Diavolo Dance Theater dancers perform at the 1960s-era Arthur J. Will Memorial… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)
"There's no there there" is how Gertrude Stein famously summed up and put down Oakland, her old hometown. For the Music Center, which manages much of the prime cultural real estate in downtown Los Angeles, the problem has long been the opposite: There's too much "there" there.
To the public, by and large, the glamorous hilltop place known as the Music Center overshadows the identically named but ill-defined organization that's been in charge of venue logistics since it opened as the city's performing arts hub 48 years ago.
The glory at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and REDCAT accrues mainly to the impresarios who put on the shows. The Music Center generally plays impresario only for a dance series of about two dozen performances each season. It also orchestrates a $3.9-million-a-year youth arts education program that's vital but less high-profile.
For the most part, the Music Center plays landlord. After the applause dies down, it provides the ushers and security staff for a safe and orderly exit, then sends in the cleanup crew. But now its shot at greater acclaim is at hand. In May, the county Board of Supervisors put the Music Center in charge of running the new Grand Park, which stretches downhill for four city blocks from the Music Center's own doorstep to City Hall's.
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If the 12-acre park teems with cultural attractions and other forms of fun, chances are that it will redound to the Music Center's glory. What's more, civic leaders hope success at the park will kick-start efforts to spruce up the Music Center itself and further improve the whole cultural hub.
"It dovetails with what we're trying to do in the 21st century," says Stephen Rountree, who recently marked his 10th anniversary as the Music Center's president. "That's to be a more engaging, inclusive, active place."
Rountree is a tall, husky, affable Pasadena native with a pinkish complexion and a relatively low profile despite more than 30 years' experience planning and running major L.A. arts venues.
In his 20 years at the J. Paul Getty Trust, he oversaw construction of the $1-billion Getty Center in Brentwood, which opened in 1997, and helped lay the groundwork for the mid-2000s renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.
On Rountree's Music Center watch, Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, and the dance series became a fixture, its funding solidified with a $20-million endowment gift from Glorya Kaufman. When the 2008 financial crisis hit L.A. Opera amid its ambitious mounting of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, it turned to Rountree, who spent nearly four years running its business affairs on top of his regular duties. Under him, the opera cut its budget drastically after mid-2010, when the "Ring" ended; it recently finished paying off a $14-million loan he helped engineer with county backing to get the opera through its cash crisis.
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Turning the opera company's executive reins over on Sept. 15 to its new president, Christopher Koelsch, has meant that "I don't work so late at night and I sleep better," says Rountree, whose 2010 earnings totaled $716,000 from the Music Center and $202,000 from Los Angeles Opera.
Rountree said that early in his Music Center tenure, he defused tensions between the resident companies by jettisoning the "mysterious and nontransparent formula" that had been used to calculate how much annual rent each would pay, leaving suspicions that not everybody was getting a fair shake. Now, he said, they're presented a bill for how much rent the Music Center needs overall to balance the venue operations budget — about $2.8 million each of the past two fiscal years — and they decide among themselves how to split it, based on how busy each company has been.
In 2004 Rountree oversaw the launch of Active Arts, a free, grass-roots program that made the Music Center an early adopter in what has become a burgeoning trend for performing arts groups: inviting the public to participate in amateur performances. In one recent offering, 350 ukulele players got together for a pre-Christmas jam in one of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's lobbies.
Rountree sees plenty of potential for carry-over at Grand Park. "We found a way to engage people outside the classical European art forms," he says. "Listening to Plácido Domingo sing, and people singing themselves — both are valid, both are important."
Two recent Rountree hires will help determine how things go in Grand Park. Lucas Rivera, the park director in charge of daily operations, is a veteran arts manager from Philadelphia, and Thor Steingraber, the Music Center's vice president in charge of programming, will orchestrate park events while also trying to come up with innovative uses for the Music Center's traditional venues.