Oxford city government adapts to role of managing new performing arts center
by Eddie Burkhalter
Jul 04, 2013 | 5056 views |  0 comments | 184 184 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Oxford performing arts center in May, before it hosted the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
The Oxford performing arts center in May, before it hosted the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
After its new $10.4 million performing arts center opened in May, the city of Oxford found itself in the business of show business, and everybody was in on the act.

Those new roles require adjustments for the many involved, but things are moving along smoothly, both city officials and arts promoters say.

Prior to the center’s first performance in May, the Oxford Arts Council — a volunteer organization — hosted performances at various local venues, but had no home of its own.

Today, it’s up to the Arts Council and the center’s director, Rani Welch, to select which acts get to stand atop the stage inside the 1,210-seat theater.

But even after those selections are made, there are negotiations to hash out with entertainment management agencies and contracts to look over, which the council and mayor must approve.

Council President Steven Waits expressed concern at a June 11 meeting over one of two concerts proposed by the Arts Council.

The jazz-rock musical group Blood, Sweat and Tears requires that the center provide more equipment to accommodate the nine-piece band, and Waits wanted more clarification on what that may cost.

Mayor Leon Smith asked how much it would cost to put on these performances, and a member of the Arts Council said one of the acts — a Ricky Nelson Remembered concert by Nelson’s twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar – would cost about $11,000.

The city allocates $40,000 annually to the Arts Council, which uses the money to pay for performances and community events.

Members of the Arts Council worried that postponing approval wouldn’t allow enough time to print promotional posters and advertise the show. Waits agreed the council needed to move fast, but thought it best to hold off making a decision until the next meeting on June 25.

Welch said by phone Wednesday that the cost is minimal, and can be met with the rental of extra speakers and a sound mixing board.

“As we discussed last time, we can’t wait two more weeks,” Waits said at the June 25 meeting.

So Waits and the rest of the council gave Smith permission to sign contracts for both concerts once they are completed.

Waits put into words what many in the meeting may have been thinking, that running a theater is not something that comes naturally to city governments.

“This is a new process for us. It’s taken us a little longer than we hope the next ones will,” Waits said. “Because we’ll have our process in place.”

Working out the kinks

With years of experience running her own theater in Manhattan, Welch said anything successful uses a formula.

She explained that the formula for running a theater can be complex. There are the contract negotiations with acts, she said, and consideration must be paid to whether an act makes sense financially and fulfills artistic goals.

“We are getting a really nice system of how that’s going to happen now, and I’m really happy with that,” she said. “I feel really happy about where we are with that right now.”

Welch has set a goal of 2014 for the center to begin paying back the city for what it spent in renovating the former city hall and adding on the theater.

The city began seeing a profit from the very first concert, said Oxford’s finance director, Alton Craft. The city made a profit of $4,700 from the first performance, which brought the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to the center May 18.

“We have absolutely no problem coming up with a list of people that want to perform in our space,” Welch said.

It’s just a matter of making sure the formula is right, she explained.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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