Broward Center will offer a new way to experience the arts

After 20 years in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts breaks ground this week on a $50 million renovation and expansion that adds space for arts and educational programs.

09/19/2012 6:42 PM

09/20/2012 12:04 AM

At concert halls and theaters across the country, the best and most expensive seats in the house typically are located in the balcony, orchestra section or near front and center.

The Broward Center for the Performing Arts wants to add a new section to that exclusive list: Club Level, a VIP area with wider seats inside the hall, and private access to a soundproof lounge with flat screen TVs, a full bar and food service — reminiscent of the luxury boxes fans pay top dollar for at sports venues.

Kelley Shanley, chief executive of the Broward Center, said patrons long have asked for amenities that would appeal to “drag alongs’’ — those sometimes-reluctant, often-disinterested patrons who go to the theater for reasons other than the art, such as to accompany a spouse or as part of a group.

“They’re people who might not normally come to an arts event, but would go if it’s a premium experience,’’ Shanley said. “It’s really meant to attract a new audience, expand the audience and get people to come early and stay late.’’

Carved out of the mezzanine lobby and two control rooms, Club Level will debut Oct. 26 for the Broward season-opening performance of Miami City Ballet, with tickets selling at a premium of $50 to $60 above mezzanine level prices.

The VIP area will not be the only new addition to the Broward Center, though, as an ambitious renovation and expansion is now under way to transform the hall into “a cultural community center, and not just a performing arts center,’’ said Scott Butler, one of the center’s original designers and a director for Wilson Butler Architects, the project leader.

Butler said designers took their cues for the Broward Center’s renovation from disparate sources: cruise ships, sports stadiums and arenas, and also arts centers in Europe, where theaters tend to act like community centers that buzz with activity at all hours, and not just during performances.

The $50 million project, scheduled to take place in three phases and to be completed by January 2014, will add about 40,000-square-feet of space for arts and education programs, including a new educational center with a studio theater and classrooms, and a two-story waterfront pavilion on the north bank of the New River that will house a banquet hall, conference rooms and a restaurant.

The first phase of work began in the summer, with workers repairing the roofs and replacing the air-conditioning and ventilation systems.

The main performance hall, the Au-Rene Theater, will get a makeover, as well, with a new lift for the orchestra pit, upgraded sound and lighting systems, and new seats — with the total number reduced from 2,687 to 2,660, in part due to the reconfiguration of the mezzanine to allow for wider seats with drink holders in the new Club Level, which will have 71 seats.

The second phase of the renovation begins in December, when construction will commence on the new education center and pavilion, with the final phase set to begin next summer, when the Broward Center will close for the season while crews restore lobbies, and renovate the courtyard and the smaller Amaturo Theater, which seats 590.

As audiences experience the changes at the Broward Center, Shanley said he expects private donations and public support will increase and hit the goal of $50 million.

At the outset of the renovation project last year, Shanley and Broward Center officials approached all of the original public- and private-sector partners that helped build the performing arts center, which opened in February 1991.

The center’s leaders have raised about $42.5 million to date in cash and pledges, including $25 million in private donations, and grants of $12 million from Broward County, $4.5 million from Fort Lauderdale, and $1 million from the Downtown Development Authority.

The only public-sector partner missing is the Broward County School Board, which contributed about $8 million toward construction of the center, and in return received a 40-year lease on the Amaturo Theater for free arts presentations for public school teachers and students.

Shanley said he has asked the School Board to contribute $6 million for the renovation, but that he is still in discussions with schools officials about a donation.

“It’s clear the arts are very important to the School Board and the superintendent,’’ he said.

Despite the project’s hefty price tag, Shanley said the cost of renovations will not be passed on to audiences.

“We don’t expect all of this to create any change in the way we price tickets,’’ he said.

Shanley said the additional spaces and amenities will give the Broward Center a chance to earn more revenues through food and beverage sales, and event rentals, which will help offset the extra cost of operating a larger venue.

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