Seattle’s historic Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute is sparkling after a $3.4 million remodel, and city taxpayers will pay nearly $750,000 this year to keep it running.
Most of that will pay seven city employees to run Langston Hughes, a historic theater in the Central Area with deep history in the African-American community and among local hip-hop artists. It is the only theater in town paid for and run by the city.
It had languished in the parks department for 40 years, lost among swimming pools and picnic shelters. Despite the city’s large investment, confusing record keeping makes it difficult to track down how much money the institute brings in. Until this week, it didn’t even have a website or an online calendar of upcoming events. Three city studies about what to do with it weren’t acted on.
This year, the city took the recommendation of one of those reports and moved the center from control of the parks department to the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
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The move to the arts office was controversial — disagreement over it contributed to the sudden departure of the city arts director last year. It also puts Langston Hughes under scrutiny, raising questions about what taxpayers are getting for their money, how to make best use of the institute, and whether Seattle should be in the business of running a theater at all.
“It is an unsustainable model. I think that’s pretty much accepted by everyone,” said Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Licata’s office led an effort to require a community group to come up with a new plan for Langston Hughes. The plan likely will include marketing to generate income, and a more aggressive fundraising model. Also on the table: forming a nonprofit to run the center or leasing out the building.
That would be in line with a 2008 consultant report that recommended the performing-arts center be managed by an outside group. The report said the city should provide funding for some staff, and that the center should establish a new fundraising model.
Each year, Langston Hughes produces a popular film festival, a summer musical and a fall production. The rest of its programming is created by local organizations and artists who use the 287-seat auditorium, the grand performance hall or one of the classrooms or conference rooms in the building.
After a two-year renovation that included seismic retrofitting and new floors and paint, the center reopened last April. Through the rest of last year, it served about 18,000 people, said Executive Director Royal Alley-Barnes. The mission is to focus on demographic groups that are underserved, but the city doesn’t have any data to demonstrate who is going there.
Langston Hughes’ biggest event of the year, the African-American Film Festival, drew 645 people last year. People also pass through for music and dance practices, meetings and classes.
The arts center’s main contribution might be the free space it provides to small arts groups, said Randy Engstrom, the city’s interim arts director. In 2012, it donated 626 free hours — almost $75,000 worth of time — to 38 organizations. The Inception Dance Company holds classes, fundraisers and performances there. The Seattle Firefighters Bagpipe Brigade practices there. The center hosted city racial-sensitivity trainings, a play reading by cancer survivors, and the American Indians in Cinema.
Engstrom said the point is not to give resources to the best art. Taxpayers aren’t funding only programs they want to go see, in the same way they aren’t buying only books for the library they want to read.
“Everything is not going to work for everyone,” he said. “Arts is pretty subjective, and what people think is good or what they like is pretty subjective.”
The center also rents space for art-related meetings and even weddings. It’s budgeted to bring in $70,800 this year in rentals.
Other accounting for the center is less precise. The city handles Langston Hughes’ operating budget, but ticket and fundraising revenue goes through a parks nonprofit called ARC, the Associated Recreation Council. The arts center has an account with ARC where it puts the money it raises. Then it can draw from that account to pay for production costs.
Asked how much the center brings in, an official in the Seattle Parks and Recreation office said it generates about $22,000 to $25,000 a year. That’s not backed up by any budget the city provided.
Alley-Barnes said the center’s production budget spends about what it brings in each year. But that wasn’t reflected in the ledgers for 2009 and 2010, either.
In 2009, the Langston Hughes box office brought in about $62,000, but the ARC budget recorded ticket sales under the line-item “fundraising events.” That year, the center finished the year about $15,000 ahead in its ARC budget. But in 2010, the center ended the year $13,000 in the hole.
No plans to change
Alley-Barnes has a long history in city government. She has worked for the zoo, in the city budget office, and in the parks department. She took over Langston Hughes in 2009.
Alley-Barnes says she has “absolutely no unease” about accepting city tax dollars to fund Langston Hughes operations, and she dismisses any suggestion that the center should pay more of its own way through fundraising or higher ticket prices. Langston Hughes, she said, is about supporting local artists at the “grass roots.”
“People know the efficacy and the value of what we do,” she said. “It’s all about negotiation and partnerships. There’s a whole thing about what money cannot buy.”
Even the things money can buy, Alley-Barnes attempts to get for free.
“I don’t believe in paying for anything,” she said, “If it’s not free, it needs to be almost free.”
She scored the Moroccan furniture in the lobby at a thrift shop. She said on a recent tour of the center that she negotiated the price of a baby-grand piano worth $35,000 down to $3,100. (City records show the city actually paid $5,900 for the piano, which is commonly sold for about $8,000.)
Alley-Barnes sees no need to change anything about the center. The house schedule is full, she says. It offers an open microphone the first Friday of every month, a third-Thursday jam session for local musicians, and the center’s schedule pivots around Black History Month and the annual film festival.
“You have to understand when you’re serving underserved or marginalized communities, it’s not about raising ticket prices,” she said. “We make jobs for local artists here, and that’s important for keeping them here. A city at its artistic and aesthetic core needs to be mindful of its grass-roots artists.”
Alley-Barnes got a raise this year, bringing her salary to $102,667. The artistic director, Jacqueline Moscou, makes $75,794. The center has three other employees who make more than $60,000 a year, including an administrative assistant who makes $66,327 and a stage tech who makes $63,089.
In all, the city will spend $674,698 on salaries and benefits at Langston Hughes in 2013.
“Any municipality pays for what it values,” said Alley-Barnes. “It may be difficult for a municipality to pay for something they don’t understand.” City Council members who think the center should get less money “need to be educated,” she said.
Over the summer, the mayor’s office started working with then-arts director Vincent Kitch to prepare his department to take over Langston Hughes. He and his staff planned to make drastic changes to the center’s mission and require it to become more self-sustaining. Kitch even hinted there might be layoffs.
Kitch left abruptly, and the transition went forward without him. He could not be reached for comment. The new director, Engstrom, says there are no plans to change the institute’s mission or vision, and no plans for layoffs. Alley-Barnes, he said, “is amazing.” It’s not fair to evaluate the center’s success based on the money it brings in, Engstrom said, and it’s not worthwhile to spend money measuring whom the arts center serves.
The first step for his department is a website (www.langstoninstitute.org), which went up this week.
“I do think we have to tell the story better,” he said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter.