Putting the Cart Before the Horse (or the Building Before the Programming)

There is one truism for building a building that many arts organizations ignore: before you build a building decide what you want to do in it.

This seems so self-evident as to be ridiculous.

But it astonishing to me how many boards of arts organizations make decisions to build a building without a very clear idea about what they want to produce in it.

I have been approached by several arts organizations in the United States and many others overseas that are planning to build new facilities. In many cases, I am asked for my opinions only after the architects have completed their work and sometimes even after ground-breaking has occurred. How can I offer suggestions about the elements needed in a world class arts facility when the building is already being erected?

At these meetings, I always turn the discussion to the nature of the programming to be produced, what operating budget is projected, how audiences will be developed and how a fundraising will be implemented. All too often, I am greeted with blank stares. All of the attention of the organization has been placed on the design of the building, while none has been devoted to the uses, operation and funding of the facility.

This focus on architecture over content is clearly problematic. Once the building is designed and built, it is incredibly expensive to make significant changes. I know what I am speaking of. The Kennedy Center was designed in the 1960s when arts centers were a novel concept. The designers had no idea that a work had to be rehearsed before it was performed. This seems ridiculous today but the designers never realized that the Center would produce its own art; it was assumed it would only present the rehearsed work of others.

This has placed limitations on the activities of the Center; Washington National Opera, for example, must rehearse operas outside of the facility since the makeshift rehearsal rooms we have created are too small for opera rehearsals.

It is imperative that a clear, long-term artistic plan and an operating budget be developed before the creation of architecture. Any respectable architect would agree with this maxim. But arts boards get excited about design and forget that there are many options for the use of facilities.

In one case, I was presented with a facility that can house 14,000 participants! When I asked if the group only wanted to present rock concerts I was told no, they want to show local dance companies and theater companies as well. But the design of the facility makes it virtually useless for these more intimate groups.

In another instance I was shown an arts center that is in construction but whose parent organization has not yet approved an operating budget for the facility. It is unclear whether the facility will be used at all!

To avoid limiting the activities of an organization, or to avoid expensive retrofitting, careful planning of programming and the development of an operating budget are essential before the architects start their work and especially before the ground is broken.