The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities hosted a public feedback session last night for local residents interested in the future of the ailing Lincoln Theatre. A lovely idea, asking the public how it envisions Lincoln’s destiny; but for many of the people who trekked out into the rain to attend the meeting at the historic U Street NW venue, the forum probably felt like a waste of time.
In front of an orchestra level that looked about a third full, the arts commission offered no specifics on how it would incorporate public feedback, other than to say it would keep it in mind while selecting an operator. Who may that operator be? The commission gave no clues. In December, DCCAH put the Lincoln up for lease, soliciting letters of intent from interested parties. Those letters were due Jan. 18. The commission aims to find an operator by March 31, 2013.
Yet, the few attendees who raised questions about the selection process were rebuffed. Clearly, “feedback session” was meant literally: This was a meeting for the DCCAH to listen, not answer questions. Moderator Calvin Gladney, a managing partner of Mosaic Urban Partnerships, and DCCAH Director Lionell Thomas clung to vague talking points: Thomas hammered home the theater’s need for a consistent artistic identity; Gladney brought up the idea of implementing “multiple streams of income,” but offered few specifics on how that might work at an inflexible, old-fashioned venue like Lincoln Theatre. (Howard Theatre did it, yes—-but only after ripping out its seats and rebuilding the entire place to make room for a banquet-sized kitchen, two bars, and a hydraulic floor.)
When United Black Fund President Barry LeNoir asked, “Who’s competing for the right to manage [Lincoln Theatre]?” DCCAH Director Lionell Thomas refused to elaborate, saying, “We do not want to compromise that process … because right now it’s a confidential process.” That didn’t sit well: People began to murmur, with one woman crying out, “We need transparency!” Thomas, looking uncomfortable, quickly moved on.
D.C. Shorts Director Jon Gann asked a few great questions about whether Lincoln would continue as a single-room operation (Gladney didn’t have answers), whether there would be disincentives for underbooking the venue (a fantastic idea, in my opinion, but the moderator couldn’t say for sure), who would pay for Lincoln’s operation (“the answer to that question is not known at this time”), whether D.C. groups would be able to book the venue at an affordable rate (most likely yes), if the District had considered selling air rights to the building (“the city is looking at all options”). Thomas intervened at that point, mildly rebuking Gann for monopolizing the forum. Too bad, because he was asking important questions. The commission was just unprepared to answer them.
A representative from Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh dance company said the troupe had long hosted an annual showcase at Lincoln, but its rental rates had become too high. (I’ve heard that complaint before, but not from Singh’s company, which has been loyal to the venue in the past.) One woman said flatly, “We don’t need the Howard Theatre to put us to shame anymore… We need to wake up.” Another implored the arts commission to start a capital campaign: “Have people write a check!”
Most people said they wanted the theater to be a home for local artists, youth programs, and nonprofit arts organizations. Local 22 IATSE President Chuck Clay proposed a partnership between the union and Lincoln Theatre. (Lincoln is not a union house.) One woman spoke up about the need for more performance art. Rev. Anthony Motley suggested holding the mayor’s State of the District address at the Lincoln Theatre every year. A few self-promoting individuals offered their services.
Typical of public meetings, a couple of attendees seemed to be there just to hear themselves speak—-in particular Friends of Carter Barron President Gloria Hightower, who, after identifying herself as a “proud native” who’s “55 gorgeous years old,” held court for seven minutes on everything under the sun, until finally arriving at a point: “The Friends would love to work with you.”
Meanwhile, at least one attendee seemed to treat the forum like a singles meetup. Before he offered his thoughts on Lincoln’s sustainability, OnStage Global Entertainment co-founder James Coleman told the crowd, “I hate to tell my age, because there may be some eligible women here. But I’m 59.”
Bad iPhone photo of Judith Terra by Ally Schweitzer