The Pulse certainly enjoys good theatre and is a strong advocate for the progression of arts and culture in Chattanooga—unless theaters (note the difference) become political and antiquated buildings sit unused most of the year.
Carlos C. Smith, chairman of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium Advisory Board of Directors, said recently the facility was busiest in May with high school graduations, being booked twice a day sometimes. But can commencement ceremonies and a few monthly programs justify keeping the auditorium, or even the Tivoli Theatre, in the dark (and operating in the red), yet public domain?
At a public forum on Tuesday addressing the future of both venues, Missy Crutchfield, administrator of the city’s Education, Arts & Culture Department, made impassioned statements about their cultural and historical value, recent financial success and long-awaited renovations to the Community Theater. Naturally, she argued for the continuation of the separation between the EAC and the Parks & Recreation Department, on grounds of unequal funding in favor of recreation centers over civic centers.
The “veteran card” was played multiple times in statements from Crutchfield, Smith and members of the Auditorium & Tivoli Steering Committee. The general sentiment was that our freedom came at a cost and we have the responsibility to honor our veterans (a sentiment we do not question and one that goes without saying). But to state that Chattanooga would become a “laughing stock,” to quote retired Admiral Vance Fry, if we tried to sell or lease the auditorium is a bit of hyperbole, to say the least. Fry used the (odd) analogy that Washington, D.C., would be ridiculed if it were to sell the Vietnam War Memorial, saying that selling or leasing the Memorial Auditorium would elicit the same response.
There is a vast difference, however, between a commemorative wall and a building whose name honors veterans. The latter requires money to justify salaries, upkeep and maintenance, while the former is an essentially low-maintenance slab of marble and a true, symbolic national monument.
Despite the restoration of a world-famous organ, the use of state-of-the-art technology and renovations, problems persist—not the least of which are the annual losses both venues incur. Other issues, such as cash-only bars (that restrict alcohol within the venues), non-working ATM machines, poor parking and general lack of use—to say nothing of the lackluster booking of the auditorium in particular—were not mentioned in any depth at the forum.
District 4 City Councilman Jack Benson said the future of both venues was also a “political issue, because some candidates [for city council] want abolish the EAC and rejoin it with Parks & Rec.” He related the importance of art in a city to that in a home, saying, “you don’t want your house cluttered with art, but you need a few for aesthetic appeal.”
But art can’t be merely pretty for the sake of making something else pretty. If there isn’t a larger purpose and sustainable foundation for these artful buildings, who will pay for them? Taxpayers. Selling the auditorium outright might be blasphemous to aging veterans, but leasing the venues to professional management agencies is the only reasonable way to keep them economically stable while maintaining their integrity as arts venues and concert halls.