October 3, 2004
Kathy Hotchner keeps a hectic schedule, but in the wake of a record-breaking fiscal year and with a 30th-anniversary season under way at her Scottsdale Center for the Arts, perhaps she should pencil in a day of self-applause.
One could hardly blame her.
As its director, Hotchner, 61, has spent the past 16 years developing a solid brand identity for the center by bringing challenging, commercially risky but artistically rewarding arts events to the Valley.
But Hotchner would rather hand that applause to her audiences, like the 300,000 people who attended center events last year, and the hundreds of thousands expected to support this season’s lineup of acts, which includes comedian Lily Tomlin, performance artist Laurie Anderson and famed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Those audiences continue to support an arts center that’s regularly cited as one of the nation’s best.
"I think somehow my tastes must match the community," she says, "or else we wouldn’t have been this successful."
But success hasn’t always been in the center’s spotlight.
A CLUMSY START
Newspaper archives, city historians and interviews with people associated with the center in its early years as a city-managed venue paint a portrait of a struggling facility — one that floundered in its quest for an identity, hoping to appeal to everyone but attracting few.
"Early on, we did some wild things that were pretty stupid," admits David Harris, deputy city manager for Scottsdale in the 1980s and who, as the city’s director of community services in the ’70s, took the lead in developing and debuting the center.
Consider opening night, Oct. 23, 1975.
While staff members worked fastidiously with sticks of chalk to mark the main theater’s seats with numbers (the real ones hadn’t yet arrived to be affixed to the seats), country singer Roger Miller was preparing to take the stage in the center’s 838-seat main theater.
Miller had been booked by the center to show off the elaborate sound system that acoustical engineer Christopher Jaffe had designed (it was the first indoor venue to use Jaffe’s "electronic resonance system"), though the day of the concert, Miller opted to use his own sound system and technicians.
The result was a lackluster show, reported the Scottsdale Daily Progress, the predecessor of the Scottsdale Tribune:
"Miller performed old favorites such as ‘King of the Road’ and ‘Dang Me’ and even took a turn at the fiddle. His performance was met with polite applause from an audience which was obviously not filled with country music fans."
The concert was punctuated by Miller’s "derogatory remarks" after periodic glitches with his sound system.
"I’d like to thank the Mattel toy company for the sound system tonight," he reportedly said.
Booking Miller, Harris laughs, "was probably a mistake."
That first season pulled in fewer than 150,000 people.
"We spent a year and a half with people who lived two blocks away not knowing where the center was," says Bruce MacDonald, who in 1977 was already the third person to fill the director’s seat at the center.
Harris points to programming such as RV conventions and a Fourth of July festival featuring "Nelda and Her Snakes" (in which a woman performed with a large python) as evidence that the center’s pandering approach to luring audiences had failed.
Dance and avant-garde theater — both now staples of the center’s seasons — were both difficult sells in the center’s opening years, Harris says. In the ’70s, a flop could bring in audiences of as few as 25 people.
By its 10th birthday, the center was able to look back proudly on top-name acts, including Toni Tennille, Ella Fitzgerald, Lily Tomlin, Pearl Bailey, Ravi Shankar, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, David Brenner and Bill Cosby — a remarkable roster considering the limited capacity of the main theater.
But trouble was brewing.
The center was managed by the city’s Community Services Department, which also oversees libraries and parks and recreation. And though the center received city funds — it was given about $1.4 million in 1985 — it took 70 percent of its annual programming budget from the nonprofit Scottsdale Arts Center Association and used other monies from groups like the Men’s League (now the Scottsdale League for the Arts)
The organizations often overlapped, and over the years, the association wanted larger influence on booking acts at the center. In 1985, City Councilman Jim Bruner headed a task force that suggested spinning off management of the center into a new nonprofit organization.
"You had various entities all wanting to do great things, but the problem was, nobody was designated in charge," says Frank Jacobson, president and CEO of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, which was formed in 1988 and now oversees both the center and its neighboring Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jacobson came to Scottsdale from Colorado’s Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, where he oversaw a staff that included performing arts director Kathy Hotchner. He recruited her for the center three months after he took the new job.
