Complex Question: What if RP Funding Center Became an Arts Hub?

Kerry Falwell has big what-if questions on her mind these days: What if Lakeland focused resources to create a vibrant center for visual and performing arts? And what if the RP Funding Center became the official home of Lakeland’s arts scene?

This was the premise of Falwell’s presentation at last month’s strategic planning retreat for the Lakeland City Commission.

“The RP Funding Center (already) does promote art. This is more about organizing the resources that we have,” says Falwell, who is CEO of Explorations V Children’s Museum and also chairs the Lakeland Mayor’s Council on the Arts.

“This is about envisioning what an arts-invested city looks like,” she adds, citing examples like Kansas City and Memphis, among others, which have enjoyed great success as well as positive economic impact by implementing similar visions.

But the questions are big ones, and not without need of thorough examination and discussion. These types of decisions don’t happen overnight, and each of the stakeholders involved have varying opinions of how, if at all, to move forward.

“I appreciate that she recognized the value of the RP Funding Center,” says Tony Camarillo, the center’s executive director, “and I would always want to improve our standing in the arts community. Whatever we can do to be better. We just need to totally understand what that means.”

For the center, which is owned by the City, cost outlays and revenue are primary considerations.

“The thing that would be most important to me is that we maximize our real estate,” Camarillo says. “If a company wants to come in and knock out 10 performances, that’s one thing. But if someone wants to come in seven days a week, 365 days a year, that’s a completely different model. The No. 1 goal for me is to reduce the subsidy” from the city. “We have to drive revenue to impact this. I think there are ways to do it all, to certain degrees.”

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz agrees.

Bill Mutz

“We have to find the associations/community relationships that are not only healthy for and desirable for the citizens … but also for the RP Funding Center,” Mutz says. “We have the center accommodate things that we think people have the interest in. We have to think in more of a business model.”

According to Mutz, the issue is one of profitability for the RP Funding Center. “We want to make sure we’re balancing profitable opportunities,” he says. “To me it’s exciting that we’re at a time that we are searching for really healthy alternatives. We’re in a redefining-ourselves era. “

From the city’s perspective, Mutz says, the starting point is to analyze the types of activities that can maximize profitability for the RP Funding Center.

“As a city we want to make sure we’re maximizing what the citizens are interested in,” he adds, “and minimizing the things that they do not support as much. What is core utilization, where are there available spaces (in the Center), and how do they dovetail together?”

Youkey Theatre at RP Funding Center

Buy-in from the local arts organizations that could perform and exhibit there would be a must, says Falwell. And then there would be necessary adaptations to the building to make it a more viable full-scale arts center. Add to this the potential draw of a community arts center, and the idea could just be worthy of further investigation.

Falwell presenting to the City Commission

“This is not about reducing costs” for arts organizations, Falwell says. “This is not just asking for a handout. I think it’s important that people know the value of the arts organizations in Lakeland, and if we work together we can create a win-win situation.

“It could still be used as banquet spaces; it doesn’t preclude doing that. If you create a space that’s more flexible, then it’s also more usable.”

Adaptability was a key factor in the decision by the Imperial Symphony Orchestra to relocate its performances, which averaged 1,000 patrons, from the center, due to the massive size of the auditorium.

Handout photo Amy Wiggins

“The audience space is bigger than we need,” says Amy Wiggins, executive director of the ISO. “And because the hall is so much larger, it’s more difficult to create connections with the musicians on stage.”

Still Wiggins sees great value in at least exploring the vision of using the center as a community arts destination.

“Communities that are able to put their entertainment, arts and culture opportunities within walking distance see greater success,” she says. “It’s the mall phenomenon: people have one-stop shopping. I think our community certainly deserves the opportunity to explore that. I think that any conversation that happened, the ISO would be honored to be a part of.”

Jermaine Thornton, executive director of Florida Dance Theatre, agrees. The organization started out at the Polk Theatre before becoming the company of residence at Florida Southern College.

“I definitely see being a part of this initiative,” he says. “I have conversations with people and they have no idea that Lakeland has a professional dance company. Being able to have a centralized hub would be a great step in the right direction.”

A step that just may come to light. Eventually.

“I think we are providing an artistic outlet for the community,” the RP Funding Center’s Camarillo adds. “We want to continue to be the artistic outlet for the community and if there are ways we can do that even more, then we want to explore that.”

Video – Falwell’s presentation and discussion:

Strategic Planning Retreat Day2 2021.02.17 from City of Lakeland on Vimeo.

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