Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sunday Reading

Fits and Starts in the Arts in Miami: How the new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts is doing so far.

In the decades it took to conceive and build the new performing arts center here, one term became something of a mantra among the project’s boosters: world-class.

If Miami ever hoped to elevate itself into the ranks of the world’s great cities, they would say, it had to have a world-class complex for the performing arts.

Now beginning its second year, the $461 million complex, known as the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, is in administrative upheaval and struggling financially. Its supporters are grappling with the cold truth that if it is going to become a cornerstone of a world-class Miami, both the city and the center have a long way to go.

For the legions of doubters and detractors in Miami, Carnival’s early stumbles confirmed their long-held view that the project was built too big and too soon, and without enough certainty that the city could even support such an ambitious venture. They say the center is yet another case of Miami’s overreaching in a desperate bid to be taken seriously.

“Miami is a land of speculation,” said Mary Luft, founder and executive director of Tigertail Productions, a performing arts production company. “They want it big, they want it fast, they want it now. And they got it!”

Alan Farago, a prominent civic activist, calls the center, owned by Dade County, “a total misappropriation of money,” given the pressing social demands of the city, which has one of the highest poverty rates of any major city in the country.

“It’s a building inappropriate to the scale and need of the place,” said Mr. Farago, who in his blog, Eye on Miami (eyeonmiami.blogspot.com), has called the building the “Carnivorous Center for the Performing Arts.”

“It reflects this patina that the city fathers hope will catapult the city into some kind of glorious future,” he said.

The center’s supporters and executives acknowledge the enormous task before them. Ricky Arriola, recently named chairman of the board that oversees the county-owned center, suggested in an interview this month that nothing less than the integrity and reputation of the city was riding on the center’s performance.

“People have been very hard on the Carnival Center, and for good reason,” he said. “This county has a reputation for lots of fumbles, scandal, projects gone awry.”

“Everybody is holding their breath and saying, ‘Is this going to be another screw-up?’” he added. “The answer is no.”

The last several weeks have been particularly tumultuous for the center. It ended its first year, in October, with a $2.5 million operating deficit, in large part because of lackluster ticket sales.

In a five-day period from late October to early November, the board fired the center’s president and chief executive, Michael C. Hardy, and forced the resignation of the programming director, Justin Macdonnell. It brought in an interim chief, Lawrence J. Wilker, a former president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, to right the ship.

The center was designed by Cesar Pelli and financed mostly with public funds supplemented by private donations. (It is named for Carnival Cruise Lines, which donated $20 million to the project.) It consists of two buildings in downtown Miami that straddle Biscayne Boulevard near Biscayne Bay; they accommodate a 2,400-seat opera house, a 2,200-seat concert hall and a 200-seat black-box theater. At its inception, the center was promoted as a way to help revitalize the city’s core, an area so decrepit that few people would venture there unless they were driving through it at high speed.

But when the center opened in October 2006, it was already in something of a public relations and financial hole.

It opened years behind schedule and about $100 million over its budget at groundbreaking in 2001. The center was also built with no parking, forcing audiences to park in grim city lots, sometimes several blocks away, and walk to the center.

Some artists and cultural groups complained that money for the center could have been channeled into existing organizations and performing arts companies in desperate need. During construction, the Florida Philharmonic, which was to become the center’s resident orchestra, declared bankruptcy and folded.

The project also began to tax the patience of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which was asked time and again to approve new budget allocations to sustain it. In August, during a commission debate regarding a possible raise for Mr. Hardy, Commissioner Javier D. Souto said, “I would raise the salary 50 cents so they can drink some coffee and wake up to how people feel about” the performing arts center. He added: “If there’s a vote today in Miami-Dade County, this thing wouldn’t pass.”

I work in the neighborhood where the Carnival Center was built, and the area is undergoing rapid gentrification; the little cafes and shops are opening, but it really is like everyone is holding their breath to see what happens with the arts center. The towering condos going up around it were all built on spec and now there are lawsuits being filed by the people who bought units and now want to back out. Big talk of big stores and chi-chi restaurants have yet to turn into real estate, and a lot of people who work in the area are wondering if they may soon be witness to the creation of a very fancy architectural monument to instant urban blight. I hope they’re wrong.

The Queen Abides: The Toledo Blade pays tribute to the monarch who has endured and made it to the YouTube generation.

In Britain on Christmas Day, after the last of the plum pudding has been consumed and the guests have pulled their crackers to find paper crowns (crackers are tubes of cardboard and colored paper that come apart with a bang to reveal hats, trinkets, and jokes within), dinner ends on a traditional note that has no equal in the American republic.

Family and friends gather around a TV to watch Queen Elizabeth II deliver her traditional Christmas message to Britain and the commonwealth of nations. She rarely says anything controversial. Back in 1992, she did admit to having had a bad year, an “annus horribilis,” but most years hers are simply reassuring words spoken in a refined accent that most of her subjects do not themselves share (well, it is the Queen’s English; she can speak it however she wants).

This sense of comforting permanence, another visible proof that “there’ll always be an England,” in the words of a beloved English song, owes much to the enduring presence and character of the queen herself, who is now 81. Her longevity is remarkable. Just a few days before, she had become Britain’s oldest monarch, surpassing the mark set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

This was the 50th year of her televised broadcast, but 25 years before that King George V began the tradition of a Christmas address with a radio message to his subjects. As much as the monarchy is the epitome of tradition, the same queen who in 1957 embraced television this year gave the Internet generation a chance to hear her address on YouTube as well as on TV.

You don’t have to be British to say “God save the queen.” Through good years and bad, she has been a much-loved figure with a special gift for staying relevant in changing times.

The Lives They Lived: The New York Times magazine’s annual tribute to those we lost this year, including a fellow blogger and one-time member of the Liberal Coalition, Steve Gilliard.

Welcome to the 14th annual Lives They Lived issue. On the last Sunday of each year, we fill these pages with stories of all kinds of people who have died during the last 12 months. It is a daunting task: this newspaper alone published more than 1,000 obituaries, and those only touch on the vast number of notable deaths. In putting together this issue, we shy away from any attempt at being definitive; instead we embrace idiosyncrasy, storytelling and the interests and passions of our editors and writers. This year brought the deaths of many giants of politics and culture, from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Luciano Pavarotti, from Brooke Astor to Ike Turner, from Lady Bird Johnson to Jack Valenti. But we present some of the lesser-known lives: Harry Dent, who quietly consolidated the South for the Republican Party; Andrée de Jongh, who, at 24, courageously escorted more than 100 soldiers and civilians out of Nazi-occupied Belgium to safety; Gloria Connors, who taught her son Jimmy how to be an unrelenting champion; Ernest Withers, who, as a black photographer, was able to document the civil rights movement from inside. Their stories and those of the two dozen others presented here create a collage of lives well lived.

Short Takes:

The New York Times explains its hiring of William Kristol.

Fred Thompson really doesn’t care if he’s elected president.

– The latest McClatchy poll has John Edwards surging and Mike Huckabee fading in Iowa.

– Is Ron Paul the new Willie Stark?

– The New England Patriots may be 16-0, but they haven’t won the playoffs and the Super Bowl, so the 1972 Miami Dolphins still rule.

Doonesbury: Christmas in Berzerkistan.

Opus: Reading By the Light.