A cultural revolution

UF's performing arts director makes an impact

University of Florida Performing Arts Director Michael Blachly was the performing arts director at the University of California at Los Angeles for seven years before he came to Gainesville in July of 2000, bringing with him a penchant for edgy, big-city art such as Cameraworld, a filmusicpoem by composer Michael Rouse making its world premiere tonight at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 12:54 a.m.

The intermission of Thursday night's Chieftains show found Michael Blachly propped against the rear wall of the house, smiling blithely at the near sellout crowd's clear passion for the Irish music legends.

It's a smile he has been wearing for a couple of years now, since he left the bustle of Los Angeles - where he had been UCLA's performing arts director for seven years - to take the same position at the University of Florida.

For Blachly, 55, it was a downsizing - a way to improve family life for his wife, Judy, and his two youngest sons, 13-year-old Ty and 7-year-old Nick. For the already-thriving Gainesville arts community, his arrival has been nothing short of a revolution.

"I don't have enough adjectives to describe the way it's changed our life," said Buff Gordon, a member of the board of directors for the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

"Because of Michael's connections and his talent, we don't have to pay $100 per ticket or travel to London or New York to see some of the best musicians, dancers and actors that this country - in fact, the world - has to offer."

Using connections built up over 16 years working in the cultural epicenter of Los Angeles, Blachly has quickly put his stamp on an arts program that had been tied, for budgetary reasons, to more mainstream programming, including well-worn musicals.

As a condition of his employment at UF, Blachly negotiated a substantial subsidy for the performing arts - UF paid about 25 percent of the $2.6 million budget last year.

The subsidy has allowed Blachly to increase the number of shows in the performing arts season from 14 in 2000-01; to 45 last season, and to 60 in the current one.

But that's just quantity.

One of Blachly's many goals at UF has been "to diversify the programming so that everyone in the Gainesville area feels we've got something for them."

He also has put a premium on commissioning art, such as a performance-art piece by Laurie Anderson that premiered this season, and in promoting edgy, avant-garde work such as tonight's premiere of Mike Rouse's "Cameraworld," a combination of film, music, rap and movement that defies simple description.

In the past two weeks, beginning with the closing night of the six-night sellout run of Riverdance, UF has hosted Bobby McFerrin, the opera "Aida," Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Chieftains. "Cameraworld" is followed by a week of events that includes strings sensation the Ahn Trio in University Auditorium on Sunday. During the next seven days, the Phillips Center offers pantomime artist Marcel Marceau on TuesdayMarch 4, the musical "Porgy and Bess" ThursdayMarch 6, and, last but not least, San Francisco swing band Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers on FridayMarch 7.

"It's one of those things where people just cannot believe the jewel we have here," said Marilyn Tubb, a member of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce board of governors.

Drawing a crowd

Thursday night, before the six-time Grammy Award-winning Chieftains took the stage, Virginia Boone of Keystone Heights waited nervously near the front door of the Phillips Center for a friend to drop off her ticket.

Boone said she doesn't come to the center often - the last time was more than a year ago. But she's got Irish blood in her family, and the Chieftains "are one of the most renowned bands in Irish music."

"There are lots of Irish bands as good as they are," she added. "But they're the ones who really brought Irish music to the American audience."

Later, as people chat in odd-shaped clusters at intermission, Tubb could have been talking about Boone when she scanned the room and said, "These people aren't the regular arts crowd."

"But then the regular crowd is here, too," she said.

One of those regulars, Dr. Stratford May, UF's Cancer Center director, said that having an active cultural scene can be very helpful in attracting top scientists to Gainesville.

"If they ask about cultural events, this is the first place I mention," May said. "All I have to do is list off the events of the previous season.

"It is such an excellent performing arts program," he added. "It really rivals those in many major cities around the world."

Shows like the Chieftains and Riverdance - the Irish dance sensation that broke the Phillips Center's box office record last month, selling 13,779 tickets in eight performances - are testimony to Blachly's success.

