Performing arts groups in limbo after Neurosciences ends lease

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By Pat Sherman

Some 40 San Diego performing arts organizations learned last week that the top-tier La Jolla performance space they have been using for free may not be available to them any longer.

Since the Neurosciences Institute (NSI) began operating at its facility near UC San Diego in 1996, nonprofit performing arts and education groups have been the beneficiary of the research institution’s largesse, receiving regular, gratis access to NSI’s 352-seat, acoustically superior concert venue.

Scripps Research Institute owns the auditorium and the two adjacent buildings leased by NSI.

Scripps spokeswoman Stacy Rosenberg said NSI’s lease was set to expire in 2014, though the institution asked to be released from the lease early. The property will revert back to Scripps control on Oct. 1.

Rosenberg said Scripps Research Institute does not have the funds to allow arts organizations to continue using the space for free. During the past week, she has met collectively and individually with representatives from many of the affected groups to work out a solution. However, she said, the halcyon days of free use are most certainly over.

It costs about $350,000 a year to operate the auditorium, given its current usage, Rosenberg said. Scripps also would need to find money to pay for a part-time employee to oversee the performing arts program, she said.

An annual fundraiser called Minding the Arts was organized to help offset the cost to NSI of operating the auditorium, though last September’s event netted only about $100,000 said the institute’s research director, Dr. Einar Gall.

“Minding the Arts each year has been a source of very significant support, but it has not covered all of our costs,” Gall said of the upscale event, tickets to which cost $150-$250.

Rosenberg said the funding that Scripps Research Institute receives — as much as 85 percent of it from government sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — does not include money for the arts.

While the Neurosciences Institute’s vision and research was more aligned with music and the arts — including research into music’s effect on the brain — Rosenberg said Scripps “is a very different kind of science institution.”

“We’re struggling, like all other not-for-profit institutions,” she said. “We’re looking at a threatened federal funding climate, because there have been major cuts to the NIH.

“We also are obligated under the terms of our mission to devote any funds that are raised for Scripps Research to biomedical research,” she said.

Mainly Mozart has been using the Neurosciences space since 1996, and has annually held up to 17 performances there in recent years.

Though getting audiences and performers to venture to the isolated auditorium was a risk at the onset, Mainly Mozart’s executive director, Nancy Laturno Bojanic, said concertgoers eventually grew to love it.

“Unlike most other venues, people’s decision to participate has a lot to do with that venue,” Bojanic said. “There are thousands of people who use the Neurosciences Institute as a primary venue for their concert-going. … The size of the theater for chamber music and for what many others produce there is really lovely.”

Bojanic said Mainly Mozart plans its concert series 18 months in advance. The lineup for its 2013 season was planned out long before Bojanic knew about the lease transfer.

Erika Torri, executive director of the Anthenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, said her organization also began using the NSI auditorium in 1996. Today, it holds six concerts per year there, including a summer classical music program by former San Diego piano protégée Gustavo Romero.

“The word has spread among international performers that this is such an outstanding performance hall,” said Torri, noting the facility’s “clean, contemporary appearance” and “superb acoustics.” “It was an enormous gift and we are most thankful that we were able to use it.”

Rosenberg said Scripps Research Institute would continue using the auditorium to hold approximately 10 scientific symposia, as it has while the Neurosciences Institute was its tenant.

“If it can be worked out, we would like to keep the auditorium available to the arts organizations,” Rosenberg said, noting that the solution would most likely involve charging organizations a fee for its use.

From Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2013 Scripps will rent the auditorium to arts organizations for $1,500 per event, though Scripps said the temporary rate will only partially offset operating costs.

“The various organizations that use the auditorium range in size … from those that are a little better funded to very small organizations that have no funding,” she said. “It may be that there’s not a price-point that is going to be acceptable to some of the smaller organizations, but that will make it available to some of the larger organizations.

“We’re trying to find a comfortable point where it will be affordable to some ... and generate enough revenue to offset the costs of operating the auditorium.”

Ron Newby, founder and curator of the Bronowski Art and Science Forum, said his group has used the NSI auditorium for three years. He is currently reaching out to forum members to see if they can raise enough money to continue the series there.

“It would be logistically very difficult to start selling tickets,” Newby wrote in an email. “Many individuals, especially students, would find the cost to be prohibitive. Passing the hat at each event would present great difficulty. I believe attendance would suffer greatly.”

Until the transition on Oct. 1, all previously scheduled performances at the Neurosciences Institute will continue as planned, without cost to the organizations.

Torri said the prospect of having to pay to use the space does not come as a surprise.

“On the contrary, it’s probably about time,” she said, adding that $1,500 per event was not “unreasonable.”

“We have to stand up and find (the money),” Torri said. “I have to raise it — there’s no doubt about it. We are so well known for our jazz concerts (there) that it would be a real shame to give that up.”

Bojanic said Mainly Mozart’s chamber music is “defined on so many levels by the performance space at the Neurosciences Institute.”

“As long as the Neurosciences Institute continues to be a performance facility and a performance option, Mainly Mozart intends to call it its home,” she said.

Christopher Beach, president and artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society, said his organization has been presenting its Discovery Series at NSI for many years, and “feels incredibly lucky” to have had the space for free.

“The institutions that use it aren’t there just because it’s free,” he said. “They’re there because it is great — and therefore the loss would be great.”

However, Beach added, “life changes and institutions have different priorities.”

“If it turns out that for some reason Scripps should decide to use the auditorium for some other purpose, all of us will survive. This isn’t the death knell for any of these (arts organizations),” he said.

Gall and NSI founder and director, Dr. Gerald Edelman, say they are not yet certain where the Neurosciences Institute will be located next, or whether it will remain in San Diego. The modest research institute has about 40 staff, down from about 50 at its peak.

“These are challenging times for a lot of organizations,” Gall said. “We have a group of very good scientists that have made some significant contributions to understanding the brain. Most of the people in the community know about the institute because of the auditorium and the performing arts program.”