Editor's Note: Lucas Theatre mess signals deeper issues

Updated September 6, 2018 at 1:24 p.m.

MANY TENS of millions of dollars have been spent to open up Broughton Street to national chain stores.

Yet apparently the Lucas Theatre on the Broughton corridor can’t stay solvent. Or so we’re told, as proven by the shocking firing of its entire staff last week.

No town that boasts as much as we do about our supposed cultural bona fides should have this much trouble keeping open one of the finest Art Deco theatres in the country. But here we are, again.

Ordinarily, the firing of five people wouldn’t constitute major breaking news. However, the firing of the Lucas staff last week triggered shock waves in an arts community still reeling from the loss of the beloved Muse venue in February.

Almost uniformly, the public reaction was one of outrage not only that the employees were fired, but how suddenly.

This remarkable public pushback isn’t just because the fired employees had great personal and professional reputations.

The sense of fear and loathing the Lucas shakeup provoked throughout Savannah also has to do with two deeper issues:

1) The emotional importance of the Lucas to Savannah’s sense of self, of history, and of community pride.

Fundraising spearheaded by the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil shoot, including a huge donation from Kevin Spacey himself, is what enabled the Lucas to reopen after a decade-plus of struggle. In the minds of Savannahians, the Lucas, “The Book,” and “The Movie” are as interwined as a Leopold’s ice cream scoop and a sugar cone.

The renovated and reborn Lucas Theatre is, quite simply, a symbol of Savannah's success story and perseverance against adversity writ large. Its loss would be much more than the loss of a building.  

2) Savannah’s symbiotic relationship with the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Underlying the public’s sense of panic about the Lucas firings was that it was, essentially, SCAD that fired them.

No, it wasn’t technically SCAD. In the interest of fairness and accuracy, it must be pointed out that the Lucas Theatre is run by a nonprofit which owns itself, via a board of directors.

However, as of a formal agreement in 2002, SCAD has a large controlling presence on the board. If SCAD didn’t want the staff fired, they wouldn’t have been fired.

This is just as factual as saying that SCAD didn’t technically fire the staff.

For decades, Savannah has put much of its fate in the hands of a privately-held college. In doing so, we have reaped very significant and inarguable economic and cultural benefits.

But that arrangement also brought a downside: A sense that hopefully Savannah’s interests and SCAD’s interests will coincide... but in the event that they don’t, SCAD will usually be the one to get its way.

Prior to the college taking over the Lucas, at least $2 million of public tax money, not including donations, went into the restoration of the Theatre since it officially reopened in 2000 — for a property which doesn’t pay property tax.

When SCAD took over, I recall a general fear that public programming would be curtailed, and that, somewhat like the SCAD-run Trustees around the corner, it would mostly host school events.

However, it certainly seemed, especially within the last few years, that the Lucas had cracked the code, and was indeed fulfilling its role as a vital performing arts venue that benefited both SCAD and the community at large.

If you compared 2016’s schedule to ten years prior, I’d bet you’d be impressed at the evolution and breadth of the theatre’s calendar of offerings.

Whatever the financial realities of the Lucas are, we have to conclude that whatever was happening onstage was working.

We had what at least appeared to be a win/win situation for SCAD and for the city, and now that’s probably gone.

Making matters worse is the sense of uncertainty. While we’re told all current bookings will be honored, we really don’t know what the future holds for the Lucas over the horizon.

Will it be open on a reduced schedule, with a skeleton staff? Or will new people just be brought in? Will it be sold?

As of now, the college isn’t saying.

Even with the Lucas in operation, Savannah is noticeably poor in quality venues—and infinitely poorer should SCAD decide to limit programming at the Lucas for whatever reason.

Not even the most ardent advocate of the under-construction Cultural Arts Center thinks that venue will be anything like a replacement for what the Lucas does.

And the Westside Arena will be just that —a big arena on the Westside, not a 1200-seat historic fine arts venue in the heart of downtown.

The fear now, quite frankly, isn’t so much for the future of the five bright people who were let go. They’ll end up OK.

The real fear now is that a promise to the community has been broken — a promise made back when the film version of Midnight was wrapped, when the whole world, for just a brief moment, turned its attention to us, and to the Lucas itself.

We want to keep that moment alive in our hearts, and in reality if at all possible.

A city with our history and cultural cachet deserves a venue with the size, the grandeur, and the splendor of the Lucas.

We deserve... the Lucas.


Published April 19, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

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