Originally created 08/30/98

Home of the arts



In the mid-1980s, the south end of Main Street in Greenville, S.C. looked like many other midsize Southern cities: empty storefronts, vacant lots and a dwindling business district.

While it hasn't been the cure-all planners envisioned, Greenville's $42 million Peace Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1990, has helped revive downtown and its impact on the arts scene is undeniable, said Greg Mims of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.

"While there have been some problems, it has changed the face of arts in Greenville for the better," Mr. Mims said.

Some folks, especially those affiliated with Augusta's performing arts organizations, say the Garden City needs a similar facelift.

While Augusta takes pride in its active arts scene, the city lacks a premuim performance hall like the Peace Center, which has a multiuse 2,100-seat concert hall and a 400-seat theater, for more intimate performances.

"Most cities our size do build a good, solid performing arts center," said former Augusta Mayor Charles DeVaney, now executive vice president of Augusta Tomorrow Inc.

For instance, Savannah has the 2,524-seat Johnny Mercer Theatre as part of its civic center complex; Columbus, Ga., is about to break ground on a new $57 million facility; and Athens, Ga., has a premier performance venue in the 3-year-old Classic Center Performing Arts Theatre.

A downtown development plan by Augusta Tomorrow earlier this decade proposed a 2,000-seat performing arts center near the Morris Museum of Art and the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta.

But there has been no public outcry for such a facility, and it has taken the back seat to other projects such as the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Fort Discovery Science Center, said Mr. DeVaney.

"It is not one of our active projects," he said.

In fact, a committee was never formed to plan or study the idea of such a performing arts center, he said.

So Augusta's performing arts organizations make do with what is available, while dreaming of a state-of-the art performance facility.

Space is not generally a problem, so what's wrong with Augusta's existing performing arts facilities?

"They do work, but they're not state of the art," said Sharon White Gruber, executive director of the Augusta Symphony.

At the Bell Auditorium, sound is dampened by carpet and padding, requiring performances to be electronically amplified. It's good for the symphony's pop concerts but not regular orchestral performances.

"Acoustically, it's not going to work for arts organizations," said Mr. DeVaney.

The Imperial Theatre, used by the Augusta Opera, the Augusta Ballet and the Augusta Players, lacks adequate backstage and orchestra pit space. But the theatre's stage curtain and rigging have been replaced and more renovations are on tap, including wholesale seat replacement.

The Augusta Symphony's regular home is the Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theater at Augusta State University, but the organization is outgrowing the venue's 800-seat capacity.In Columbus, groundbreaking for the $57-60 million RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is set for Sept. 10. The complex will include a 2,000-seat concert hall for the city's symphony and national touring acts, a 450-seat recital hall with a $1 million pipe organ, and a 150-seat rehearsal studio.

"Everybody here is real excited," said Shelby Guest, communications director of Columbus' convention and visitors bureau. "It's going to be incredible."

The RiverCenter is supposed to be complete by mid-2000, she said.

Prior to the Peace Center being built, most of Greenville's homegrown theater, dance and music organizations were constantly searching for rehearsal and performance space.

Besides providing a home for those groups, the Peace Center attracts world-renowned performances, including Itzhak Pearlman, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Bill Cosby and Broadway shows like Cats.

The city of Greenville purchased land for the Peace Center and agreed to develop the site for $6.02 million, the county kicked in $1.25 million in accomodations tax, and the state contributed a $6 million grant, according to center records. Dorothy Hipp Gunter, after whom the facility's 400-seat theatre was named, pledged $3 million to the project and a fund-raising campaign eventually raised $42 million, with 70 percent coming from the private sector.

Mr. DeVaney said a riverfront performing arts center in Augusta is still in long-range plans. But it will take similar cooperation of local government and considerable donations from corporate and private sectors, like in Greenville, to become a reality.

"The practical reality is that we have other projects that have taken center stage," he said. "But I don't think it should be out of our minds."

Regional arts venues:

AUGUSTA

•  Bell Auditorium: World War II-era multi-purpose facility refurbished in late '80s that seats a maximum of 3,300.

•  Imperial Theatre: 80-year-old facility that seats 850.

•  Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre: Augusta State University complex that seats 800

GREENVILLE, S.C.

•  The Peace Center completed in 1990: The Concert Hall seats 2,100. The Dorothy Gunter Theatre seats 400

MACON

• Macon City Auditorium: part of municipal Centreplex complex, seats 2,688, built in 1925 and under renovation

•  Grand Opera House: seats 1,250

•  Macon Little Theatre: 390 seat, 35-year-old facility home to local musical theater company

SAVANNAH

•  Armstrong Atlantic State University Performing Arts Auditorium: Built in late 1970s, seats 1,000, hosts concerts, lectures, graduations,

•  Johnny Mercer Theatre: Part of Savannah Civic Center complex, theater is home to Savannah Symphony, jazz concerts, touring Broadway productions. Built in 1971, it seats 2,524.

•  Savannah Theatre Company: Dates back to late 17th century, restored several times in 1920s, 1940s and 1950s. Theater's usage includes community theater productions, lectures, dance and movies and it seats 500.

•  Lucas Theatre: Early 20th century former Vaudeville house, presently in restoration, scheduled to open late 1998. Home to theatre productions, concerts, lectures, and dance it seats 1,200.

CHATTANOOGA

•  Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium: Municipal facility built in 1920s, refurbished in 1990 that seats 3,600

• Tivoli Theatre: Built between 1920s and '30s and renovated for $7 million in 1989. Seats 1,750

•  Chattanooga Theatre Center: Main theater seats 300; circle theater seats 150

ATHENS

• The Classic Center Performing Arts Theatre: Part of municipal complex also featuring convention and meeting space, the 2,053-seat venue opened in May 1996. Home to various entertainment, from classical and popular music to Broadway shows and high-profile performers like magician David Copperfield.

COLUMBUS

•  The RiverCenter for Performing Arts: Groundbreaking set for Sept. 10 on $57-60 million complex including 2,000-seat concert hall, 450-seat recital hall and 150-seat studio.