Consider these numbers: UF's performing arts program sold 33,769 tickets in the 2000-2001 season, which Blachly did not plan. As of Feb. 27, with 19 performances remaining in the 2002-2003 season, 48,881 tickets had been sold and UF is on pace to sell 56,000.

Before Blachly came, student attendance was sparse for performing arts programming that was by and large out of their price range. Though UF had more than 45,000 students on campus during the 2000-2001 season, only 665 student tickets were sold.

In the 2001-2002 season, Blachly booked more shows aimed at students, including a Philip Glass film festival and Tapdogs, which can possibly be described as industrial tap-dancing. UF also began offering a $6 student ticket - "just below the price of a movie ticket," Blachly said. That year, more than 6,800 student tickets were sold; this year, he hopes to sell more than 10,000 student tickets.

Attracting more students to the theater is a worthy goal, said architecture professor Kim Tanzer, who requires her students to attend the more avant-garde performances, such as tonight's "Cameraworld," and report back.

"I think they're usually a little bit puzzled when I make the assignments," Tanzer said, "but last year my teaching evaluations said they were grateful I required them to do something they otherwise wouldn't have."

But the popularity of the $6 student ticket has added up to a hefty subsidy for UF. For instance, the 6,452 student tickets sold so far this season amount to $109,663 that the university picks up.

And a drum-tight university budget could make it more difficult for UF to continue subsidizing the Phillips Center at current levels.

As the number and caliber of shows have grown, so has the UF performing arts budget - from $2,205,308 in 2000-2001 to a projected $3,567,300 this season.

Another looming budget problem is the County Commission's decision two years ago to gradually phase out the $200,000 subsidy it has provided for 13 years to the Phillips Center. The money, which comes from hotel taxes, will be redistributed to about 70 local arts and ecology organizations.

It's especially ironic that the first $50,000 cut will take effect next year, Blachly said, as the center hits its stride bringing in programs sure to draw visitors from all over Florida.

'Art begets art'

Mark Sexton, general manager of the Hippodrome, said he's a Blachly fan.

"He's a great guy, he's smart and a wonderful resource for this community," Sexton said.

The Hippodrome is one of the arts organizations that will receive some of the money now going to the Phillips Center. Sexton said in his opinion, the $1.6 million the Phillips Center has received from the bed tax is sufficient seed money and that other free-standing arts organizations may need it more.

Sexton said the Hippodrome is a subscriber-based theater, and he hasn't seen a drop in ticket sales since the Phillips Center expanded its offerings.

In fact, he expects just the opposite to happen.

"Art begets art," Sexton said. "The more arts that are available, particularly of a high caliber, the more an appetite the audience develops."

Finding the money

Among Blachly's accomplishments at UCLA was increasing the performing arts budget through grant writing, fund raising and audience building, from an annual average of $3 million to $9 million between 1992 and 1999.

Upon his arrival at UF, he set as a goal tripling UF's annual performing arts budget to $6 million.

But especially in bad budget times, Blachly said the center is going to have to do a better job of reaching out to patrons of the arts - both individuals and corporations for more financial support.

Raising ticket prices and increasing the rent at the Phillips Center are not desirable options, he said, but they may become necessary.

"The last thing I want to be is a liability for the university," he said. "I need to keep finding ways to make sure we pay for ourselves and sustain for our community what we're doing without draining resources that should be going to the academic teaching mission."

Blachly said in the coming months and years, board members will focus on growing its fledgling endowment, which was donated by Curtis M. Phillips in 1999.

UF law professor and former law Dean Jon Mills helped Gainesville get the money for the Center for the Performing Arts when he was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

A regular theatergoer and a big fan of Blachly's, Mills said going back to the old, safe but secure programming isn't the answer.

"You've got to raise money to keep this happening," he said. "And I think the ability to raise money is enhanced when you have a good product."

Carrie Miller can be reached at millerc@gvillesun.com or 338-3103.

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