Making the Southside an Arts Destination
For years the largest auditorium in the Phoenix Union High School District was at South Mountain High School. It still is. It has a little over 1,300 seats– more than twice the size of the largest performance hall at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The Tom and Janet Ikeda Theatre at the Mesa Arts Center is only a few hundred seats larger. No hall at the Herberger is as large, and Scottsdale’s Virginia Piper Theater only seats 852.
You may ask: Does size really matter for a performing arts venue? The answer would be “yes” and maybe “no.”
Of course, if you needed to stage a production for a venue as large as Symphony Hall, it might be great to find a larger hall in which to rehearse. Smaller productions sometimes work in larger halls, sometimes they don’t. Let’s just agree, that it seems as if no one is interested in building larger venues (even in new high schools, Caesar Chavez and Betty H. Fairfax, for example) and , if your community has one, you should count yourself lucky.
So why are we all not at South Mountain High School every weekend watching plays and listening to concerts? I am hoping that because South is a performing arts magnet school, that there is something happening in this great hall every weekend, even though it might not be widely advertised. But let’s focus on non-student events: why aren’t there more of them?
To answer this question, I spoke with Isela Rivas-Reyes from the Phoenix Union District Office. She gave me the mini-course on booking high schools for outside events. Rule one: remember the hall was built for the students. If they need it, they get it. Second, non-profit community-based organizations get the next shot. Then, finally, comes all other uses.
Now here is where it gets interesting: if the high school’s auditorium was booked, and I wanted to be in south east Phoenix, the services of Ms. Rivas-Reyes would be at an end; there are no other Phoenix Union High Schools nearby. But, if I was looking at Central High and it was booked, she could place me at North High or Camelback.
Some good news: The new president of South Mountain Community College, Dr. Shari Olson, has pledged to maximize use of our Performing Arts Center at the Community College as a “fund-raising vehicle through arts and musical performances, while enhancing community well-being for residents of our service area.” Also, the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Center at 1351 E. Broadway Road will have a 350-plus-seat performing arts center. So, within three miles of each other in South Phoenix we will soon have not only a 1,300-plus-seat theater, but two 350-plus-seat theaters as well.
Despite having a little performing arts cluster, there is still one piece missing: Each of these venues is operated by a separate governing body with different rules, regulations, fees and priorities. To mitigate this problem, why don’t we form an organization to help the artist and performers (and their agents) navigate all the red tape? The sports community is way ahead of the arts community in this respect: the Arizona Youth Soccer Association for example.
As our community grows we need to meet the new (and old) challenges of isolation with creativity and unity. Let’s have the Southside be known for art, music and theater. We have everything in place except the will to come together.
Written by Greg Brownell