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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 03:42 pm

Hoogland Center’s second act

Success leads to space and money woes


Members of the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony rehearse in the basement of the Hoogland Center for the Arts in downtown Springfield.

Nestled in the basement between thick square support pillars, the young musicians eagerly consume sheet after sheet of music, building a crescendo with violins, timpani and horns. Three floors up, a group of usually-playful thespians reenact a somber scene of social injustice that weighs heavily on the hearts of both performer and observer. Just down the hall, a man is singing with a controlled, operatic vibrato, his voice accompanied by a lively and flowing piano number.

These are typical scenes in the ever-bustling building, the sort you’d probably see at an opera house or theater in Chicago or New York. But this isn’t some mysterious retreat for the elite, inaccessible to the casual arts observer. It isn’t the imposing stone structure of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the ultra-modern expressionist Sydney Opera House or the ornate and sprawling Louvre Museum in Paris. Still, the art and performances displayed here are, in their own way, as intriguing, compelling and profound.

This is a treasure in the heart of Springfield, a place where the blue-collar worker and the starving artist can rub elbows with the city’s movers and shakers. It is the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

“There’s almost always something going on here,” Janet Seitz Carlson says with a smile that reveals her fondness for the center where she is marketing and communications director.

Even on an off night, it’s not uncommon to see streams of people flowing in and out of the six-year-old center, coming for one of the many exhibits, shows, meetings or rehearsals. On a recent weekend, the Hoogland held two separate plays and two different art openings – all featuring the inspiring talents of local artists.

That level of near-constant activity is encouraging, some of the Hoogland’s resident arts groups say, but it can also be a problem. Fourteen arts groups share the center, along with outside performers, and some of them have already begun to feel claustrophobic.

And the heavy traffic doesn’t necessarily translate into more money, so the Hoogland must regularly ask the community for donations. They have an automated giving system that deducts monthly gifts from a donor’s bank account. Then there’s the StarWalk program, which commemorates large gifts with an 11-pound brass tile, bearing the donor’s name and a star like one would see at Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood. And for the right price, donors can affix their name to practically anything at the Hoogland: a theater, a dressing room, even an elevator or a chair. But Carlson says all of this is a distraction from Hoogland’s mission of nurturing the arts.

“Fundraising is not one of the things that we want to do on a daily basis,” Carlson says. “We want to be able to communicate everything that’s going on. I’d like to be able to do marketing and not fundraising.”

But Carlson says she has no budget for marketing, and instead is promoting the Hoogland’s “Keep the doors open” campaign, a fundraiser with an ominous name and a lofty goal: 600 donors giving $50 each month to pay off the Hoogland’s hefty debt. Currently, about $3.5 million dollars in bonds stands between the Hoogland and the financial independence it seeks.

One of a kind
Located downtown on South Sixth Street, the Hoogland is a former Masonic temple turned theater, art gallery and concert hall that also serves as a home for many of the city’s most active arts organizations. The Springfield Ballet Company and the Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus call the Hoogland home, along with groups like the Springfield International Folk Dancers and the Sangamon Watercolor Society. Asked whether it is modeled after any other facility, Carlson points out that the Hoogland is the only one of its kind that she knows: privately run, community funded, and housing several arts groups in the same place where they display their crafts.

Nic Cook and Leann Schuering perform a scene from Oklahoma at the Hoogland.

“I think we’re kind of creating ourselves along the way,” she says. “I don’t think there are too many organizations like ours, which are completely autonomous, not for profit, don’t report to anybody.”

There are plenty of other venues in Springfield for the arts – the Prairie Capital Convention Center, the Sangamon Auditorium and the Muni, to name the big ones – but the Hoogland has made a name for itself because of its capacity to host multiple events at once with its three theaters and numerous smaller entertainment spaces.

“I’ve been asked before, ‘Do you compete with Sangamon Auditorium? Do you compete with Prairie Capital Convention Center?’ ” Carlson says. “Well, not really, because everybody has their own niche in terms of volume …. There aren’t too many other places you can go if you want to write your own play, and you’ve got 10 of your best friends to put on your own production. This place provides opportunities that you can’t find anywhere else.”

But it is the vast variety of events in the Hoogland that ultimately make it such a unique place. Between performances like the recent Laramie Project and Sylvia, the building houses weddings, concerts, art shows and meetings of civic groups like the Citizens Club of Springfield.

Space-time conundrum
To house so many busy bees takes a pretty big hive, and the Hoogland fits the bill. Its 80,000 square feet contain at least eight entertainment spaces of various sizes, but even that has proven cramped for some of the growing groups based there.

Local artist Tiffany Beane’s work hangs in the Hoogland Center's H.D. Smith Gallery, run by the Prairie Art Alliance.

Jane Johnson, executive director of the Prairie Art Alliance, says her Hoogland-based group is thankful for the gallery space and exposure the center provides — gallery attendance has almost doubled since last year, she says with a satisfied smile. But PAA is growing incredibly fast, she notes — faster than the Hoogland can likely accommodate.

“We will always be a part of the Hoogland if we have the opportunity,” Johnson said. “But I think we’re going to need to have an expanded gallery space somewhere. That’s our vision. We have 135 members right now, so it’s hard to fit everyone in the gallery.”

Roma Larson, president of the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony board of directors, said that group would like more space as well, although moving from the Hoogland isn’t really an option.

“The Hoogland is a fantastic thing for our community, but it’s filled to bursting,” she says. “It’s a converted building, and it wasn’t designed initially for this kind of thing. The renovation has worked well, but there’s all sorts of nooks and crannies in the building where they say, ‘You can have a lesson here,’ or ‘You can have a sectional rehearsal there.’ ”

For now, however, Larson says SVYS will stay put and enjoy the Hoogland.

