Arts center ups Notre Dame's cultural cachet

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The 137 carefully unified buildings of disparate age on the 1,250-acre campus of the University of Notre Dame declaim this Catholic university’s historic strengths in academics and athletics. Yet during Notre Dame’s colossal growth, it paid scant attention to the per-forming arts. Incredibly, no new arts venue — for theater, music, dance or film — were constructed on this huge, storied campus throughout the entire 20th Century.p. But on the eve of Notre Dame’s Sept. 11 Gridiron match-up against the University of Michigan, the public will get its first look at a neo-Gothic campus arts revolution of such a monster scale that it might even serve as a welcome distraction from the university’s woes on the football field.p. On Friday, the University’s Glee Club will perform inside the massive new Marie P. DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, which took nearly 10 years to plan and build and cost in excess of $63 million, a dizzying sum for a campus performing-arts center in a relatively small community.p. As a point of reference, the new Goodman Theatre complex in downtown Chicago cost $45 million in 2000. South Bend has suddenly acquired the most expensive arts center in Indiana history.p. “You’d be hard pressed to say that Notre Dame’s reputation has been based on arts and culture,” admitted John Haynes, the former chief executive officer of the California Center for the Arts, who has been hired to run the centerand function as the new arts czar at Notre Dame. “That just has not been a priority of this university.”p. But if a building can change a campus culture, this one should have a chance.p. The only larger Midwestern campus venue is the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, the nation’s largest campus arts center. But although once state-of-the-art, the Krannert is aging. “I love the idea of Notre Dame going from zero to 60 in four seconds flat,” said Mike Ross, the executive director of the Krannert, which has been plying its trade for 35 years.p. A 150,000-square-foot colossus, Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Center houses five different performance venues, along with more than 170 other rooms. The new starting lineup includes a 900-seat concert hall, a 350-seat proscenium theater, a 200-seat, THX-equipped movie theater, a 100-seat black box performance space and, unusually, a venue designed specifically for a new, hand-crafted, $2 million pipe organ and constructed to resemble a Baroque chapel.p. Different from others p. Adding to its curiosity, DeBartolo Center has a very different appearance from most new arts centers — it has nothing in common, for example, with the contemporary style of the new arts facilities in Chicago’s Millennium Park.p. That’s because Notre Dame insisted that the exterior of the building, which was designed by the architectural firm of Hardy-Holzman-Pfeiffer Associates, fit the traditional dreaming-spires look of the campus.p. The likes of Frank Gehry were not asked to apply.p. “We are committed to collegiate Gothic,” Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, Notre Dame’s president, said in his office here on Wednesday. “It allows for a certain coherence.”p. That requirement didn’t allow the usual perturbing flytower found in most new arts facilities of contemporary design. But the theater needed one. And thus so as to contain all the spaces — which are built on seven separate foundations to provide the necessary acoustic separation — that meant the outer frame of the unifying building had to be of enormous scale.p. It rises from the flat local landscape like a huge new cathedral.p. And although the center eschews direct religious iconography, the campus’ ecclesiastic heritage also is continued within the performance facilities themselves — the film theater has faux church windows and, although plush, the seats in the center echo the shape of pews. The overall look is strikingly traditional.p. “Some people have called the building `Malloy’s folly,’” Malloy said. “But what we had here in the performing arts just was not adequate. And I knew this was going to be an expensive project.”p. That’s an understatement. But, remarkably, the DeBartolo Center was built almost entirely on the back of individual donors. No public funding was used (Notre Dame is a private university), nor was there any corporate underwriting. As is typical at this university, alumni came through with most of the necessary cash.p. Maximum bang for the buck p. And by shrewdly combining five different “nameable” venues inside a single building on the edge of the campus, the university was able to give out the maximum possible bang for the donated buck.p. The lead gift was a $33 million bequest (donated over several years) from the colorful late shopping-center mogul Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who died in 1994.p. A shrewd and controversial businessman whose diverse empire included shopping centers, racetracks and professional sports teams, DeBartolo’s retail-development business merged with the Simon Property Group in 1996. DeBartolo worked his way through Notre Dame and emerged grateful; the center is named for his late wife.p. Another significant benefactor was TV personality Regis Philbin, also a Notre Dame graduate. To thank him, the university has named the black-box space the Regis Philbin Studio Theatre — or, colloquially, “The Philbin.”p. “Is that what they are calling it?” Philbin said in a telephone interview last week, effecting surprise at the naming rights. “How embarrassing. I just wanted to give something back to Notre Dame in return for all they had given me.”p. Philbin, who will perform his nightclub act at Notre Dame next month, said he had given $2.75 million of his personal funds.p. Local observers are still scratching their heads at the sea change in the corridors of power at Notre Dame that made this building happen. The DeBartolo, the first Notre Dame building encountered by most visitors heading to campus from the tollway, was fast-tracked and prioritized, even as other new building projects were sidelined.p. “There was a big, sudden shift in administrative culture there,” said Julie York Coppens of the Charlotte Observer, who recently left her post at the South Bend Tribune after covering the arts there for several years. “The divide between town and gown in South Bend always was huge. It remains to be seen whether people from South Bend now will have a reason to come on a campus that hasn’t been very welcoming.”p. Beefed-up budget p. Significantly, the rise of the DeBartolo comes with several new budget lines that have beefed up the university’s arts staff and will allow Haynes and Notre Dame to belatedly enter the risky realm of arts presenting.p. Already on the DeBartolo slate are appearances by the likes of Emanuel Ax, The Marcus Roberts Trio and, most notable, the New York Philharmonic. On Sept. 19, Wynton Marsalis will appear with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. These are not acts to which South Bend has been accustomed.p. Yet the unusually small seating capacities in the building suggest that such acts won’t even come close to breaking even. The Patricia George Decio Mainstage Theatre, named for yet another individual donor, has the kind of huge stagehouse — of operatic proportions — that you’d normally find in a theater with 1,500 seats or more. Yet it has only 350 seats. That will make it virtually impossible for the university to make a profit with even a midsize theater production that uses Equity actors.p. “This is a teaching facility,” Haynes said by way of explanation, as he gave a tour of a facility where the stage feels deeper than the entire auditorium. “It’s possible to design any kind of production you want in here — but young voices also won’t have any problem getting to the back row.”p. Most of the big concerts will be in the bigger, 900-seat concert hall — a grand facility capable of acoustical adjustment to virtually any kind of event. But even that is a small capacity for a group like the New York Philharmonic — the Krannert’s facilities were built for much bigger audiences.p. “People in South Bend don’t like to spend a lot of money,” York Coppens said. “Notre Dame will have to be subsidizing these events.”p. Nonetheless, Haynes said, programming in the center will be diverse, progressive and expansive. The new film theater, which has its own popcorn stand, is showing such independent fare as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Control Room,” functioning as a new art house for Notre Dame and South Bend. And Haynes, an aggressive promoter, says he also wants to shake up some of the university’s traditions a little — for example, he has booked Ladysmith Black Mambazo to do a residency with the Glee Club during this academic year.p. Malloy, meanwhile, says he has no plans ever to restrict the content of what the center can do — Catholic traditions and the reverent atmosphere notwithstanding.p. “We are committed to academic freedom,” he said. “If you look at our recent history, I don’t think there is any question about that. We hired good people in the arts and we expect them to use good judgment.”p. “We are going to reverse the traffic flow on the toll road,” declared Peter Holland, newly hired chair of the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. He talked of big plans for Shakespeare at Notre Dame. “There now will be reason,” he said, “for people from Chicago to come to South Bend and see a show.”p. Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribunep.

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