Wed. Zoom Meeting, Jan.27, 2021: Russ Collins, Exec. Dir. Michigan Theater on "Ann Arbor's Need for a Comprehensive Governmental Support Strategy for the Arts

January 27, 2021

Russ Collins

Executive Director, Michigan Theatre Foundation

 Ann Arbor’s Need for a Comprehensive Governmental Support Strategy for the Arts

Russ Collins has been Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan Theater Foundation since 1982. In 2012, he founded the Cinetopia Film Festival. He also is the founder of the Art House Convergence, an annual national conference for art house cinema professionals that provides a forum for them to discuss the challenges and rewards of running art house theaters (and affiliated undertakings such as well as film festivals, film societies, and the like. He served on the Board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority from July, 2005, through December, 2014. He taught film studies from 2002 through 2013 at Eastern Michigan University. In 2013, he was named to Indiewire’s inaugural list of “influencers” in the independent film industry, He holds both Bachelor and Master degrees from the University of Michigan in arts administration.

The Michigan Theater Foundation owns two historic theaters, both fully-restored. The Michigan Theater, a 1920s era movie palace, was saved from demolition or redevelopment in 1979 through a community-wide effort spearheaded by Mayor Lou Belcher; it has since been restored to its former splendor and today functions as a not-for-profit arts facility presenting and hosting a wide-variety of high quality film and live-on-stage programs. It was named the Outstanding Historic Theater in North America in 2006. The State Theatre, which opened in 1942 as a replacement for the Majestic Theatre on Maynard Street, was designed in the Art Deco style by the Detroit-based movie palace architect C. Howard Crane. In 1989, its ground floor was converted into retail sales space; its neon-lit marque was retained, though, and the formed balcony was divided into two cinemas.   In 1997, the then-owners of the State Theatre hired the Michigan Theatre Foundation to provide booking and marketing services for the State Theatre. Operation of both the Michigan and the State was united under the aegis of the Michigan Theatre Foundation as a result. In 2014, concerned that the State might be converted to non-theatrical use, the Michigan Theatre Foundation purchased its two cinemas. A 2017-2018 renovation of the State restored its interior to its original Art Deco style while simultaneously dividing the space into four dully accessible auditoriums. . Tiles for interior walls were custom-made, and the original carpet pattern was recreated from a sample preserved by a local historian.

Both the Michigan and the State Theatres were temporarily closed from March to October of this year pursuant to Executive Orders issued by Governor Whitmer under the 1945 emergency Powers of the Governor Act to combat the coronavirus pandemic. On October 9, they and all other cinemas in Michigan were allowed to reopen but with capacity and other restrictions to minimize the risk of contacting the coronavirus. An upsurge in the coronavirus infection rate as fall lengthened toward winter recently motivated the Michigan Department of Public Health to order a state-wide three week “pause” from November 18 through December 8 during which cinemas, among other indoor venues, were to close again. Governor Whitmer recently has indicated that there currently is no assurance that they will be permitted to reopen as the end of that time.

All nonprofit performing arts organizations and presenters in the United States have been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Most suspended public performances in March and have yet to resume them. The abrupt loss of all box office revenue has forced even such well-endowed entities as the Boston Symphony Orchestra to first furlough and then permanently lay off as much as 25% of their support staff. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City had no choice but to do the same with its orchestra and chorus as well. The Michigan Theater Foundations has been no exception.

Lee Berry, Chief Development Officer of The Michigan Theater Foundation, told the Ann Arbor Observer in November that it had been “looking at close to $2 million in lost revenue” as a result of bring closed to the public for more than seven months this year. “That meant no revenue from movies, rentals, or concessions.” That deficit figure factors in operating costs saved by laying off all part-time workers and a third of the full-time staff, with the remaining staff members taking voluntary pay cuts. “We remain very grateful four our donors.,” he went on to say. “Unfortunately, this year’s giving is not nearly enough, because COVID changed everything.” Fundraising used to cover 35% of The Michigan Theater Foundation’s budget. It would have to cover 75% now for a pre-pandemic level of operation to be sustained.

These adverse effects mirror those suffered by other arts organizations in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. However, underlying them as well is the absence of a City and County strategy for supporting and encouraging the arts. Their vibrant presence here is due in large part to the University of Michigan’s programs and private philanthropy. Our speaker will explain why, by itself, that is no longer is a sustainable model. Artistically speaking, Ann Arbor has the potential to resemble such mid-sized cultural meccas as Austin, Texas or Edinburgh, Scotland. That fact that it has yet to realize the full measure of that potential is attributable to a longstanding lack of governmental vision, strategy and support.