What’s next for the Wheeler?
October 26, 2005
At a long-ago, otherwise forgettable convention of bureaucrats in the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, Gram Slaton heard a bit of wisdom that stuck with him: “Change is the management of pain.”The phrase is probably at the fore of Slaton’s mind because his life has taken a turn of late. Earlier this month, the 51-year-old moved to Aspen from north-central Pennsylvania, a region Slaton refers to as “Pennsyl-tucky,” and the town of Williamsport, best known for hosting the Little League World Series.But the aphorism applies more specifically to the Wheeler Opera House, the century-old Aspen icon where Slaton now serves as executive director. Slaton has spent the three weeks since he began the job assessing where the Wheeler stands, hearing where various groups would like to see it go, and contemplating what makes sense for the community and the city-owned venue. He has come to few conclusions yet – other than change, of some sort, is a mandate.”They are looking for change – the board, the city, the employees. And local arts groups,” said Slaton, who comes to Aspen after a 12-year run as director of Williamsport’s Community Arts Center. He replaces former Wheeler head Nida Tautvydas. “We all know there needs to be change.”Though the call for change is widespread, the adjustments being prescribed would hardly alter the Wheeler’s essence. No one is crying for the Victorian-era building to be razed for a shiny, modern center for the arts. Neither is there a movement to turn the clock back to the days before the 1984 renovation, when the building had become dilapidated, even dangerous, and barely fit for its principal use as a moviehouse.This 116-year-old patient isn’t “critical” yet. Or put another way, the pain that Slaton has been brought in to manage is far from severe.
In fact, most communities would probably look upon the Wheeler with envy. The 500-seat venue plays host to at least one annual event of national interest, HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which has put George Carlin, Billy Crystal and live readings of “The Simpsons” on the Wheeler stage. The Wheeler is home to Aspen Filmfest’s locally focused, but high-level fall film festival, and its increasingly prestigious Shortsfest in the spring. During the heart of the summer, when the Aspen Music Festival and School takes over exclusive use of the Wheeler, the opera house lives up to its name, with internationally prominent conductors leading performances of the great operas. And throughout the year, the Wheeler lures top-flight musical acts. Lyle Lovett, Widespread Panic, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Ben Harper have all appeared there over the past decade.But marquee names aren’t required to draw a crowd and provide a memorable evening of entertainment. The Wheeler also makes a fine venue for local talent and community events. Gongsköl, the Wheeler’s own community-oriented variety show, has become a staple of Aspen’s mid-January Wintersköl celebration. The Broadway Players, comprising all local talent, is a long-running hit. Two locally produced shows – Theatre Aspen’s holiday presentation of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and the Hudson Reed Ensemble’s Vaudeville-style show “Mélange” – made successful debuts at the Wheeler in the last year, and are slated to become annual events. And the Wheeler Film Society, which fills most of the dates not otherwise spoken for, provides Aspen with a worthy arthouse alternative to the commercial cinemas.Most enviable is the Wheeler’s financial condition. Supported largely by a real estate transfer tax (RETT) that remains in place for another 13 years, the Opera House has revenues that, in today’s hot real estate market, far exceed its annual budget, projected at $2.85 million for 2006. (Revenues for 2006 are projected at $4.16 million, with $2.87 million of that coming from the RETT.)It is probably a good sign of the Wheeler’s status that Slaton has been hired with no specific orders for cleaning the house.”Rather than saying, ‘We need to do this, this and this,’ it’s ‘We know there needs to be change; let’s see what makes sense,'” said Slaton of the guidance he has received. “I’ve never been given anything like a clear mandate.”Still, over the course of several job interviews and three weeks of getting to know the community, Slaton, who answers to both City Council and the council-appointed Wheeler board of directors, has homed in on several areas where change is in order.
In the housePerhaps the most significant of these will be least visible to the public. Over the last several years, grumbling over management has been heard from numerous Wheeler staffers; a high number of employees, some with long tenures, quit or were forced out.Slaton says staff stability and satisfaction “has been flagged as a concern,” and the focus of his first months will be filling out his staff. And though four of nine full-time positions – including the operations manager and front-of-house manager – were still vacant as of the middle of last week, Slaton was quick to praise his team. The full-time staff comprises managerial and administrative personnel and the production manager; technical positions are filled by part-time workers.”The thing I want everyone to know is that the staff here is fantastic,” he said, “and they have weathered the storm of the transition. Nobody wants to see high turnover in a staff.”A large part of management problems can be traced to the heavy burden on the director. An extensive report, commissioned by the city from consulting firm Genovese, Vanderhoof & Associates and released earlier this year, recommended easing that burden by hiring an operations manager – essentially a general manager who would oversee day-to-day operations of all departments. A nationwide search, led by Slaton, is under way.
Community relationsAlso in need of repair is the relationship between the Wheeler and the venue’s other users: nonprofit arts organizations like Aspen Filmfest and Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and independent event promoters. Under the previous administration, led by Tautvydas, there was a low hum of complaints that smaller-scale events were being squeezed out by the high costs to use the Wheeler and by the priority given to bigger events. The question has long been posed: Exactly who and what is the Wheeler for?”I think there was a lack of clarity about what the Wheeler’s mission was, and how it interfaced with the local cultural organizations,” said Laura Thielen, Aspen Filmfest’s executive director. “I think there was a lack of communication.”
