Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

Proud new owners Rachel Lubell of Rod Rodgers Dance and Anthony Ruiz and Michelangelo Alasá of Duo Theater, inside Duo’s second-floor theater.

Lessons in maintenance for arts groups on E. 4th

By Sara G. Levin

Michelangelo Alasá, the well-built Artistic Director of Duo Theater, can now exhibit video works on the top floor of his Latino-focused arts center, a practice banned by the building’s previous owner, City Housing. Standing amidst his new video gallery, Alasá insisted that co-owning the theater and rehearsal space with Rod Rodgers Dance Company is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After six years of negotiation, the two non-profit organizations on East 4th Street became their own landlords last month when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development [HPD] sold six buildings between Bowery and Second Avenue for $1 each to be preserved as cultural institutions.

The other arts groups-turned-owners include Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, Choices Theater Project, Downtown Art, Instituto Arte Teatral Internacional, La MaMa E.T.C., New York Theater Workshop, Teatro Circulo and Wow Café Theater. Millennium Theater, the second oldest company on the block, was not granted ownership because it shares a building with La MaMa, a considerably larger organization with more funds.

“It’s not just about the survival of one group. If we are all a strong community, it benefits everybody,” said Ryan Gilliam, chair of Fourth Arts Block [FAB], the coalition of 4th Street artists that negotiated with City officials. “We want it to be a place people think of when they want to see small theater or dance companies doing interesting work.”

Proprietors hope the block will serve as a cultural island of the East Village. As surrounding buildings are razed or renovated for housing, Rod Rodgers Executive Director Rachel Lubell emphasized that theaters on East 4th Street will become an even more valuable draw for the neighborhood.

To begin with, Lubell and Alasá are planning a restoration of their unique 1889 façade to attract wider audiences and more capital. Standing like a sad reminder of bureaucratic neglect, its white spiral fire escape is decorated with rust and pigeon nests. Broken French windows frame the center where an ornate balcony once stood.

“A restored façade and outside that looks like it’s not abandoned will hopefully help us bring in more business,” Lubell said. “It will be good for us and the whole block.” The Duo Theater’s 74 seats are nestled inside a faded but charming jewel box theater from the 19th century.

“Since buying, you’re liberated… but you also have more impetus to generate money,” Alasá said, balancing the opportunities and consequences he and the other companies face. Oil prices, for example, have doubled, making the budget he and Lubell had in place last year useless.

Gilliam, who is also founder of the youth oriented theater program Downtown Art, said that FAB recently received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that will allow it to hire an executive director and consultants. The consultants should help in teaching how to manage responsibilities like maintenance, insurance, gas, zoning and property value.

“It’s kind of heavy on the responsibilities side,” said Gretchen Green, Managing Director of La MaMa. “But it will stay in non-profit hands pretty much forever. The alternative was they would put it out for bid and some other organization would take it. So we’re very happy to have it.” La MaMa and New York Theater Workshop are the two largest and most well endowed organizations of FAB, though in relation to other Manhattan theaters they are still small.

“I think it’s amazingly rare, particularly in Manhattan that small artistic groups are made important enough to have a permanent home,” Gilliam said. “That the city has backed them and said, ‘We want you to stay.’ Usually this is what evaporates when a neighborhood gains more capital.”

In addition, the groups that make up FAB are a diverse bunch. Duo Theater, Teatro Circulo and Instituto Arte Teatral Internacional are all Latino-focused, with many performances in Spanish. WOW emphasizes lesbian theater. Rod Rodgers is grounded in African-American traditions, but also offers children’s Flamenco classes. Choices and Millennium are independent screening rooms, Millennium having offered low-cost film workshops since its founding in 1966.

“I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable,” said Millennium founder Howard Guttenplan about not being granted co-ownership with La MaMa. He explained that his group only has a budget of over $130,000 whereas La MaMa has over $1 million. Currently, the two companies are working out a short-term lease, which Guttenplan hopes will become long-term.

“We’ve been in the community for forty years,” Guttenplan said. “So we’re really an important part of the arts and film community. We have a big space, a magazine, workshops… so we do a lot and we think that we deserve some consideration.”

Neill Coleman, a representative of HPD explained that the negotiation process with FAB lasted so long because the City needed to make sure that the theaters had enough capital to support themselves. The Cooper Square Committee and Council member Margarita Lopez joined with FAB to help raise money, gain grants and advocate for the sale.

“There had always been some theaters on that block and I think the City realized that they were a real asset to that neighborhood,” Coleman said. “The problem was, would these groups be able to maintain [the buildings]? We didn’t want them to fall into disrepair. So it was a process over a number of years to put together the financial security that made us comfortable in knowing they had the finances and fundraising to be able to maintain and operate those buildings.”

Now, wobbly as their managerial legs may be, the arts organizations are enthusiastic about commanding their new spaces. Armed with recently won grants, Downtown Art prepares up to move into 70 East 4th Street with Alpha Omega. La MaMa lurches ahead with archival rennovations. Duo and Rod Rodgers cut down on heat to save for reconstructing the 1889 façade. Though all organizations are constantly scrambling for money and still learning complex insurance laws, the cultural community of East 4th Street is revving its gears for the open road ahead.

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