“Our being able to rent space from them is fantastic, and as long as we are able to work out of there, we will,” she says. “If we were to take on maintaining a building, then you’re talking janitorial staff, mortgages, lights, plumbing you’ve got to deal with, and I think that’s beyond the scope of where we’re going to grow.”

No money, more problems
While there is certainly no lack of activity at the Hoogland, the money such a venture requires has been slow to materialize at times.

Aster Lesle as Columbia, Joshua Ratz as Dr. Frankenfurter, Mary Young as Magenta, Patrick Russell as Brad and Shannon Lawler as Janet in the ADHD production of The Rocky Horror Show.

“Operations are fine,” explains Tom Appleton, president of Hoogland’s board of trustees and a justice in the Illinois 4th District Appellate Court. He says the Hoogland’s rental fees for resident arts groups and productions are enough to cover the center’s everyday operating costs, which amount to between $30,000 and $50,000 per month. The electricity bill alone is $8,000 per month, he points out.

But if operating costs were the only issue, his life would likely be much simpler.

“It’s the mortgage payment that causes the problems,” he continues.

When local developer Carolyn Oxtoby and her out-of-state brother purchased the building in 2001 from the local Masons group for $350,000, the estimated costs to make it suitable as an arts center originally ran about $3.5 million, Appleton says. The actual renovation cost turned out to be $9.1 million, he says with a sigh. While giving a tour of the facility, Carlson points to the orchestra pit in the Hoogland’s LRS Theater and recounts how the workers digging the pit uncovered a buried sewer line that ultimately set the project back a full month and about $500,000 – just one example of the hidden costs that bloated the project’s bottom line, she says.

The Springfield Arts Center, Inc., a nonprofit set up to facilitate the conversion from temple to art house, took out $4 million in bonds to supplement renovation funds granted by the state, and now the Hoogland’s monthly $27,800 bond payments are a cause of concern for the management. On the current payment plan, it will take more than 10 years to pay off the remaining debt.

The “keep the doors open” fundraising slogan should be taken literally, Appleton says, but fortunately not in the short term.

“If we didn’t get one more pledge, we’re probably good through the end of 2010,” he says. “But, then there’s the next year’s payments, so we are still in the market for large donations.”

The flagging economy, Appleton says, has played a large part in the Hoogland’s money troubles. State employment is down, he points out, and fewer state employees means fewer dollars into the local economy and fewer dollars going toward the arts. The economy has also changed, he adds, with nationwide corporations displacing locally-owned businesses that are more likely to be concerned about local causes. Appleton recounts how three large local banks that used to reside in downtown Springfield used to meet each year as a “clearinghouse” to decide what causes were important to support.

“Now we have three national banks downtown,” Appleton says. “While National City (Bank) has made a small donation – much appreciated, but small – the other two haven’t. It’s not the fault of the people who work here. The money is controlled by people in other cities, and Springfield just isn’t high on their list of priorities.”

Timing has been an issue as well, Appleton says.

“We had great success with major gifts early on,” he recounts, “But, at the same time we were out there (asking for donations), the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum was opening and in the market for big gifts.”

Next, it was Southwind Park, he continues. Now, he says Sacred Heart-Griffin High School is seeking $8 million for a football stadium, and the Catholic Diocese of Springfield is asking the community for donations to fund its renovation of a

“We’re always competing for big gifts,” he says. “We’ve lost out on a lot of giving opportunities, because a lot of the efforts we’ve made have been blocked by some of the other things going on in town.”

Doing its best
When discussing donations, Carlson points out that Springfield is unique when compared with other cities in central Illinois. Peoria has fairly lively arts scene, she says, but they also have heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, which offers a sizable chunk of financial support. Likewise, Decatur has Archer Daniels Midland Company and Millikin University, Bloomington-Normal has Illinois State University, and Champaign-Urbana has the University of Illinois.

A sign on the front of the Hoogland shows fundraising progress to pay off the center’s mortgage.

“We don’t really have a big sponsor in Springfield like some other cities,” Carlson says. “But I think we’ve done pretty well considering that. I think we’ve done as well as any of them.”

One measure of the Hoogland’s success is being a community resource that draws people to the arts, says Penny Wollan-Kriel, assistant director of the Springfield Area Arts Council. However, she says the center’s board of trustees must often make difficult decisions that balance public service with simply surviving. Keeping certain things free of charge, like meeting space for the Citizens Club, is one such choice, she says.

“You do need a space that is community-friendly, but you can’t do it at the loss of the facility itself,” she says. “You are doing a public service, but it’s a two-sided sword. You still have your heat on, your lights on, and it’s a fine line as to where you make that decision.”

A real gem
The Hoogland is the Musée d’Orsay of Springfield – a showcase of home-grown inspiration, but it is even more than that. It is a manifestation of the community’s quest for self-improvement and a meeting place for Springfield citizens from all walks of life. Despite its trials, those who work, perform and seek enlightenment at the Hoogland are pleased with how it has turned out.

“It’s more than I hoped it could be,” Oxtoby the developer says. “It’s such an asset, and it has really drawn people. There’s no other place that has such a variety of programs. To combine all of that into one building just blows me away. I’ve never seen anything else like it.”

For many people, it is more than just an arts center — it is a spiritual place.

“It’s incredible when someone comes in and sees a painting that makes them stop and say, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ” Wollan-Kriel says. “It’s that ‘Aha!’ moment that really gives heart and soul to the individual.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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