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BACK FROM THE BRINK <br> ITS DARKEST FINANCIAL DAYS BEHIND, ARTPARK STRUGGLES TO BRING BACK THE QUALITY PROGRAMMING, AND ART, THAT MADE IT ONE-OF-A-KIND

It was a golden time of glamorous stars, cutting-edge art and daring experimentation.

For two decades, Artpark was the crown jewel of the state, an enchanting place that fulfilled the promise of its name by putting visual and performing arts inside a 200-acre park along the Niagara River Gorge.

Nestled at Artpark's Fourth Street entrance in the village of Lewiston was a performing arts center housing the second-largest stage in the state -- a grand facility where Baryshnikov, Van Cliburn and Ethel Merman performed.

The art is all but gone from the sprawling grounds except for the mammoth 30-ton "Omega" structure, a reminder of the innovative summer project work of long ago. The log cabins once filled with artistic life are shuttered now. This summer, 25 years after opening, Artpark welcomes Carrot Top and K.C. and the Sunshine Band to the main stage -- two names that just don't carry the same class or excitement as the Bolshoi Ballet.

There are rumblings by some that Artpark has become predictable in theater offerings; too safe on programming in general. For those closest to Artpark, these changing times aren't viewed as the long fall from grace the public perceives, but rather as a miraculous rebirth of an arts facility that was nearly shut down by state funding cuts; a facility now able to reinvent itself after being freed from decades of bureaucratic red tape.

Two years after Artpark was almost closed, there is a growing, yet cautious, optimism it will thrive again. The "Activities in the Park" program is nearly back in full swing, with daily family workshops and "Artspaces" for children to create with pottery, clay and paint. The popular weekend adult arts workshops have quietly returned.

"Artpark is 25, but we're really only 2. We're in a rebirth," says Director of Parks Programs Joan McDonough, referring to the February 1997 transfer of program operations from the state to Artpark & Company, Inc.

Artpark opened in 1974 thanks to state Senate Majority Leader Earl W. Brydges Sr., whose two loves were musical theater and Niagara County. It was a grand arts experiment promising public access to top performing artists at a low cost. The state would throw in millions to subsidize the underpriced tickets and, for two decades, Artpark was the only state-supported facility of its kind in the nation with subsidies peaking at $2.5 million in 1989 -- more than half of Artpark's $4.6 million budget that year.

"We joked that money used to flow down the Niagara River and someone would sit on the Artpark banks and shovel it in here. There were enormous amounts of money being thrown into Artpark," says Executive Director David Grapes II.

Like that mighty river that roars below it, the state subsidies were expected to constantly flow through Artpark. But the source began to dry out, and by 1995 state aid was down to $1 million. In 1996, that number was only $500,000 -- a figure eventually cut in half and spread over the 1996 and 1997 seasons to ensure Artpark's survival.

"We had reached a point where we didn't know if Artpark would go on," recalls McDonough, who has been with Artpark since the beginning.

With minimal state help in 1996, Grapes says the facility hit "rock bottom," operating at a $400,000 deficit on top of the $500,000 it was given by the state. Not only were monetary loses astronomical, programming was down 50 percent. The popular annual visit by the National Ballet of Canada was canceled, as was a concert by New York City's prestigious Mozart Festival Orchestra.

"Artpark was scared, people were scared, and audiences were scared," Grapes says. "People were unsure of the quality of programming they would receive, and negative word-of-mouth spread."

The deficit may have seemed insurmountable, but unknown to those enamored with the glory years of Artpark, operating in the red was a norm hidden by the liberal state subsidies. A state performance audit for 1983-88 reported Artpark lost $2.2 million on those opulent opera productions and $357,000 from dance.

Last year, the long-rumored split between the state and its once golden child occurred. Artpark & Co., which had been strictly a fund-raising group, entered into a three-year agreement to be Artpark's new guardian, a full-fledged operating board responsible for all programming. The state still owns Artpark and continues to maintain the park at what amounts to a $500,000 annual donation.

"Last year was a shot at survival," says Frederick G. Attea, chairman of the Artpark & Co. volunteer board of directors. "It was a big shock to find out we had to take Artpark over or let it go by the board. We just wanted to get through last year without sacrificing quality. Most people didn't think we could do it, but David Grapes proved to be very resourceful."

It was at this crucial juncture that Grapes, a theater veteran with acting, directing and producing experience who was also an administrator, was hired. His first memories are vivid images that drive his work daily.

"I saw a placed called Artpark that had no art," Grapes recalls. "I saw a place with enormous green space that was underutilized. I saw an incredible theater without enough shows. And I noticed how much Artpark had sunk in terms of visibility and perception in the community as a viable arts community."

