Friday, January 16, 2015

Why School Auditoriums Cannot Replace a Civic Center for the Arts

School auditoriums are not meant to replace a city's performing arts facility.  Number of seats in a school auditorium does not automatically translate into available seats for the community at large.  Just because space is there doesn't mean it's ours for the taking.  If a city values thriving arts and culture as an unquestionable component of its citizens' quality of life (like parks), then it will create civic places to accommodate the community's needs to gather, celebrate, educate, and perform.

Here are some points to consider.

1.  School stages are not City stages.

The ISD and the City are separate entities.  They are related, but they are not the same.  This has become abundantly clear recently as a few FISD fine arts teachers have been reprimanded for speaking up at Council meetings, though they came as private citizens to represent the need for a larger civic performing arts space.  If we must tread so lightly on the separation of ISD and the city, then should ISD auditoriums be freely and uniformly considered city space?  It seems a bit one-sided.  If you're going to use someone's property, they have a right to talk about it.

Also, if we want to save tax dollars by not building a performing arts facility in a city and use the school auditoriums instead, then let's take a minute to apply that same logic to other services that exist within the schools.  I think we may have found a way to save even more money!

Take for instance the libraries.  Rather than paying for an expansion on the city library, why don't we just charge a nominal fee for citizens to use school libraries?  We have so many schools with so many books!  Why do we need a stand-alone library building for all citizens to use?  Aren't those school books sufficient for every citizen, young and old?  Can't you all use the same space?

How about sports parks?  Why don't we remove from the city budget any more plans to build publicly-funded sports parks and start sharing with the schools since they already have fields to use?  We've already paid for them- we might as well use them!  We can save a lot of money by sharing what already exists in the schools districts.

I understand it's important to be fiscally responsible.  But is saving money at all costs the goal and motivation behind not building a public facility for the arts?  Could it be possible that there are some things that cannot be measured or valued in dollars and cents?

Let's be clear, I support a stand-alone library facility in Frisco.  I support its expansion because I think citizens need a beautiful public space to gather, explore, educate themselves, and have time to reflect.  The library also provides unique programming beyond the instructional limitations of a school facility.  In fact, my 11-year-old daughter Chloe was selected this year as a student teller in the Lone Star Storytelling Festival, hosted by the Frisco Public Library.  She shared the stage with national storytellers at the Dr. Pepper Arena and told a Korean Folk Tale in front of an audience of 2,000 4th graders.  She says it was the best experience of her life!  And this is all thanks to the public library and its exciting programs.

I also support community sports parks in Frisco.  I don't think it would be fair to ask every single sports organization to share fields and facilities with the schools; it would be a scheduling nightmare, and there is no way those groups could survive.  Sports parks are publicly-funded spaces for recreational usage for the entire community to enjoy, whether or not every citizen actually uses them.  Can we consider doing the same for the arts community so that they don't have to share 120 publicly-funded seats in a 2,300 sq. ft. Black Box Theater?

2.  Lack of available dates

The assumption that there are 365 days a year and thus 365 available dates at the schools auditoriums is completely flawed and has no understanding of what really happens at the schools.

According to one of the fine arts teachers in FISD, each school has several performing arts programs (bands, choirs, orchestras, theater) with multiple groups and levels within those programs.  Each of those groups must plan for their year and set dates ahead of time.  There is already a lack of dates just to accommodate the school groups, and that is without the middle schools and elementary schools trying to utilize the stages as well.  Across the district, if you were to look at the Auditorium calendars, you would easily find that there are very few dates or times available for public use.

Of those remaining dates (which are not ideal since the best dates are now taken), community groups must go through a lottery system.  You cannot simply walk in and book a date.  April and May are almost completely off limits due to school functions (which is when many music and dance studios do their spring concerts), and the lottery is only held in February.  For dance studios who order costumes in December and receive them by March, it is prohibitive to work with a venue that can't give you a firm date until a few months before the concert.

So just because a handful of lucky community groups were able to get the dates they needed in the school auditorium lottery, it does not prove that community groups have found a solution to their performance needs or are using the schools on a regular basis.  Many groups have chosen to save the scheduling headache and move their performance to a city that has a stand-alone facility which can simply be rented on the available dates.  When they do so, Frisco not only loses money, we also lose talent.

3.  School stages are instructional space through the year, not performance space

If you've ever been to one of the FISD auditoriums to attend a high school show (which I highly recommend), you will see how incredibly professional their theater sets are.  And not just one, the students build many different sets for each show.  They use all of their work room, rehearsal space, and dressing room/lockers for their productions.  I visited a HS auditorium in Frisco recently whose set was on multiple levels with tiers and took up the entire stage.  I was extremely impressed; these students are learning what it takes to create a quality theater production, and they need their instructional space to do it.

Should students and teachers be forced to move their entire set in order to accommodate community groups during the week and weekends?  When you're teaching kids how to produce a show, is it your responsibility to constantly clear the stage, or make the set smaller, move it around or store it differently so that the community group coming in to use your space can take over for the week of productions?  The purpose of the school auditorium is for students.   A school auditorium is an instructional facility, not designed or readily available as a rental venue.  Could this change in the future?  Is there a way that the city and the ISD can partner to create a larger facility that could service both?  I believe so, and I hope we can explore those options.

4.  Students need to be inspired by professionals in their industry.

The FISD is doing an incredible job of raising quality, award-winning fine arts students.  The arts teach our children to solve problems, work together to learn new skills, communicate in creative ways, be innovative and strive for excellence.  These are well-documented facts, and fine arts parents witness it to be true.

Where can our students go in Frisco to be inspired and see professionals in their industry come to perform in a world-class facility?  Right now, the only publicly-owned place for the city to invite professionals is the Black Box Theater.  The Box cannot house a professional orchestra or a Broadway show.  It can't host the cultural arts programs that represent the changing demographic of Frisco.  The Box is limiting, both for students and professionals, and ultimately for the city.  We must think outside the Box.

Make no mistake, the ISD has shown a great commitment to the fine arts.  You can't walk into a new high school auditorium in Frisco and not clearly see that arts is a priority to the administration.  They are educating the next generation of arts enthusiasts, consumers, and professionals.  Are we as a city creating a place for these students to want to come back to Frisco to live, work, play, and grow?  Can we be a sustainable city without the presence of strong arts and culture, relying on schools and churches to fill in the gap for lack of public performance space?  I hope one day our city will be a cultural and performing arts destination for the graduates of the excellent FISD fine arts programs, as well as for the citizens at large.


Bo Shirah said...

Thoroughly stated!

Carl Soderstrom said...

Well said, Tammy! You have incredible insight, discernment, caring, passion and, day by day, influence and credibility! Hold your torch high!