The Nickelodeon Theatre, which opens its new Main Street home Friday, is part of a cultivated national movement known as place-making, the concept that arts organizations can have a positive economic and cultural role in transforming areas.
“It is about using art, in a sense, as a means to a utilitarian end,” said Brett Egan, director of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, an institute that supports and advises organizations on strategic planning and marketing to maximize its impact.
The Nick was one of 15 arts organizations nationwide selected to participate in the institute’s two-year training program. Because of its work with the DeVos Institute, and recent grants totaling $300,000 from The Nord Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the Nick has established a national profile.
“Getting onto the national stage is a brand new thing, as far as I know, for the Nick,” said Andy Smith, the theater’s executive director. “It’s really because of this project, because of this move and because of the anticipated impact that the theater is going to have on downtown.”
But this higher profile — a new building, national recognition, becoming a place-making engine for Columbia development — wouldn’t have happened if the Nick hadn’t gotten its act together behind the scenes. The new theater is the result of an incremental, quarter-century process that began when the Nick knelt before the bayonet of bankruptcy.
In 1987, the theater closed for about five months amid conflicting reports. Some said it was for renovations. David Whiteman, a lifetime member of the Nick who served on the board for two decades, said the theater “basically went bankrupt.”
The Nick, which was founded in 1979, was wildly successful in the 1980s. But the mass-market success of the videocassette recorder, commonly known as the VCR, during that decade caused a shift in the nature of the Nick’s audience.
“It was officially an arts organization, but it wasn’t getting any arts funding,” said Whiteman, a University of South Carolina political science professor. “It did fine if a lot of people were coming.”
When the 77-seat theater struggled to fill the seats, the Nick couldn’t pay its distributors, which meant no films. Whiteman, who began selling tickets at the theater when he arrived at USC in 1981, said the theater closed between July and October or November of 1987.
“It was the most important cultural resource in town for me,” he said, adding that he was part of a small group that “couldn’t live in town without the Nickelodeon.”
When the Nick was reconstructed by what Whiteman referred to as a “real grassroots movement,” a new theater was always mentioned as a long-term goal. But it took time. The Columbia Film Society, which operates the Nick, didn’t hire Anne Raman, its first full-time executive director, until 2000.
In 2005, the year Larry Hembree was hired as executive director, the Nick purchased the Fox Theater building on Main Street with significant assistance from the city of Columbia. City records show Columbia has given the group a total of $1.14 million for the building, its renovation and equipment; the Film Society had to match that money dollar-for-dollar to get any of it.
Hembree became the face of the $4.8 million Move the Nick capital campaign that began months before the economy wilted in 2008. His work began inside the theater.
“We had to prove we could build a business board — and raise money,” said Hembree, now the managing director at Trustus Theatre.
Tracy Jones has spent four years on the Nick’s board, the last two as president. She said boards have to evolve to meet an organization’s needs.
“Therefore, the board members have to realize that the value that they add changes over time,” she said. “That’s, I think, the culture we established.”
Some board members have been asked to step aside.
“We’ve had those conversations, but nobody has been offended,” Jones said.
The Nick has become very deliberate in building board profiles, with a priority on fundraising potential.
“We’re trying to establish a culture of fiscal responsibility on the board,” Jones said. “We have a building. We’ve got an asset that we have to protect and plan for.”
The Nick estimates it will draw 60,000 people per year. While the 99-seat downstairs theater will open in a few days, this fall the Nick will return to raising money to renovate the 200-seat theater on the second floor of the new building.
The Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville, N.Y., is an example of how a cultural institution can spur local prosperity. Dominick Balletta, the managing director of the film center, who visited the Nick’s new space in February, said the center’s three-screen cinema in the town of 6,000 draws about 200,000 visitors per year. The center, which began as a volunteer project in 1998, is now a countywide magnet that has attracted restaurants and manufacturing companies to the area.
“We’re trying to build a cultural corridor,” Balletta said. “All of these things are a result of having a commitment to film, having a commitment to film as a community and serving the entire community.”
Another example is Dia:Beacon, an art gallery in a former Nabisco printing factory along the Hudson River that opened in Beacon, N.Y., in 2003. Traveling from New York City to see the collection of major works from the 1960s to the present, one must take an hourlong train ride. Then it’s a 17-minute walk from the station.
“And now as you make that walk, there are stores,” Balletta said. “There are now amenities as you’re going down.”
Place-making isn’t always immediately successful. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which boasts one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country, was to transform North Adams, Mass., a city in the northwestern part of the state with a population of about 13,000, according to 2010 census figures. According to a recent story on National Public Radio, MASS MoCA, which opened in 1999, might have had “some miscalculation about how the museum could tap into the area’s booming arts tourism.”
Smith, who built the theater’s Indie Grits Festival into one of Columbia’s signature events, is confident The Nick will be successful within the walls of its new home — and beyond.
“It’s a big buzzword in philanthropy,” Smith said about place-making. “The Nick is in the right place at the right time.”