The view of Artpark was so low, he says, people he met usually thought Artpark was closed. "It took a while to change that perception."

Those generous state subsidies may be gone, but so are decades of bureaucracy that put a stranglehold on Artpark.

"The arts, by their very nature, need to be responsive and change very quickly. Artpark had an enormous potential but very little opportunity to change and adapt because it was run by the state," Grapes says.

By state charter, there could be no fund-raising activities nor could Artpark spend money marketing programs in Canada. Response time for taking advantage of opportunities was virtually non-existent. This season's sold-out concert by Ani DiFranco wouldn't have happened if the state ran Artpark, Grapes says, because the opportunity to book the local folk hero had a 24-hour window attached.

If 1996 was Artpark's lowest point, the following season was the year of the comeback.

"In 1996 we thought the train had derailed," Grapes says. "It was a slow climb last year, but we're farther up the hill this year. Are there miles to go? Absolutely, there will always be work to be done. But did we turn the corner? Yes."

One of the first decisions Grapes made was to produce all theater in-house, a move that helped Artpark survive last year and, surprisingly, break even.

"It is much more cost-effective to produce our own shows, and that enabled us to squeeze by and not lose money. We were right on the line," Grapes says. "It was symbolic because the park had never shown in the past it could break even."

He's continued that philosophy this season, but has drawn criticism for bringing back well-worn musicals including "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "The Sound of Music." Familiarity may breed contempt in many instances, but it's the familiar that has brought people back into Artpark -- not riskier productions such as the dramatic musical "Blood Brothers."

"Joseph" drew 18,000 people, making it Artpark's most successful show in terms of box-office sales since 1992; "Blood Brothers" drew half that number. Artpark produced the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Joseph" for about $250,000 for a two-week run, compared to up to $600,000 for a one-week national production. And there's already been a 40 percent increase in main stage paid admissions this year, 80,000 to 45,000 for 1997 (the 1998 season, however, has two additional concerts and one extra musical). "We knew 'Blood Brothers' would be difficult," Attea said. "And I'm saddened we can't get enough people in for a production like that. It's up to us to find a new marketing approach to fill those seats."

Grapes says the grand Artpark main stage is better suited to the large, classic musicals including "The Sound of Music," while the smaller Artpark-at-the-Church on Fourth Street works best for intimate music revues.

"We'll have to leave the cutting-edge theater to Studio Arena, the Alleyway and others," Grapes says.

"You walk a tight rope. You have to have enough familiar programming to sell season tickets and bring back other audience members, but you also need enough non-traditional work so you don't lose people. Sometimes you have hits, and sometimes you're not as successful."

It will take more than in-house productions to ensure Artpark's survival, however, and Artpark & Co. says it can be done by achieving four goals:

Establish an artistic identity for the theater, something Grapes said the state never did.

Re-establish daytime programming and increase the park's visibility.

Create a new funding base.

Promote Artpark as a green space and return art to the park.

So far, there have been small steps. Daytime programming is up 40 percent over 1997 with Camp Artpark, a weekly day camp for children, operating at almost 100 percent capacity. As many as 600 to 800 children participate weekly in other Artpark activities.

The expanded season of the 150-seat Artpark-at-the-Church, established in 1991 as a winter home for smaller Artpark productions, is also playing an integral role in Artpark's survival.

"The church has been a wonderful surprise. It's drawing people with entertainment that's casual, relaxed and inexpensive. It's a real hidden jewel for us," Attea says. "It's also drawing talent here because we are using the actors more efficiently, both on the main stage and at the church." With Artpark & Co. on board, moves are being made toward securing new funding. Preliminary talks are under way with the state on beginning a capital campaign for the long-needed and long-promised improvements to the once state of the arts facility. Serious talks have also begun on an endowment campaign, something never needed before because of the state subsidies.

There's also hope to return to what many agree made Artpark special -- the art.

"The park was unique for the art, and no one else had it. There are a lot of theaters, like Saratoga, but you only have one Artpark," says Ellen Comerford, a Lewiston artist and writer. "People came from all over to participate in the art, and these projects were written about in journals around the country. It put Lewiston on the map."

But the national attention couldn't save the art.

"The state money existed to bring art into the park. Yet that was the first thing cut because it was viewed as being transient and not serving many people. Some of the most amazing art projects done at Artpark were dismantled and taken away," Grapes says with regret. "They took away the one thing that was most unique about Artpark."

The return of the art is an expensive project, however, and one that will need time until foundation and grant money is developed. Even if the art returns, daytime programming continues to increase and productions flourish, don't expect Artpark to resemble the early days.

"I don't know if it should be the same," McDonough says. "In 1974, no one knew what Artpark would become. . . . No one expected it to last five years."

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