Final Thoughts on (SCENE)metrospace Transference

A couple posts back, I touched upon the recent debacle over the City of East Lansing’s (COEL for short) giving away (SCENE)metrospace (a now formerly municipally-run contemporary and alternative art space) to Michigan State University’s Dept. of Art, Art History, and Design (AAHD). I wrote that I was confident it would pass and last week it did just that. Unfortunately, it passed all too quietly into that good night, as there wasn’t one iota of discussion from City Council before the vote – it was quietly moved from the meeting’s business agenda (in which each item receives its own discussion and vote) to the consent agenda (in which a multitude of small or seemingly unanimously agreed-to items are voted on collectively without discussion). Getting rid of the space was bad enough, but doing so without comment was salt on the wound. This post should be my final statement explicitly on the topic; I’d just like to offer my own final word on this – a counter-argument of my own – as a number of other outlets have trotted out the positive spin since the final vote.

I’m speaking for myself only, and I represent no other associated organization or institution.

[NOTE: Before going further, I’ll acknowledge that this has always been a music-centric blog, and I strive to keep personal details and/or politics out of it. However, because of its musical focus, the arts often intersect with the political, obviously, and such occasions merit discussion.]

First, some full disclosures:
1. I’ve performed at (SCENE)metrospace a handful of times with my own groups since 2009 (maybe once or twice a year).
2. I’ve donated my time and talents to (SCENE)metrospace both for its own annual fundraiser as well as a separate exhibition opening or two.
3. I’m a member of the City of East Lansing Arts Commission.
4. I’m an alumnus of MSU, and I also teach a study abroad course each summer (except for this year because of the baby).
5. As I stated at the June 2 City Council meeting, I reluctantly support this plan moving forward, if only to maintain (SCENE) as an art space. Had this agreement fallen through, it’d likely just become another tanning salon, gym, or coffee shop.

OTHER SOURCES:
Before digging in, here are many reports on the topic (each in chronological order):
EastLansinginfo.org: here, here, here
Lansing State Journal: here, here
City Pulse: here, here, here, here, here
The State News: here, here

FISKING:
I’ll try not to get too ridiculously in the weeds, but detail is needed if one’s to really dig in and understand the issue and its nuances. There are a variety of avenues I could take, but I’ll begin by fisking the City of East Lansing’s official statement that was reinforced the day after the vote:

[The] partnership between the City of East Lansing and MSU’s Department of Art, Art History and Design (AAHD) [will] help ensure that (SCENE) Metrospace continues to be an important part of the community’s vibrant arts & cultural scene.

The City’s continued investment in (SCENE) is a testament to an ongoing commitment to bring the moniker “City of the Arts” to life, while also tackling pressing budget challenges in a responsible way.

In my view, the budgetary concern was tremendously overblown to obscure the real driving factor: the City – particularly via City Manager George Lahanas – wanted to get rid of the space. “The City should get out of the curating business” was stated on the record multiple times by both Lahanas and the Parks, Recreation, and Arts Director. This was a go-to line in discussions. As for “City of the Arts,” a moniker that’s been stressed throughout by the Mayor, staff, and others, I contend that the way in which this was handled undermines such a label — the city-run space being thrown under the bus the way it was. Besides, the financial cost and “savings” are tangential at best…

Under the proposed partnership, the City [will] continue to support (SCENE) through annual utility payments of approximately $4,000 and by continuing to forgo rental revenue in the City-owned space. Under the proposed partnership, AAHD would take over full operation of the space, including all administrative costs.