The complaint has reached Slaton’s ears. “A consistent theme is the Wheeler needs to be more accessible and more responsive,” said Slaton. Thielen thought that the costs to use the venue were both fair and expensive. She said that producing a five-day event like Filmfest was feasible, since fixed costs could be spread out over the event. But doing single-night programs has been cost-prohibitive, and Filmfest has done its occasional one-night stands at other venues.One proposed solution to foster better relations with outside users is for the Wheeler itself to get out of the business of presenting events, and become, apart from community events like Gongsköl, strictly a rental house. The Genovese, Vanderhoof report suggested the move, to prevent the Opera House from competing with the organizations that it rents to.Slaton, however, isn’t fully sold on the idea. Tautvydas’ signature contribution to the Wheeler was the Beyond Bluegrass Festival, which brought to town a wealth of leading acoustic musicians, including the Del McCoury Band, Nickel Creek and Ralph Stanley. It’s doubtful an independent promoter would have delivered those acts in such numbers. And paying for high-ticket acts isn’t as daunting for the Wheeler as it might be for an outside presenter.Getting out of the presenting business is “not something the Wheeler board or the city wants to embrace wholly,” said Slaton. He noted that the paucity of events currently on the schedule is due to the change in directorship. He expects the calendar to be full by the time ski season hits.At least one local promoter, however, thinks the best way to get maximum bang from the venue is for the Wheeler to leave booking to outside promoters. Josh Behrman of Mountain Groove Productions has produced concerts at the Wheeler for eight years, booking as many as a dozen shows a year. Among the artists he has presented are Ben Harper, Bruce Cockburn, Hot Tuna and CPR, featuring David Crosby. But Behrman said he could do more if he weren’t competing with the Wheeler itself for acts and dates.
“I always wanted to see the Wheeler as a pure rental house,” said Behrman, who nonetheless has had satisfactory experiences working at the Wheeler. “The more renter-friendly and presenter-friendly the Wheeler is, the better I can do my job. I’m in agreement with the consultants, who saw that things need to be changed. I think you’d see more and better shows at the Wheeler.”Behrman is optimistic, however, about the possibility of co-presenting events with the Wheeler, a strategy that Slaton employed often, with positive results, in Williamsport. Co-presenting could go a long way toward filling the venue with live entertainment – an oft-stated goal of City Council – and keeping relations warm between the Wheeler and outside promoters.Another area of some contention has been the vibe inside the house, a struggle between enjoyment and preservation. The issue sharpens when concertgoers dancing in the aisles bump up against ushers concerned with how such activity will affect the century-old building. There is also the drink issue: A sign at the bar states that customers may buy only one drink at a time. Aspen Mayor and arts enthusiast Helen Klanderud, a critic of that policy, falls on the side of enjoyment.”It shouldn’t be a museum. It should be a living place,” said Klanderud. “There shouldn’t be a ‘don’t-touch’ atmosphere.”Slaton agrees: “I would love for people not to feel like they have a straitjacket on, being told what to do and what not to do. I would like to make this a venue where everyone can express themselves as much as possible,” he said. Both, however, temper their views by noting the fragility of the aged building.Other things Slaton would like to change include the box office ticketing system and the Wheeler’s website. The box office, which handles tickets for many events outside the Wheeler, has been a continuing thorn in the side of the Wheeler. And based on his experience in Williamsport, Slaton is a great believer in an aggressive website, used to publicize events, sell tickets, and keep the community in touch with the venue.
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Bulging coffers, big dreamsSlaton is in the enviable position of not having to manage much financial pain at the Wheeler. Thanks to the RETT that supports the Wheeler, and Aspen’s eye-popping rise in real estate activity and prices, the Opera House has $14 million in the endowment fund. According to city finance director Paul Menter, by the time the RETT expires, at the end of 2018, the Wheeler is projected to have an endowment of $52 million, to be used for operating expenses and capital improvements. Menter calls the financial situation “very solid.””It’s the opposite of every other venue in the world, which don’t have any money – so you can’t dream at all,” said Slaton, who has taken to keeping an eye on local real estate transactions. “Here, we can dream large. There’s lots of money – and everybody’s telling us how to spend it.”But Slaton also cautions that, looking ahead, if the RETT is not renewed, the endowment is “just barely enough” to cover sustained operating costs.The biggest dream involves the pocket park immediately adjacent to the Wheeler, between the Opera House and the defunct Mother Lode restaurant. The city-owned parcel might become part of an expanded venue, or a separate, Wheeler-controlled space used for rehearsals and smaller events. In a tantalizing scenario, that new space might be used for Aspen Music Festival rehearsals and more intimate concerts, opening up the main venue for summertime use by other presenters. (Aspen voters have not dreamed as large as some supporters of Wheeler expansion. A November 2003 referendum, which proposed buying the Mother Lode building for $3.25 million for unspecified future use by the Wheeler, was rejected at the polls.)Toward a world-class reputation
Slaton has the feeling that, while Aspen’s other arts organizations have stepped up their profiles and programming over the last decade, the Wheeler has lagged. Exacerbating that feeling of being left behind, two organizations – Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Aspen Community Theatre – left the Wheeler in the last decade in favor of the Aspen District Theatre and its more spacious backstage. Slaton notes with dismay that an Aspen/Snowmass guidebook he picked up documenting the best of Aspen not only didn’t pick the Wheeler as the best of anything; it made no mention of the Wheeler. So maybe the biggest change to be made is not in programming, personnel happiness or ticket purchasing, but in perception. Slaton is determined to reverse the Wheeler’s downward trend. He has no doubt that the opera house qualifies as one of Aspen’s finest assets; his job, as he sees it, is to make sure that stature isn’t overlooked.”We have great pieces in place,” he said, “with the Comedy Fest, Filmfest, the Film Society. But there’s no coherent presence. That’s what I want to get to – making this a world-class presence, that will be mentioned on HBO, where recordings of concerts will be made, where artists and entertainment entities turn to when they’re in Aspen. We could be the locus point for the year-round arts presence in Aspen.”But we have some catching up to do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org