The WSO should have the run of the Concert Hall

Photo: The WSO playing New York’s Carnegie Hall.

By Dorothy Dobbie

Almost 50 years ago, the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall was built as the home of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which since 1948 had been playing at the old Winnipeg Auditorium (now the Provincial Archives building) behind The Bay parkade. The new hall was also to be the venue for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s at-home concerts and later for the Manitoba Opera, both supported by the music of the WSO.
The Concert Hall was just one component of what would be the Centennial Arts Centre, and the Manitoba Centennial Centre Corporation (MCCC) was created to manage the new complex that was completed in 1968.
It was contemplated that MCCC would be a property management entity and to that end, the Act that created the managing body stated in Section 11(6): “The Corporation shall not sponsor, promote or accept responsibility in any way for any performance, concert or plan in the centennial centre or elsewhere.” This is a pretty emphatic statement that anticipated potential conflict should the MCCC be involved in booking acts that could compete with the resident tenants.
In 2005, the Doer government had Section 11(6) of the Act removed and the following year, the WSO was banished from the hall for the first two months of its season to accommodate a Broadway production commissioned by the MCCC. The result was a devastating $750,000 deficit for the WSO that year as patrons stayed home in legions.
Better and bolder
A better and bolder idea would be to restore Section 11(6) to the Act and then allow the WSO, impresario by nature, to manage the performance part of the hall in the same way the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre manages that venue and the Manitoba Museum operates its own programming. Both these organizations run their own shows and pay only a token fee in lieu of rent to the MCCC.
Removing the impresario responsibility from the MCCC would allow them to concentrate on their expertise as property managers without the distraction of managing performances – something the WSO does very well. (It should be noted that the WSO has been successfully and profitably managing Pantages for the past five years.)
It would remove the conflict developing over who books what or when. Last year, because of this conflict, the WSO lost two of its key fall weekends when it was shunted aside and had to perform on Thanksgiving and Halloween, affecting tickets sales and revenue. More dislocation is being forced on them in the coming year.
More conflict of interest?
Pretty well the entire board and management staff of the MCCC have been replaced in the past year. In the case of Angela Mathieson, the new chair of MCCC, a potential conflict of interest looms because she has also been hired as the CEO of CentreVenture Corp. CentreVenture is the key conduit for any downtown development.
In his 2014 Annual Report, CEO Rob Olson writes, “a decision was made to work with the City of Winnipeg to develop a request for proposals to solicit private development of a new parking garage on the MCCC James Avenue property.”
It is clear from this that the MCCC is contemplating being the catalyst for building the much-needed parkade behind the Concert Hall. There is good reason for this interest: currently parking lot rental brings in almost as much revenue as the Concert Hall.
The conflict arises because it is likely that CentreVenture would be the vehicle for brokering a parking lot deal. This raises a huge question: does the CEO of CentreVenture get to make deals that involve MCCC, which she chairs?
In pursuit of transparency
The cadre of fresh, young blood at City Hall is not there by accident. The electorate took a deep breath and opted for change and an open window on how things are done. There is no room for any hint of conflicting interests.
It would seem reasonable to expect that Ms. Mathieson would resign from the board of the MCCC to avoid any appearance of conflict. Perhaps she has plans to do so.
In the case of the MCCC, being in competition with its principle tenants is another clear conflict. It would be a far better thing to let the WSO manage the impresario side of the hall (including earning the revenue from concessions).
To make up for lost revenue, there would be no impediment for the landlord to negotiate a lucrative rental deal for outside acts.

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