So, in an effort to cut costs, COEL will continue to subsidize the space by paying rent and all utilities. (SCENE) occupies prime downtown real estate by two parking garages, restaurants, and coffee shops. As for “forgo[ing] rental revenue,” not charging a tenant rent is the same as paying it yourself. I pressed City staff and others on the actual rental/property value of this space at public meetings, only to receive the line that the City hasn’t charged itself rent to use the space the last ~10 years, so that cost isn’t being considered in this arrangement. (That figure has been actively undisclosed.) What?! I know how much my mortgage costs each month, and therefore I’d know what to charge if I decided to lease my house to tenants. I’m completely guessing, but considering the size and prime location, I’m just going to conservatively make up a number and say that a business could pay ~$30K/yr. to lease the space. Rent aside, MSU’s AAHD balked at the idea of paying for utilities ($4K/yr.), so the City agreed to pick up that tab as well. Make that $34K/yr. with utilities. That’s a curious demand from MSU, which is now currently in the midst of a $1 billion capital campaign, not to mention recent and future tuition and fee increases. (Yes, this is in the shadow of drastic state budget cuts, but that doesn’t quite change the optics in this scenario.) COEL rank and file will say that this isn’t valid criticism because the City isn’t paying that money, but willingly passing up the opportunity to collect it is simply putting lipstick on the “not spending” pig…

Historically, the City has subsidized (SCENE) to the tune of approximately $19,000. The proposed partnership with AAHD would save the City approximately $15,000 per year.

That ~$19K is largely separate from the aforementioned theoretical ~$34K. When you remove the utility payments from that $19K you’re left with $15K (or $14.5K on some more recent documentation). This is the pretty much the part-time staffing cost to keep the gallery open approximately fifteen hours each week. Judging by these numbers, the only cost COEL saves is on staff (and other negligible costs such as printing posters and flyers, etc.), while the City continues to pay for most other substantial costs. As for the staffing, I understand that the most recent curator now works elsewhere for the City under the Parks, Recreation, and Arts budget (which included (SCENE)), which means that the person’s salary has simply been shuffled. (Hopefully they took an already open position, which is the only way that budgetary math works out.)

(SCENE), while viewed as extremely successful from a placemaking standpoint, has never been in a position to become financially self-sustaining. When the space first opened, the idea was that one day revenue would offset the costs of running the space. Unfortunately, the business model never made it possible for that to occur and, while revenue has remained flat, expenses have increased. This is not a reflection of the work of staff members and volunteers who have been affiliated with the space over the years – everyone involved has had a hard work ethic and a true passion for the arts.

This is true: (SCENE) did not pay for itself, and it surely has been a financial loss for the City. However, I’ve neither been able to find nor been provided documentation that explicitly outlines an infrastructure for financial stability. The City writes that, “…the idea was that one day revenue would offset the costs of running the space.” Great. But beyond that idea, where was the planning and paperwork? (SCENE) sometimes charged admission for concerts and special events, but rarely, if ever, for gallery exhibitions. (And of course there was the annual fundraiser each January.) Speaking from the point of view of someone who performed there, the space was free to rent and the only cost to the event’s lessee was a portion of the event’s proceeds, which of course varied from show to show. If no one attended your show, you weren’t out any money. If it was a full house, you gave X% to (SCENE). The odd thing is that COEL isn’t incapable of drafting such plans. Take nearby Hannah Community Center, for instance, which has a tiered pricing structure for a variety of space rentals. By never having a concrete fiscal plan in place, it’s quite amazing that COEL now acts surprised that the space didn’t pay for itself. Of course, considering (SCENE) is now being given away while being fully paid for outside of staff, it will certainly make NO money going forward.

[Side note: this is a peculiar inverse of City Council’s recent arguments regarding giving tax breaks to developers building unnecessary student housing throughout town — the properties currently make no revenue, so a tax break going forward is of “no cost” to the City compared to now… (SCENE) hasn’t made money, so instead of coming up with a plan to make money let’s just give it away while continuing to pay most of what we already spend.]

As for “placemaking,” (SCENE) mattered locally, regionally, and I dare say nationally. It featured contemporary and alternative art as well as myriad performances and events in other media (music, dance, poetry, etc.). All styles and attitudes were welcome. And because it was municipally-run, there was no need to play local politics with booking agencies and promoters. Locally, it’s been the one — and I dare say only — place that was 1) inclusive (accepted all acts/styles without prejudice), 2) family-friendly, and 3) provided proper facilities (e.g., bathroom, etc.). And now: gone. It’s sad that it couldn’t be sincerely nurtured more. It’s worth noting that many of the local folks who justifiably followed and supported MI musician Joshua Davis’s recent journey on The Voice likely attended his last performance at (SCENE) this past November.

