Last October was a perfect storm for major arts organizations in Boston. Emerson College had commissioned a plan to repurpose the Colonial Theatre; Boston University was ending its association with the Huntington Theatre Company (thereby throwing its future on Huntington Avenue into doubt); Citi was divorcing the Wang; the Boston Lyric Opera was saying, “Sayonara, Shubert.”
I wrote a column saying that Mayor Marty Walsh should become more involved, that his administration’s much-touted “cultural roadmap” needed to go through downtown. Others at the Boston Globe and Boston Magazine followed suit.
So now that the Colonial is going to stay a theater and the Huntington is going to stay where it is, let’s give credit where it’s due. The Walsh administration has done a sensational job as a steward of keeping these legacy theaters in place, particularly the Huntington and the Colonial.
While many, including me, were asking the city to speak in a loud voice the mayor and his team were quietly meeting with representatives of the Colonial and Emerson College; the Huntington, Boston University and John Matteson, the new owner of the Huntington Avenue site; and the Boston Lyric Opera.
The clear consensus of these various entities now is that the mayor’s office had the backs of the arts organizations, particularly the Huntington, and that they were actively involved before various media outlets urged them to step up to the plate.
Joyce Linehan, the mayor’s chief of policy, recalls the events with the Huntington. Boston University let the mayor’s office know that they were selling the BU Theatre and its attendant spaces on Huntington Avenue before it was announced publicly. "I went into the mayor and said ‘It’s really important for the Huntington to stay where they are.’ " She filled him in how the Huntington has worked with the Codman Academy Charter Public School, what the theater’s championing of playwright August Wilson has meant to the city and other elements of the Huntington’s legacy.
He agreed, she says, that they needed to figure out a way to keep the Huntington where it was and started to work with BU to get the Huntington the best deal they could, which wound up with the assurance that the theater could stay there through the end of next season, June of 2017.
Michael Maso, the Huntington’s managing director, agrees that the city was supportive from the start.
"The mayor’s office was deeply engaged from the beginning," he said. "There was a personal involvement from the mayor himself. He made a personal commitment to making us whole and to be an advocate for us during this process. He was very specific and very clear, expressing to everyone involved, first to BU and then to the buyer that it is a priority that the Huntington have every opportunity, first to purchase the theater or, second, to take over the theater and do the renovation."
Almost immediately after John Matteson emerged as the purchaser of the building, the administration began talking to him and sat him down with the Huntington. “We met with Michael, John Matteson, John Barros [chief of economic development]," Linehan said. "It was great. John Matteson walked into the room and started talking about cultural use right away. We made it clear that the Huntington was the priority and started working together immediately. It was kind of tough when we were taking hits in the media for not being present, but I think you can understand why it would be difficult to broker a negotiation in public. We just kept our heads down and worked out an agreement that everybody was happy with.”
Barros describes his role as a “facilitator” in the negotiations, not a mediator or arbitrator. He says that after the initial talks “I stayed out of meetings, but let it be known that I would be willing to go to the table if there was ever a need for me to be there, but there wasn’t.”
Maso agrees. “It was a very ongoing and engaged process. I saw the mayor at one of the Boston Creates meetings. He told me he was on it and was personally involved. He was very impressive.” Maso credits the whole City Hall team with being there for the Huntington, including Julie Burros, chief or arts and culture, as well as Linehan and Barros.
Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, tells a similar story — that the city was involved in the Colonial situation long before the Boston Globe broke the story that one of the options on the table was that the theater might be used as a mixed-use dining hall for the college, a report that sent shock waves through the arts community, given the theater’s historic stature.
“The Colonial is a cultural treasure for the city and it’s also a part of the Emerson community,” says Pelton. “As we try to balance the needs of the college with the needs of culture and arts in Boston and beyond Boston, it has been helpful to be in conversation with the mayor’s office in respect to the Colonial …
“We began a conversation with the city as we were thinking about 1) the Colonial and 2) what we were thinking of in terms of developing that corner of Boylston Street across from the Boston Common in order to make it a more diverse, lively place for the students and the city … At no point did they dictate a particular direction. They were appreciative of being kept informed. They mostly talked about how [the concept of] placemaking, which included the Colonial, was in line with mayor’s office aim to create a lively dynamic, animated, culture-and-arts presence on Boylston Street.”
Linehan says that the “dining hall” story was difficult because it was far from the whole story about what was being discussed, though she understands why it unfolded the way it did. And, of course, the fact that the dining hall option was even on the table and remained an option through the fall was an issue that begged for media coverage and even condemnation. As did the Huntington situation.
Still, says Barros, the process with Emerson and the Colonial was similar to the Huntington negotiations. “Joyce’s office met with President Pelton and said, ‘We’re going to share reactions from the community and we’re going to think this out with you.’ They were very gracious with their time and thought process. From the very start, President Pelton was clear he wanted it to remain a theater.” We talked about how, if it were modified, could it go back to what it was?”
As it turned out, the dining hall was located elsewhere. Still to come, is what kind of theater the Colonial will be. Will it be a nonprofit theater, and therefore open to the Boston Lyric Opera and to the Huntington as it looks for other performing places while the former BU Theatre is remodeled? Or will it follow the Boston Opera House model and have a commercial company such as the Ambassador Theatre Group run the building, making it much less accessible to groups like the BLO and Huntington?
Esther Nelson, head of the BLO, also praises the Walsh administration for its support in helping the BLO find a permanent home following its departure from the Shubert Theater and its plans to perform in a variety of venues next season.
Walsh has been advocating for an opera house in Boston even as a candidate for mayor and Nelson would like nothing better herself. But if that isn’t doable then perhaps there’s a role for the Colonial, though Nelson is skeptical that it would be of great use to nonprofits if it were operated as a commercial house:
“The Colonial is quite a beautiful jewel, so could it be functional for us and companies like us? It does need a lot of work but of all the large theaters available, the only one that isn’t commercially operated is the Colonial. … There’s a difference between commercial theater and opera or ballet or symphony. How we operate is quite different. We, and the ballet too, book artists at least three years out, to make sure we bring the best available talent to Boston.”
Commercial theaters operate with more flexibility. Even though a season is put together a year or two in advance, new opportunities are always arising, in which case they want to book a hot property immediately, even if it forces a nonprofit to move aside.
Barros says some of the recent issues, particularly at the Huntington, can be seen as a role model for how to proceed in other phases of development and the arts. “When the city’s clear [about its priorities], the community’s clear, you can price that into your financial model … It’s part of a the citywide planning process. The more we can do that and be clear and be creative the better for the future. We have [in the Huntington] a model of the city being clear about its priorities and investors and developers thinking creatively to make it happen. It’s a win-win.”
There is some sentiment that the Walsh administration could have forestalled some of the criticism it faced last fall if it had at least hinted about its efforts along the way -- a la the Menino administration in its efforts toward restoring the Opera House and building the Calderwood Pavilion.
Linehan disagrees, saying that the negotiations were too sensitive to make public proclamations during the process. “I think we did exactly the right thing,” she says.
Even if there could have been a wink-wink or a nudge-nudge to the media and the public along the way, it’s hard to argue with success.