Dancing to its own music: The Touhill stresses its educational mission
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2009 - While drawing complaints of "unfair competition" from the Fox Theatre, the prospect of a city-backed reopening of Kiel Opera House gets a shoulder shrug from the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
As John B. Hylton, dean of UMSL's College of Fine Arts and Communication, says, "The Touhill is quite different from either the Fox or the Kiel."
This is partly a matter of size. At 1,600 seats to the Kiel's 3,200 and the Fox 4,500, the larger of the Touhill's two theaters can't accommodate the larger audiences attracted to the popular Broadway road shows the other two venues are expected to compete for.
But the big difference, Hylton says, is that the Touhill's primary function is academic, with UMSL's theater, music and dance departments its major users in each of the six years since it opened. UMSL underwrites the center for $500,000 a year, and the departments use it free for student workshops, classes, seminars, rehearsals and performances.
UMSL estimates these will add up to 57 percent of the Touhill's "usage days" for the fiscal year ending June 30, followed by rentals to non-profit performing and other groups (24 percent), university events like commencements (12 percent), Touhill-presented events (5 percent) and corporate rentals (1 percent).
The public image of the Touhill may stem from the cultural events it sponsors -- performances by the likes of Second City, Manhattan Transfer and Arlo Guthrie -- but, says UMSL spokesman Bob Samples, "The notion was always that (the Touhill) would be an academic building. . . . That was what was said, not necessarily what was heard" in the community from the time the university first floated the idea of building a performing arts center on campus.
Underscoring its academic purpose, Samples adds, UMSL moved the previously freestanding Touhill into Hylton's domain two years ago.
Public perception to the contrary, Touhill-presented events have always amounted to a small fraction of the center's activities. And the trend has been downward from the first year, when 27 of these performances drew a total audience of 27,772. The 2008-2009 season's 21 performances and attendance of 13,312 were both, by comparison, the lowest in Touhill history.
Hylton attributes the declining number of performances to increasing selectivity and cost-sensitivity. For the declining attendance this past season, he blames the economy for depressing numbers last fall. They rebounded in the spring, he says.
The season -- reflective of the Touhill's ongoing strategy to appeal to a variety of tastes -- included sold-out performances by singers John Prine and Al Jarreau, "The Pirates of Penzance" by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players and the Connecticut-based dance company Pilobolus.
While audiences may not be aware of the distinction, Pilobolus was not a Touhill presentation but rather a "co-production" of the Touhill and Dance St. Louis, which has brought national and international dance companies to the theater these past two seasons. Hylton says the center has increasingly turned to joint productions of events to lower its financial risk. The same arrangement goes for the Touhill performances of UMSL-based Modern American Dance Company, or MADCO.
Co-productions and rentals to non-profit groups have more than made up for the declining audience at Touhill presentations over the years. Together these sorts of events are expected to account for a record 55,587 people out of this year's estimated attendance of 101,255.
At that, the Touhill will have enjoyed its second best year after a record 106,782 attendees two seasons ago -- and a considerable improvement over its average of about 93,600 in its four other seasons. That's good, says Hylton, but "we still have capacity for more so I would want more." Increased public awareness, improved marketing, better programming and the ample free parking are helping, he says. "It's been a process."
And it has taken six years. The Touhill opened in fall 2003, realizing a top priority of its namesake, Blanche M. Touhill, UMSL's chancellor from 1991 to 2002.
In securing $40 million in state funds plus $12 million in private donations for the $52 million facility, she steadfastly ignored the skeptics. Some faculty members complained that the center was an extravagance beyond UMSL's means. Community activists argued for the university to renovate and reopen the Kiel instead of building from scratch on campus.
Designed by Wischmeyer Architects of St. Louis and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners of New York, the three-story, brick, state-of-the-art structure with its ground-to-ceiling atrium lobby has drawn oohs and ahs from the beginning.
Behind the scenes, though, the new center struggled financially and administratively, going through two directors in a little over two years and racking up a $1.7 million deficit in its first year of operation as start-up costs mounted and ticket sales fell short of projections.
By UMSL's accounting, the center has operated in the black ever since, its revenue generally outstripping its expenses by roughly $200,000. In the fiscal year that ended in June 2008, for example, the university calculates that revenue added up to $4 million, expenses to $3.8 million.
Under revenue, the university includes not just income from ticket sales, sponsorships, gifts and rentals but also about $250,000 generated by a special fee of $10 a semester that every student pays toward the center plus that $500,000 that the university kicks in every year from its own coffers.
The center's staff, marketing, advertising and the costs of its events are listed among expenses. Not counted among those, however, are utilities, janitorial services and required set-asides for future maintenance and repair of the building.
E. Terrence Jones -- professor of political science, chairman of UMSL's budget and planning committee and a critic of the Touhill -- estimates these items add up to about $1 million annually. He is especially critical of the fee charged students for the Touhill, arguing that it should be dropped because few students attend events there despite qualifying for discounted tickets.
Still, Jones says, he takes comfort that the Touhill is, by his calculation, "running at less of a loss" than originally. "A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for making that happen, especially Steve Schankman," he says.
For the past five seasons, Schankman and his St. Louis-based event-management company Contemporary Productions have been helping the Touhill with marketing and booking out-of-town performers.
"The building is here," says Jones. "It's time to move on."
The official view comes from UMSL Samples: "Basically the building is not a financial drain on the campus, and it is increasingly fulfilling its support-of-education mission and its outreach mission of making cultural events available to the community. . .At the end of the day, the Touhill is a success story for us."
Touhill's 2009-201 season
Although the Touhill is a week or so from officially announcing its 2009-2010 season, Hylton reveals some highlights:
- Four performances by the UMSL-based Arianna String Quartet.
- Three concerts by touring chamber music groups.
- Two operas by Boston-based Teatro Lirico d'Europa.
- "Pinafore" by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players.
- The premiere of "O Pioneers!," an opera by UMSL music professor Barbara Harbach, based on the Willa Cather novel of the same name and co-produced with Union Avenue Opera.
- "Brundibar," a children's opera performed by children, co-produced with Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
- Four presentations co-produced with Dance St. Louis, including the River North Chicago Dance Company and the Moscow Festival Ballet.
Besides subscription packages, the Touhill will now offer discounts of 10 percent on four to six and 15 percent on seven or more tickets to events of patrons' own choice. Hylton wants to attract a public that needs more flexibility in planning entertainment and that typically waits four to six weeks before a performance before buying tickets.
Susan C. Thomson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, long covered higher education.