AAHD has an interest in running an off-campus public art gallery in downtown East Lansing and is in a position, both financially and strategically, to run (SCENE) efficiently. MSU staff members are proposing to host regular art exhibitions and keep the gallery open to the public 20 hours per week (the gallery is currently open 15 hours per week). AAHD also plans to host student performances in the space, including music, theater, dance, poetry slams and more. From an art standpoint, AAHD is proposing as many as eight exhibitions over a 12-month cycle, with exhibitions featuring the work of undergraduate students, visiting artists, AAHD alumni and state of Michigan artists, as well as traveling exhibitions from other universities. Contrary to rumors, the gallery would be open year-round, including summers.

George Carlin, this blog’s Patron Saint of Letters for preferring “simple, honest, direct language,” would get a kick out of the above. I would hope that AAHD is “in a [financial] position” to operate the gallery, considering that their cost is so minimal (i.e., no rent, no utilities). One datum that was trumpeted as a cost-saving measure in these discussions was that AAHD can use its own print shop for posters and flyers. When compared to rent and utilities, I doubt that promotional printouts are as substantial. In this agreement, while (SCENE) remains fully funded by taxpayer dollars, AAHD will have “complete curatorial control.” (This comes from an early proposal, and that language remains.) From the “strategic” the standpoint of running a visual art gallery, I have little doubt that AAHD will do a fine job. In fact, AAHD may far exceed what (SCENE) has done up to this point visually. However, (SCENE) has always been more than an art gallery alone. It’s continually shown a variety of interesting visual work but it has also represented the other arts strongly. Those will now cease, save for a handful of AAHD-approved “student performances” throughout the year. I believe the most recent discussion included 6-8 such events per year. Until its recent closing, (SCENE) would have 6-8 such events each month by presenters from throughout the region and country. Considering the above list of “music, theater, dance, poetry slams, and more,” that’s approximately 1.25-1.4 performances of each discipline each year.

Regarding the calendar (“Contrary to rumors…”), I’ve admittedly been one of the loudest critics. Even though East Lansing is a college town, there is a thriving culture of permanent residents here that don’t live and die by the university calendar. The proposed schedule is “eight exhibitions,” each lasting one month with each being preceded by a one-week setup (and tear-down if following another). There’s also a proposed two-week annual downtime for maintenance and other updates to the space. In short, that’s 8 months + 8 weeks + 2 weeks, which doesn’t total 52 weeks. That’s approximately 45 weeks and some change — we’ll say 46 to be safe. Where will those other six weeks fall? Would AAHD want an empty or minimal gallery during the academic year, or would they prefer that occur between mid-May and mid-August when most students and many faculty are out of town? The counter-argument is of course that MSU is a 12-month institution. Of course it is. I teach for MSU each summer. (In Austria…) And my wife is currently enrolled in a summer graduate program for teachers. But you walk through both downtown East Lansing and through West Circle in the north of campus the fourth week of May and tell me with a straight face that it’s as bustling and packed with students as the fourth week of April.

MSU has been very careful and on message throughout this process, particularly through the AAHD chair and university PR. They continually stress that (SCENE) will remain open to the community year-round, just like it is now. MSU spins “community access” as residents attending the gallery as patrons. However, the definition of “community access” that’s defined (SCENE) until now is that because it is municipally run, members of the community (and anyone else, including students) could use the space as performers and presenters as well as patrons. (Again, inclusivity.) When pressed, MSU’s response has been two-fold:
1. Because MSU’s brand will now be on the facade, AAHD’s concern for “curatorial control” means that a greater degree of quality control over the content displayed therein must be enforced.
2. Members of the community are more than welcome to submit proposals through open calls just like any other artist.

