UTW.
"This is the study that was just done, and it shows that while we do require a subsidiary, it is not suggested that we are privatized. What is suggested is a public-private partnership, and even that will likely not happen."
A private-public partnership would mean that the city would still own the PAC, but that a private company would also come on board to help with parts of the center's operations, like concessions or contracts. This is very different from total privatization, which would mean a complete shift from city control to a private company's.
The study only spoke to a private-public partnership, and also showed that the PAC is not even close to being one of the city's priorities this year. Scott said the privatization rumors have stressed everyone at the center.
"It makes our employees nervous, but we've been constantly communicating that privatization is just not happening at this point," he said. "This coming year will be status quo. We don't expect that there will be any changes whatsoever, except that hopefully the economy will improve and bring us better business."
A private-public partnership could be a good thing, Scott said.
"I don't have any qualms about that. I think it could be very beneficial. A private entity offers the potential for more dollars to spend on the arts," he said.
The rumors aren't true, Scott said, despite their acceptance and repetition by some.
"The truth is that we're doing very well," he said. "I've been the director here since 1989, and never has anybody from any administration put any pressure on us to do better, not even now."
To the contrary, 2010 was the best year for the PAC so far, in spite of it being the worst year for the city, Scott said. The much-acclaimed show Wicked, for example, brought in $3 million in ticket sales.
"Yes, we require a subsidiary," Scott reiterated. "But our bottom line doesn't tell the whole story."
The whole story, as Scott sees it, includes Wicked's success, which in addition to ticket sales helped boost downtown hotels, shops and restaurants.
"Blake Ewing, the owner of Joe Momma's and Max Retropub, said that Wicked brought in more business for him that any other downtown event ever did, which would include baseball, the BOK, any of that," he said.
In addition to the economic benefits provided by show-goers, Scott said that much of what the PAC pays to groups like the presenters of Wicked goes into local paychecks for people like stage hands and pit musicians.
"Most people don't realize that putting money into the arts is investing in the city. It also attracts businesses," said PAC marketing director Nancy C. Hermann, who said she recently took a call concerning a group of doctors contemplating moving their practice downtown. The doctors, Hermann said, asked about living in Tulsa and whether the city had a ballet, opera or symphony.
"These people want to know that we have theater and other arts here," she said. "It makes us very attractive."
But with so many good reasons to have a performing arts center, shouldn't it at least be able to support itself? What accounts for that $1.6 million?
Scott said it's all about the local performing groups.
"The for-profit groups pay much more than the local non-profit organizations, because we know that they can," he said. "The little non-profits simply can't afford to pay more, and we want them to always have a place here. That was the purpose of the PAC building originally: to provide a place for local organizations to perform in a credible space."
That's not to say that the PAC staff is shrugging their shoulders about the $1.6 million. In efforts to offset costs, the center has implemented multiple money-saving ideas, including the successful ticketing website, myticketoffice.com.
"Myticketoffice.com is a regional ticketing website that makes it easier for some people to get tickets, as well as providing a good bit of extra income for us," Scott said.
The PAC has offered the website to tons of other theaters and venues throughout the South and Midwest to help them sell tickets online. Those theaters pay the PAC to use the website, and also cough up service fees, which means that every e-ticket sold to any one of those venues funnels money to the PAC.
The Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City, for example, uses the website and had successful runs of The Lion King and Wicked.
"For every ticket they sold online, we got paid," Scott said.
Hermann said the website was a proactive, moneymaking venture. "Nobody asked us to do that," she said. "We saw that it was an opportunity to offset costs, so we pursued it."
Scott said enterprising ideas have ensured that no city administration could pressure the PAC to do "better."
"Every time they do a close study on us, they see that we are actually an asset to the city, and that we work very hard to be more efficient with the funding we get," he said.
So for now, it seems as though the PAC has no immediate changes to fear.
"Tulsa is home to a large number of performing arts groups," he said. "And the quality of the groups is also impressive. Tulsa Symphony is on the major level. Tulsa Ballet is world-recognized, having traveled to New York City, Korea, and so on. Tulsa Opera belongs on that list as well."
The center's reputation means that the PAC does almost no recruiting -- almost none, in fact. "Actually, we have to schedule these things out five years in advance, to get everybody on the calendar that wants to be," Scott said.
"Tulsa has always prided itself on being an enlightened and culturally rich community. That lends itself to stage productions," he said. "Our calendar gets busier and busier all the time. It's the mindset of Tulsa people, as much as anything."
Tulsa's interest in the performing arts has historical precedent, Hermann said, noting that the Brady Theater has more seats than the PAC even though it was built in 1914.
"What were they thinking building a community theater with that kind of seating, especially back then?," she said. "Tulsa needed it. Tulsa has always loved its performers."
For more information about Tulsa Performing Arts Center, or to see a calendar of events, visit tulsapac.com or call 918-596-7122. To purchase tickets to upcoming events, visit myticketoffice.com.
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