Together, they shaped what would be the center’s new course — bringing in a diverse blend of arts across genres and cultures, with hopes of establishing a brand strong enough for audiences to try more unknown arts offerings.
A NEW DIRECTION
"I’ve always called Kathy the soul of our organization," Jacobson says. "Kathy has an emotional involvement in what she’s doing. She certainly uses her head as well, but she has to have some emotional attachment and some community attachment. She keeps our programs fresh and diverse.
‘‘Kathy wants to make the world better, and she does it through the arts."
Hotchner’s emotional involvement extends to the relationships she has with agents representing the groups she books at the center.
She has earned a reputation for trustworthiness and a zeal for taking risks to bring edgier shows — "The Vagina Monologues" was a controversial choice in 2001; this season’s buzzworks are Tim Robbin’s political polemic "Embedded" and Afghan folk act Ensemble Kaboul — and for fostering more obscure art forms, like spoken word.
Monologuist Spalding Gray, who committed suicide earlier this year, performed several times at the center, and developed the piece "Gray’s Anatomy" there in 1993. His wife, theatrical booking agent Kathie Russo, calls Hotchner "practically a part of the family."
"She’s a kind and intellectual person and has a vision that I wish more presenters in this country had," Russo says.
But progressiveness isn’t without its hitches.
Hotchner recalls her first season of programming for the center, when she booked a black theater troupe from South Africa. While the troupe was in town, one member was walking through downtown in a casual outfit with a T-shirt, perusing shop windows, only to have the police called on him.
"It was eye-opening for all of us," Hotchner says.
It’s also one of the reasons she takes pride in continuing a multicultural focus in her programming.
The director also has found a new niche in novelty productions. Recently, "Menopause — the Musical" had a successful eight-month run at Theater 4301, a former IMAX theater that the center renovated and transformed into a cozy 326-seat playhouse.
And the one-woman comedy "Late Nite Catechism," starring Patti Hannon as a charmingly acerbic Catholic nun, has been running for four years in what used to be the center’s 137-seat film screening theater (screenings of classic and independent movies "never really took off," David Harris says) and is now called the Stage 2 Theater.
A sequel to "Catechism" opened last season and has proved equally popular — and equally supportive of the center’s bottom line, helping finance shows that aren’t expected to make a profit.
City leaders are discussing expanding the center, possibly starting work on a theater district somewhere in Scottsdale, to stay competitive with the growing number of arts centers sprouting up across the Valley.
Hotchner is more concerned with audience trends — that uncertain times such as war and recession cause people to buy tickets for more mainstream, "safe" fare — than entering into the world of booking more "slam-dunk," topname artists into a larger venue.
"I’m looking to complement what’s going on in the community and create an arts experience for people here," she says. "It’s taken 12 to 14 years to build up a trust factor with the community, and I think there’s an audience now for what I bring."
By the numbers
Size: 88,000 square feet
Theaters: 838-seat Virginia G. Piper Theater, 137-seat Stage 2 Theater, 326-seat Theater 4301, 2000-seat Scottsdale Center for the Arts Amphitheater
Annual performances: More than 1,000
Attendance: 300,000 total in 2003-04 season
Revenue from ticket sales: $3,770,000 in 2003-04 season
Contributed revenue: $1,179,000 in 2003-04 season
Historical timeline leading up to Scottsdale Center for the Arts
1909: Boston painter Marjorie Thomas comes to Scottsdale, establishes first gallery
1937: Architect Frank Lloyd Wright purchases 600 acres of land at the base of the McDowell Mountains
1967: City forms Scottsdale Fine Arts Commission to examine role of city in fostering arts and culture
1970: A study by architect Calvin Straub suggests building a city arts center at McCormick Park at Indian Bend and Scottsdale roads
1972: Fine Arts Commission begins plans for Scottsdale Center for the Arts, a mixed-use facility for both performing and visual arts
1974: Downtown Civic Center Plaza completed (cost: $650,000), designed by architect Bennie Gonzales, who also designed the arts center, which would be built in the plaza rather than at McCormick Park
1975: Scottsdale Center for the Arts (cost: $5 million) opens