Absolutely, and it’s best to have everyone apply the same way and separate the wheat from the chaff. But (SCENE) was already curating regional and national shows of contemporary and alternative art. AAHD may not have preferred it to its own aesthetic or academic vision, but it’s not like this was just a gallery of artwork by members of the community and surrounding area. (East Lansing already has a place for that.) Just like Ben Carson or Lincoln Chafee can run for president, I too can now submit a proposal to present at (SCENE). (And I’ll have just as much chance at succeeding.) Except I can’t, because I’m neither a visual artist nor a student. I’m sure I could work the alumni or part-time faculty angle to my benefit but this isn’t about me. So many musicians and performers from so many places have performed there, and now the venue may well be shuttered. Of course, this begs the question as to why a visual arts department that’s so concerned about “quality control” (the exact term used by MSU in one of our meetings) should then dictate and curate performances and events in non-visual media. No one’s answered that question.

City staff view this as another great opportunity to collaborate with MSU (as aligned with the City’s Strategic Priorities), while also cutting costs and keeping (SCENE) open as a community public art space in the downtown.

Again, “cutting costs” in this case is cutting one staff member (to employ the elsewhere in the same overall budget) and “a community public art space” means “open for the community to attend,” which it already was.

CURIOSITIES:
There are a few further items that didn’t quite fit into COEL’s official statement that are worth considering. I’ll try to be brief.

Regarding the final curator who left for another position, it’s worth noting that the City may have started signaling last fall that (SCENE) would likely be closing to make way for AAHD. (It’s not the curator’s fault; he needed to of course find other work, and the lead time is always necessary.) However, similarly, the City also made it known to the private benefactor who had provided the stage and A/V equipment to (SCENE) on essentially a permanent-loan basis. Once said benefactor learned of AAHD’s takeover, the stage, light right, and PA were removed. I mention this because by the time April rolled around (SCENE) had been gutted and shuttered save for one final end-of-academic-year AAHD exhibition (already scheduled), and for all intents and purposes has remained so since. I point this out because, had City Council voted down the transfer, City staff could simply point to a shuttered and blighted space that needed to be sold. How very convenient. This is precisely why I reluctantly supported the City Council’s vote — better to save it for an artistic use than none.

Now, regarding that final vote, I’ll take this opportunity to repeat myself. The City Council’s May 26 Work Session, which I attended, included a brief discussion on (SCENE)metrospace regarding final changes in language to the agreement with AAHD. The vote was then scheduled for the business agenda of the June 2 meeting. Then, when the upcoming agenda was published a few days later, (SCENE) had quietly been moved to the consent agenda (an omnibus vote without discussion). Typically Council will address which items will go to the consent agenda at the previous work session. Not this time.

It should be clear now that AAHD has total operational control of (SCENE) going forward, meaning that no non-university entity can stage an event at the space. However, if you listen to an exchange between Councilmember Susan Woods and AAHD Chair Prof. Chris Corneal from the 04.14.15 City Council Work Session, Woods explicitly seeks and receives pork for the East Lansing Film Festival, of which she’s the Director. Her biggest concern was that the ELFF holds its annual party for directors and supporters at (SCENE) and wouldn’t be able to do so now that AAHD won’t allow non-university events, to which the Chair responds by all but assuring her that the annual gala could continue under the new arrangement. After this, Woods was supportive of divestiture. How is that above the board? The whole point is that no one but MSU will have access to the space. Now, I stated my full disclosures at the outset of this post and during all meetings and statements, and I’ve even said on the record multiple times that I’d happily agree to never perform there again if it were to remain under City control and truly “open to the community.” It wouldn’t be right if I were to simply say that I’d be fine with the new arrangement as long as I got to perform there annually. This isn’t about me but about the supposed artistic “community” in East Lansing and Lansing and beyond. However, I’m quickly learning that such a “community” is more concept than reality.

