Four years since his ouster, the Carpenter Center's 10-year executive director, a former foundation vice president, looks to the future of CenterStage.
by Don Harrison
When Joel Katz was hired in 1995 to run the Carpenter Center, he walked into his office and found an outdated phone system, a typewriter and the smell of a cat.
During the next 10 years, as its executive director, Katz would help to rehabilitate the Carpenter, turning a venue that had a bad reputation in the industry into one of those rare felines — a performing arts center that actually made an annual profit (not a huge profit, but a profit nonetheless).
Katz only rented out the hall during his first years at the venue, he says. But soon, with $50,000 in seed money from the Carpenter Center board, he began promoting “Sesame Street Live” and presenting performers such as Willie Nelson. He also instituted the “Many Worlds, One Community” series, which connected world-famous performers with local schools. A highlight of his tenure was an appearance from jazz master Wynton Marsalis, who visited local schools (“He had a priceless trumpet that he would hand to a young person and say ‘Here’”) and met with teachers from across the region. The bearded, then-rotund Katz also was instrumental in bringing the National Folk Festival to town and serving as the first Richmond chairman of its programming committee.
Through some people's eyes, however, Katz is a turncoat, fired from the public-private Virginia Performing Arts (now CenterStage) Foundation for speaking out about the foundation's original plans for a downtown Richmond arts center.
“It was an unfriendly takeover,” Katz says today, more than 100 pounds lighter than he was four years ago, when he was eventually terminated from his position as the foundation's vice president in charge of programming. “When two companies are brought together, and there's an unfriendly takeover, somebody's got to be in charge. … and the big dogs usually win.”
Because he was the most prominent local performing arts professional associated with the project, a key member of its building committee, the news of Katz's departure was another crippling setback to the foundation, whose members were, at the time, at odds with Mayor Doug Wilder over finances and project direction. The foundation's proposal eventually was scaled down considerably, with the Carpenter renovation as its centerpiece.
Before he came to Richmond, Katz had helped to open a facility at the University of Maine (“which is thriving,” he says) and worked in places like Coral Gables, Fla., launching new venues and presenting concerts. He has a degree in urban studies and went to graduate school to study arts history. But his experience with this particular arts center was a real education, he says — in dealing with politics and power.
“One of my biggest mistakes was in not realizing earlier that this was all about real estate, and money and power ... and not serving the community's greater need,” he says. “If we were serving the greater need, we would have fixed the schools and the sewers and the streets and the other pressing problems first. Because the citizens are more concerned about those issues than in seeing a performance.”
That aside, with the building he once operated on the verge of reopening, Katz says he's relieved that the Carpenter — “I still can't call it the Carpenter Theatre,” he says — will be renovated: “It is going to be a wonderful thing.”
“It's going to be more comfortable for the performer and the audiences, it's going to be bright and shiny and freshly painted, everything is going to work, there will be no small electrical fires in the middle of the show,” he says, laughing. “It should be state of the art and it should be a pleasure to perform in and to experience performers.”
But the new theater's fewer seats are a touchier subject. When Katz was on the building committee, he says he argued against it. “Show business is all about the gross potential of what a show can deliver at the box office,” he says. “And by cutting out [200 seats — the renovated Carpenter seats about 1,800] at an average price of $50, that's the difference between having certain shows of a certain quality and not having them. ... that includes most Broadway productions.”
The presence of the National, a performance venue catty-cornered from CenterStage, complicates things even further. “Willie Nelson, Rusted Root — some of these other shows I put on in the '90s will now play at the National,” Katz says. That “takes away a segment of the market that was very profitable when I was at the Carpenter Center.”
Katz, who works with legal nonprofits, says he's optimistic nonetheless. “I hope this project is successful,” he says. “I know that it will have a great honeymoon period because everybody will want to see what's happened. But they have to deliver on their promises now. There has to be good close parking and restaurants and all that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, to me, I don't care if you are in a barn in an ‘Our Gang’ comedy or the finest performing arts center in the world, what happens on the stage when the lights go down is what's really important.” S
Words of Advice
Suggestions for success at CenterStage from the Carpenter Center's former director.
1. Find a leader — “one voice that will put forward some kind of vision to the community,” he says. “No one seems to have emerged.”
2. Add more arts reps to the foundation board. “You absolutely need arts and cultural voices on a board of directors to be able to provide some practical, ongoing dialogue. ... to question out-of-town consultants' views of what they think might be good.”
3. Be transparent. “If you are truly engaging the community, and if you are using the taxpayers' dollars, you have an obligation to tell them how they are being spent.”
4. Set realistic expectations in the community. “[Venue manager] SMG has to hand hold and walk community groups and others through the ‘How much can you afford to lose on this show?’ conversation. I used to call that the No. 1 lesson [of presenting shows].”
5. Raise lots of money. “Ticket sales don't support any of the high arts, whether they are the performing arts or the museums. … So they have to raise money from the beginning to stay alive.”