New Orleans has a glut of lavish downtown theaters, spurred by tax incentives



Since the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts reopened in 2009, the Joy Theater, the Civic Theatre, the Saenger Theatre, the Carver Theater and now the Orpheum Theater all have reopened, and the Loew's State Palace is in the midst of a 10-year, $20 million renovation — all spurred by generous tax incentives for historic restorations and live performance infrastructure.

  A study commissioned by the Office of Enter-tainment Industry Development (OEID) earlier this year found that certified in-state spending for live performance infrastructure amounted to $47.5 million in 2014, against $11.9 million in tax subsidies.

  Just like the tax credits of "Hollywood South," however, the value of the live performance tax credits remains open to question. As the state confronts an ongoing budget crisis, the net expenditure on live performance infrastructure in 2014 was $9.7 million, or $12,883 for each of the 752 "direct" jobs created. Accompanying incentives for live performance production have failed to meet expectations as well. In May 2007, a study prepared for the industry group Broadway South predicted that the "total employment" associated with musical and theatrical events would top 6,000 by 2013. For that year, the 2015 OEID study reported a dismal 22 live performance production jobs.

  A study published earlier this year by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the proportion of Americans attending at least one live cultural event declined from 39 percent in 2002 to 33 percent in 2012. Of the artistic disciplines examined, theater (including plays and musicals), is losing its audience at the fastest rate.

  Is the promise of a downtown district with so many lavish theaters sustainable?

  "I don't look at it as competition," says Kristin Shannon, general manager of the Orpheum. "I look at it as, we're all theaters that were in operation at one time, so really, we should be thankful that they're all back online and offering such a diverse range of performances. Each has its own niche in the marketplace."

  The Carver, site of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's most recent State of the City address and the upcoming "An Evening with Wendell Pierce" (Sept. 12), has forged a distinct identity by offering a flexible floor plan, charging lower rates than its competitors and booking emerging New Orleans voices, according to sales director John Ernst and operations director Shelley Everett.

  "We have, to a degree, positioned ourselves as real activists in the community, and I think we work harder than other theaters in the community to bring in local talent," Ernst says.

  "We've not felt like we can't fill the seats that the city has to sell," says Kristian Sonnier, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). "I don't think that the people who are renovating these venues would be renovating them if they didn't think they could fill the seats. ... We want to continue our reputation as a city that's passionate about arts and live performance, and now we feel like we have the venues to showcase that more so than we ever have before." Sonnier says the NOCVB doesn't compile data on visitors' attendance at live perfomance events.

  Mary von Kurnatowski, co-owner of the Orpheum, is sanguine about the refurbished theater's prospects in New Orleans' burgeoning live performance scene. "I think people who are prone to fear wouldn't be doing this in the first place," she says with a smile.

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