More than two decades after the non-profit Newport Performing Arts Center bought the former Newport Opera House, promising to return it to its previous opulence, the building remains shuttered, while the group “reframes” the project.
After years of trying to raise the $26 million it initially believed was needed to renovate the more than 150-year-old building, the non-profit has raised less than 40 percent of that goal.
Meanwhile, the Arts Center board is developing a new strategy, revamping its budget, and looking to partially reopen, hopeful that helps stimulate more robust fundraising.
John Cratin, the Art Center’s board chair, a business management consultant, who co-chaired the Philadelphia Folk Festival before coming to Rhode Island, says the board remains committed to its original mission to bring the performing arts, year-round, to Newport.
But, he says, the board is reviewing how it gets there, and in mid-January will “reframe the project a bit…the budget is being revamped.” He would not elaborate but says it’s clear that fundraising becomes easier once the theater re-opens.
He anticipates a partial re-opening by the end of 2023. What that looks like will become clearer in mid-January, when general contractor Jim Farrar, of Farrar Associates, and architect Mohamad Farzan, of NewPort Architecture, present a revised budget.
“We have to identify what we can do to get the building open,” Cratin says.
One possibility, he says, would be opening with fewer than the 700 seats that were originally projected, eliminating balcony seating, at least for now.
The non-profit, Cratin says, has spent $10 million “to secure the building to preserve the historic structure…we built an inner frame to hold up the entire structure.”
That $10 million reflects the money the organization has raised, including $4.2 million as part of a state cultural arts grant seven years ago. It was a matching grant, and Randy Rosenbaum, who just retired as chair of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, says the Newport group raised the matching funds.
Cratin says the theater again is turning to the government for help, some $4 million in state and federal tax credits. He says the board is also applying for a series of grants while anticipating a more robust fundraising effort once the building opens.
The organization has also been reducing operating costs over the last few years, moving from a full-time executive director to none and reducing other staff costs, according to its 990 federal filings from 2017 to 2019.
In 2017, the organization reported paying its executive director, Brenda Nienhouse, $135,000 and other staff $96,950. By 2019, the organization was paying a part-time executive director, Andrea Rounds, $29,738 and other staff just $4,191. Cratin says the Newport Performing Arts Center no longer has an executive director but will soon conduct a national search for a general manager to “run the project” for the next two years, before hiring an executive director once the theater re-opens.
The Newport Performing Arts Center bought the historic building in 2002. It originally opened as a 1,217-seat Opera House on Dec. 28, 1867. Its first performance was Lucretia Borgia, a drama. For many years some of America’s most cherished actors and performers graced its stage. Through the Newport Lecture Association, the theater hosted important lectures with renowned speakers discussing the most pressing issues of the day.
In the 1920s the Opera House became a movie theater at about the same time that Providence’s Loews (now Providence Performing Arts Center) opened as a palatial movie palace.
The Opera House remained a movie theater for years, and the Newport Performing Arts Center continued to operate it as a movie theater for eight years after purchasing the building. The building went dark in 2010.
Cratin, who has been on the Arts Center board for five years, says the group is determined to fulfill its mission: “to provide a stage where you can experience the power and excitement of live performance year-round in Newport. The work to realize this goal continues and we remain deeply committed to the vision of seeing our community gather to enjoy music, dance, and theater.”
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