Artists Repertory Theatre (ART) has had a huge reversal of fortune in the last few years. In 2017, the company incurred a $309,000 lien from the IRS on unpaid payroll taxes. This was followed by the announcement that they would sell the SW Alder half of their property to Wood Partners, a Georgia-based real estate company, in a move to secure themselves financially. Then a very generous anonymous donor gifted $7.1 million to the company. With the mortgage now paid off and capital in hand, ART is looking to rebuild. Literally.
That’s why their theater on SW Morrison, between 15th and 16th, is out of commission for two—possibly three—years, and why the company has branded its forthcoming season “ART on Tour.” Each show will take place in a different venue across the city, starting on September 7 with an adaptation of 1984 at Imago Theatre.
A new building isn’t a luxury for the company, it’s a necessity. ART’s theater, originally an Elks Lodge health club, was reaching the end of its life. Heat and air conditioning were spotty. The roof was in desperate need of repair. And any renovation to the structure would also require expensive seismic upgrades.
Construction is already underway, with the original structure set to be physically divided into two distinct buildings. The design for the new ART space hasn’t been finalized yet, but the plan is to try and keep the same amount of space—including two theaters, four rehearsal halls, an office space, a costume shop, and a bar—which means building up.
ART’s new neighbor will be a 21-story apartment structure, dubbed the Alta ART Tower, with underground parking, ground floor retail shops and restaurants, and a performance space in the lobby, which ART will help program. Per Portland’s new inclusionary zoning rules, 10 percent of the building’s residences will be available at 60 percent of local median income for 60 years.
Maintaining the same amount of facilities is important to ART because it runs ArtsHub, a program providing space and support to 12 arts organizations, including Hand2Mouth, August Wilson Red Door Project, and Profile Theatre. “ArtsHub is an integral part of our DNA,” ART Managing Director J.S. May says. “And it continues while we are ART on Tour, as well as being built into the design of the new space.” For the time being, the majority of the ArtsHub organizations will work out of offices at Zidell Yards on the South Waterfront and, like ART, stage their productions at theaters around the city.
With several arts organizations losing their homes over the past few years due to the increasingly competitive rental market, owning your own space has its benefits.
With several arts organizations losing their homes over the past few years due to the increasingly competitive rental market, owning your own space has its benefits. “If an organization can own space outright, without a mortgage payment,” says ART Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez, “then the revenue from ticket sales and contributions can go directly into the work and to employing the people making the work.”
Still, a roving season poses programming hurdles for the company. “The first step in season planning,” says Rodríguez, “proved to be securing the venues and, in nearly every case, we were not just trying to book stage time, but seeking out ways to collaborate or build partnerships with our host organizations.”
This adaptation of 1984, inspired by the Wikileaks revelations and trial of Chelsea Manning, feels relevant to Rodríguez in a new way.
As it turns out, 1984 was the last show Rodríguez programmed for the season. “We wanted to open with something that was as current and topical as the election cycle we are in,” he says. “Something that might draw audience members that don’t necessarily think of themselves as regular theatergoers.” This adaptation by Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, inspired by the Wikileaks revelations and trial of Chelsea Manning, feels relevant to Rodríguez in a new way: “Orwell predicted a future that became reality—a world filled with screens that have the power to observe us, and where facts are so easily manipulated.”
Engaging new audiences is always a core concern of arts organizations. But the stakes for ART feel higher than normal. “We hope audiences will trust us and follow us from venue to venue,” says Rodríguez. “I think of this transition as designing more than a building; we’re designing and securing a future for ART and the ArtsHub where we can truly thrive.”