Growing pains

The superstar pianist Lang Lang will perform at the Gaillard Center next season.

The Gaillard Center opened its doors to the public in October 2015, after months of construction delays that hobbled the administration’s ability to program its first season.

Nevertheless, subscriptions and single tickets sold pretty well for a variety of performances that have featured Chanticleer, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Munich Symphony Orchestra, a flamenco concert, a live version of Disney’s “Fantasia,” presentations by the Charlotte Ballet and New York City Ballet and musical theater such as “Bullets Over Broadway” and a new production of “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Gaillard’s opening gala, which sold out, featured the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

But not everything has gone smoothly. In recent weeks, four people have quit the staff and patrons have complained about high ticket prices, limited access for the disabled and a gallery-level protective railing that appears inadequate. Work hours have been long and demanding and cash flow has been reduced to a trickle.

It’s part of what Gaillard board chairman Luther Cochrane called “growing pains.”

“Once we settle down, once we get a year under our belt, I think we’ll have a very fair chance to have an organization that is cohesive, and we’ll be fine,” Cochrane said.

Gaillard director Tom Tomlinson said the first season actually has exceeded expectations.

More than 380,000 people have attended events in the building: 283,000 in the exhibit hall, 97,000 in the performance hall. Nearly 20,000 school kids have been bused in to attend performances.

“None of us expected the school program to take off like that,” he said.

More than 100,000 tickets have been sold to date, and the building has hosted 1,200 events since it opened.

Kevin Carlon, director of external affairs, said two shows sold out: Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles and Experience Hendrix. Others, such as Alton Brown, David Sedaris and a Janis Joplin production, are selling very well.

Also, extra events such as a Democratic Party presidential debate, Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and Boeing’s “Above and Beyond Exhibit” have added to the first-year bustle, Tomlinson said.

All this activity has meant that staff and budgets can be overstretched. And the spring, when the season is winding down, can pose particular challenges.

“It’s the worst time of the year for every arts organization, the period immediately before you announce the new season, especially for a new organization, and most especially until you build cash reserves,” Tomlinson said.

The 2016-17 season will be announced publicly in a couple of weeks. Already, programming information is being delivered to donors and subscribers.

Tomlinson said highlights include a recital by superstar pianist Lang Lang, a solo concert featuring Bernadette Peters, the musical “Chicago,” the modern dance troupe Pilobolus, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Charlotte Ballet, which will present Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

More programming will be added in coming months.

“It’s actually going to be a much better season,” Tomlinson said.

It also promises to be a season that includes a remedy to what some consider a precarious first row of the gallery level. The low railing is perceived to be insufficient for anyone who might lose his balance, and at least one patron, Cynthia Green, has contacted the Gaillard to complain.

Her concern was deemed valid enough to warrant a re-evaluation of the protective railing. Gaillard staff notified the city of Charleston, which owns the building, as well as the architects responsible for the design. While the railing conforms to international building codes, city officials want to ensure it also meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, according to Steve Bedard, Charleston’s chief financial officer.

Carlon said the solution likely will entail installing a metal mesh along the existing rail. This, he said, should both provide additional protection and alter the perception that little separates the stumbling patron from the orchestra seats below.

Some patrons also have expressed concern about access to the upper seating levels by disabled patrons unable to walk up and down steps. The orchestra level is accessible, and an elevator takes patrons to the top of the gallery. But most of the seats in between are reached via stairs. That means disabled patrons can sit only in the more expensive orchestra seats or in the last row of the top level.

Carlon said any disabled patron who prefers to avoid the orchestra level likely can be accommodated and should call the box office.

Some people are limiting their Gaillard attendance, or avoiding it altogether, because of what they say are high ticket prices. Orchestra seats can cost $100-$150 each. Carlon acknowledged that setting ticket prices is a challenge. Big stars cost the Gaillard more but also raise the bar for live performance in Charleston. It’s a balancing act, he said.