“COMMUNITY”:
Related to that, I was asked a great question — the question — by a local reporter (I’m paraphrasing): Under the new agreement, if I wanted to rent the space and stage a show at (SCENE)metrospace, would I be able to? The answer: NO. Only if you’re a student or a similarly-sanctioned university entity. Ditto for the local school groups (K-12) that occasionally use the space for performances and other functions, and any other person or group. That question gets at the real meat and potatoes — “curatorial control” means total control and exclusivity. However, neither the question nor the answer made it into that article or any other until AFTER the final vote to divest the space to MSU. WHY?!?! This is what I don’t understand. I personally know various figures in local media (including radio, print, web, etc.) and artistic “scenes” (both here and throughout the state) that have gotten so much out of staging, attending, and supporting many shows at (SCENE) over the years and almost none of them said a public word while this was going on while a few of us were trying to raise awareness. Some seemed aloof and others appeared to be actively quiet on the matter. Instead it just looked like a few wily Arts Commissioners with a grudge. A recent City Pulse article now states, “downtown East Lansing is likely losing its best outlet for original live music.” That’s absolutely true. 100%. But where was this argument from everyone beforehand? What remains in East Lansing and in nearby downtown Lansing are, by and large, Fusion Shows venues and the Pump House, the latter of which programs great shows but is strongly guided by genre ideology (i.e., also exclusive, which is perfectly fine and in its right to do, but that only emphasizes the loss of (SCENE)).

There’s much to be irritated by in this saga, but arguably one of the most vexing aspects has been the deafening silence of the local arts “community.” For a few, I suppose they assume they’ll benefit from AAHD running the operation because of their own ties to MSU. But for others, especially those who’ve performed, shown, and seen so much there, what’s the excuse? Did they truly not care? That’s very much a possibility, however almost everyone in such circles — mostly musicians and/or music fans — that I’ve spoken or communicated with thinks this is a bad deal and a true loss. So why not say something? Maybe it’s not that they don’t care, but rather they see the venue’s loss as a gain for their own scene. A zero sum approach to community I touched upon here. Maybe the folks across the highway in Lansing are too concerned with their own micro-scenes to cause a stir over a venue that many of them made good use of when they had the chance. Maybe the people in both East Lansing and Lansing (and the surrounding area) who no longer play the space but once put in many reps don’t care because it no longer impacts them directly. I just don’t know. I’m personalizing this when I know I shouldn’t be. I suppose I could’ve written this blog post earlier, but I’ve been occupied. Besides, Matt wrote one around New Year’s Day that, similarly, was the tree that fell with no one around to hear it. Others needed to join in. They didn’t and now it’s too late.

Throughout this process, I was asked by the powers that be variations of, “What do you want going forward?” Transparency and sincerity. That’s it. If (SCENE) was in such trouble, why were no alternatives truly and thoroughly explored before deciding to give the space away to save a fraction of the fiscal cost, particularly at such a great cultural cost to the community? And why spin this as great for the arts? It’s arguably great for the visual arts since that’s now the sole focus. As for the other disciplines, it’s just another loss in an age of dying venues. Another one bites the dust.

This is just an unfortunate situation all around. Speaking for myself, a few of my own performances at (SCENE) made for some great memories. There are three in particular that I often fondly think of with some regularity. And as for the former curator, Mr. Lane (the only one I personally worked with as a performer), he was thoroughly enthusiastic and supportive of so many different acts and exhibitions that came through there. He was always a gracious host.

This monstrosity of a post went far beyond the final statement I had hoped to type, but it’s better to have this accounting out there than not at all.

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UPDATE – 06.13.15: Since posting this, some have reached out to provide additional info. While I clearly have my own opinions, I’m also interested in what actually transpired. So, to be clear:
– It turns out that the former curator’s new position is largely paid for outside of the Parks, Recreation, and Arts budget. A portion of it still comes from PR&A but I do not know how much nor how it compares to the (SCENE) salary.
– I was under the impression that general signals about possible the transfer were made sometime in the fall. I now understand that such “signaling” occurred sometime before September and that, at that point, the deal was already as good as done. As for how long talks had already been underway before then, I do not know.

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