Carolina Theatre fights waning performing arts attendance
by Sharon Nunn
Ninety years ago, a little theatre in Durham was built. Now, its Beaux Arts-styled architecture looms over West Morgan Street, housing more than 1,000 seats with its newly restored 1926 interior decor.
Despite continued national drops in arts attendance, the Carolina Theatre announced its second consecutive year with a financial surplus — the nonprofit netted almost $41,000 in profits during the 2013-14 year. Nonprofits are intended to not have income and to not distribute any of their income to members, directors or officers, the Internal Revenue Service website states.
The theatre positively impacted the Durham economy by $15.6 million by driving nearby hotel and restaurant traffic, according to Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a series of reports in January about who, how and why people participate in arts, as well as the economic impact on gross domestic product.
The NEA report found that the percent of adults who went to at least one arts performance, gallery or museum dropped from 35 percent in 2008 to 33 percent in 2012.
But Carolina Theatre’s CEO, Bob Nocek, pointed out two factors that contribute to the theatre’s success. He said the Triangle is a growing area, and he and his team have increased both the quality and quantity of the performances offered. In 2015, the theatre has already hosted more than 100 concerts and comedy performances.
“We’re lucky to be in a market that continues to grow,” he said. “We have a high percentage of people who are engaged in the arts and entertainment, more so than other markets.”
According to the NEA report, pursuing higher education is one of the biggest predictors of the kind of person who attends jazz, classical music, opera, musical plays, non-musical plays and ballet. The Triangle is home to six universities or colleges and three community colleges.
Nocek said Durham specifically has gained momentum in all these areas in recent years.
“It’s amazing to see how Durham has progressed,” he said. “There’s palpable enthusiasm.”
But Durham’s enthusiasm hasn’t always served the theatre well. Before Nocek helped make changes when he became CEO in 2010, the Carolina Theatre racked up a deficit of more than $300,000.
Nocek attributes some of the theatre’s problems to the city — he said the building wasn’t taken care of.
Before the theatre underwent renovations in 2011, the carpet hadn’t been replaced in 20 years. He said many areas needed repainting, the sounds in the cinema were subpar and infrastructure investment was necessary.
Nocek said he knew the building needed help when he watched a performance and couldn’t hear a lot of the dialogue.
“Those kinds of things impact an audience more than people realize,” he said. “In the past, the organization was hindered by the building.”
Now that finances have evened out, Nocek said he wants to see the theatre do even more performing arts and educational programming.
“We went into a more commercial direction because we needed to financially,” he said.
The theatre is currently screening about 3,000 films a year.
Another Durham nonprofit, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, is no stranger to financial restraints, but Dana Marks, managing director of the often controversial theatre company, said they too are doing great because of the area.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to stay alive,” Marks said. “The city is going through a renaissance. A lot of good artists and talent are moving to the area.”
She said although the possibilities for performances are growing, theatre costs are also climbing while arts funding is decreasing simultaneously.
“Grant amounts are decreasing and the competition is rising,” Marks said.
But like Carolina Theatre, Little Green Pig is staying afloat, but with the help of private donors.
Mark Nelson, director of marketing and communications for Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, said Carolina Theatre has done fantastic work in the past few years.
“It fills the void in what the (Carolina) Theatre and the (Durham Performing Arts Center) offers,” Nelson said. “They’ve got great support between the big names and the smaller artists.”
Carolina Performing Arts also beat the NEA report’s bad news — it saw a 36 percent growth in average attendees per performance.
But although Carolina Performing Arts operates as a nonprofit, too, it can only generate so much revenue from tickets sales because the company also features performances and artists Nelson knows will not be financially successful.
“We show performances like that because it’s artistically important,” Nelson said. “It’s an invigorating and inspiring way to do business.”
Nelson said the center makes up for lost revenue through donations, grants and other performances that end up generating substantial revenue.
“Attending these performances can be an incredibly intense experience. It gives you a new perspective,” Nelson said.
Like Nelson, Nocek said he’s doing an important job. And he realized the impact his work and the theatre makes when the Carolina Theatre was able to get comedian Craig Ferguson.
“We worked for a couple of years, and we finally got him in fall 2013,” Nocek said. “We decided to take incredibly good care of him and his whole party.”
They put Ferguson in the Washington Duke Inn, authorized charges for him to golf and met him at his private jet.
“We made it clear how important it was that he was there, and it worked out. His agents came to the show, and they talked about filming a special in our theatre,” Nocek said.
The CEO said he understands the agents’ interest because Carolina Theatre is an intimate space with only 1,000 seats.
“We’ve got one of the most intimate halls in the market, and yet we constantly bring in major artists who don’t play in (small venues),” Nocek said. “It’s important for you to see it. It’s really a special experience.”