“When you bring in a top-notch star who has a high artist fee, that does make an impact,” he said. And when a production’s technical demands are high, the price goes up.

So the staff is working on getting more sponsors to underwrite some of the costs in an effort to keep tickets affordable.

“We’re doing what we can because we realize that not everyone has $60, $70 to spend,” Carlon said.

He’s also trying to further diversify the concert offerings. Next season could include comedy, for example, as well as more popular music shows and special events.

The Gaillard both presents concerts and hosts concerts. It produces three main series, “Grand Performances,” “Broadway and Beyond” and “Dance,” for which it determines cost and sets tickets prices. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra makes the Gaillard its home, but its concerts are programmed and priced separately.

The Gaillard struck a short-term deal with the Charlotte Ballet to present three concerts a year and organize local workshops and education programs. The goal was to satisfy demand for quality ballet while providing time for local groups to ramp up in the aftermath of the 2012 collapse of the Charleston Ballet Theatre.

Michael Wise, executive director of the recently reorganized Charleston City Ballet, said he appreciates the Gaillard’s efforts but worries that good intentions could hobble local dance companies.

“I think they’ve done an awful lot right,” Wise said. But he would like to see the Gaillard provide more vetting — and vocal support — of worthy local arts organizations.

“When they decided to go with this approach, bringing in high-caliber groups, I applauded them on that,” Wise said. “But they only look at one side of the picture.”

The Gaillard also should help foster the emergence of a dominant dance company, he said.

The void needs to be filled, and the sooner the better, Wise said.

“We need more than the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to be regulars in (the) hall,” he said. “If we’re all struggling, then something’s got to change. There needs to be real discussion on how this can happen. The Gaillard, whether they want it or not, really has the key to the kingdom. It can influence whether local groups grow or not. That’s why there should be a vetting process.”

Carlon said there’s a limit to what the Gaillard can do for local dance companies, besides promoting a general interest in high-quality dance. And there is the economic realities of using the Gaillard, which require local groups to sell a lot of tickets if they hope to cover their costs.

Tomlinson said it’s not the Gaillard’s job to play favorites, though the organization does assist with marketing and promotion of concerts presented in the hall. Local arts groups can negotiate lower rental fees than the standard commercial rate of $5,000. All nonprofits get 25 percent off the commercial rate, he added.

“Our commitment to dance has been to develop an audience,” he said. “If we can continue to develop an audience, then my hope is that a local group will come to us and want to give it a try.”

Financially, the Gaillard is doing OK, especially considering that it’s a start-up year, Bedard said. Its recent city audit was clean. “So far so good,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he has no concerns. The Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, a separate nonprofit responsible for development, still must raise tens of millions of dollars to pay off a big loan. The Gaillard did not open with a large unrestricted endowment, so it must strive to build equity and set some money aside, Bedard said.

“You would hope that would happen (in) year two,” he said.

The city used to spend at least $1.2 million a year on the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. It’s spending $1 million on the new Gaillard, delivering quarterly payments of $250,000. It advanced about $70,000 recently so the Gaillard could purchase a dance surface, and the city stands ready to help in other instances, if required.

The city’s $200,000 savings isn’t the only consequence of the new Gaillard. Bedard said that by consolidating municipal offices there, the city now has a state-of-the-art IT operation center safe from hurricanes.

Also, Charleston taxpayers will save $900,000 in 2017. That savings will be used to pay debt on the building, but once the debt is paid off, the city will realize a significant net savings as a result of the renovated Gaillard.

The challenge for the Gaillard now, Bedard said, is to improve its unearned income (donations) to establish a sustainable budget model.

Cochrane said that effort already is underway. As chairman, he assembled a committee to examine the question and look for ways to foster collaboration between the Gaillard Management Corporation, which is in charge of operations, and the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, which is responsible for development.

“We have to balance the overall purpose of building with the need to be financially responsible,” Cochrane said. “We’re working on everything, trying to make everything we do better. At the end of the day, we have an incredible facility, and that is what we ought to celebrate.”