Theater news: Artists Rep prepares for another leap

Artists Rep has big plans for keeping its theater space in downtown Portland in downtown Portland—a two-theater complex with room for its ArtsHub partners.

Artists Repertory Theatre hired J.S. May to be its executive director less than six months ago, and he and his board are already about to make a big move—a $10 million-plus capital campaign that will redesign and renovate its building on Southwest Morrison Street.

Just looking at the recent financial history of the company, that qualifies as “jaw-dropping.” Since November 2017, the company has: 1) incurred a $309,000 lien from the IRS on unpaid payroll taxes, 2) parted ways with previous executive director Sarah Horton, 3) announced the sale of half its property at 1515 SW Morrison St. to a Texas-based real estate company, which will develop it into a 22-story residential tower (the sale closes on June 1, May says), 4) received an anonymous donation worth $7.1 million, and 5) notched another $500,000 donation that it needed to help shore up the half of the property the company will retain, a requirement of the sale.

The building concept by Lever Architecture for the proposed renovation of Artists Repertory Theatre/Courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

The influx of money resolved the IRS problem, paid off the mortgage on the building, and covered some substantial bills and debts the company had accrued. Did it also tap out the company’s likeliest donors for the capital campaign? May seemed pretty confident about raising the money Artists Rep needs last week when we went over the company’s plans, primarily because of the value proposition: For $10-11 million Artists Rep will be able to build a theater complex worth more than $30-35 million, May said, if you had to buy the land, too. The proceeds of the sale of the half-block has already jump-started the process.

We know how performance-space poor downtown Portland has become. The city itself hasn’t built a new theater since the mid-1980s when Portland metro was a much smaller city, and the only significant additions to the theater stock since then have been Portland Center Stage’s renovation of the old Armory Building and Artists Rep’s own renovation at 1515 SW Morrison St. The complex that May and Artists Rep want to build won’t add to the inventory, but it will keep it at current levels, and all for the low, low price of 10-11 million philanthropic dollars.

As preliminarily sketched out by Lever Architecture, the building will have about the same number of square feet as the current configuration (one-quarter of the block is now a street-level parking lot). It will hold two theaters—a 250- and a 100-seater—and associated dressing rooms. There will be room for five rehearsal spaces, a lobby, bar, box office, and plenty of office space. That means the company’s ArtsHub project will have room to continue. Right now, Artists Rep hosts 12 other arts groups, including the August Wilson Red Door Project, Profile Theatre, Hand2Mouth Theatre, Portland Actors Conservatory and Portland Revels.


A 22-story residential tower will share the block with Artists Repertory Theatre/Image courtesy of Artists Repertory Theatre

There is a downside, of course. Even if someone wrote a check for the full amount today, it will take two or three years to build both the residential tower and the theater building, and Artists Rep and its ArtsHub partners will have to hit the road while the construction goes on. (When I was there, the water had been shut off temporarily, and a line of portable toilets stood outside the front door; as I left, I heard that the water had been restored.)

For the 2019-20 season Artists Rep’s six (down from eight) shows will pop up at Imago Theatre, the Portland Opera building, the Tiffany Center, Portland Center Stage (both the Main Stage and the Ellyn Bye Studio theaters), and Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Each of the other ArtsHub companies will have to make arrangements, too, a challenge in Portland’s severely theater space-challenged real estate environment. (Of course, real estate challenges abound in the city as its population rises.)

It’s important to note the value of owning space for an arts organization, even if it has to be sold. Oregon Ballet Theatre, for example, sold its Southeast Portland office and rehearsal space in 2015, clearing away a sizable debt and allowing it some financial breathing room to stabilize and grow. Artists Rep is trying to leverage its half-block into a better space than it had before. Which raises the question: Why isn’t Oregon College of Art and Craft using the sale of its property in the same way, instead of shutting down altogether? I’m sure we’ll be coming back to that question soon, as well as the details of the Artists Rep capital campaign.

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