Calvin Appeals Messiah Snub

January 27, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Members of the Convention and Arena Authority learned last week that they will hear the first appeal of the Grand Center booking policy at their next meeting.

Calvin College has told the board that it intends to appeal a ruling made in December by the CAA Operations Committee. That decision denied Calvin’s Oratorio Society its request for Thursday and Friday night dates in the first half of December to present the Messiah at DeVos Performance Hall.

In coming to their decision, committee members said they would have had to break the building’s booking policy to give the Society the dates it wanted, as the Grand Rapids Ballet also requested one of those dates for its annual performance of the Nutcracker. The Grand Center booking policy dictates that the building’s four tenants, of which the Ballet is one, should be given first priority for dates.

At the December committee meeting, Ballet Managing Director Robert Bondlow said the Friday date was very important to his company. Bondlow told the committee that a quarter of the Ballet’s annual revenue and half of its earned income come from performances of the Nutcracker.

Ballet Associate Artistic Director Laura Berman said the company needs to perform the holiday program in DeVos Hall because the sets were built for that stage.

At the same meeting, Calvin College President Gaylen Byker told members that in 1996 the Society gave up its Friday and Saturday dates to accommodate the Ballet and received the dates on Thursday and Friday in return.

But last spring, he said, the Society was notified by SMG that the Ballet had requested the Friday date and the booking policy gave the Ballet the right to it.

Byker argued that the hall was intended to be used by the broader community and not only for the private use of its arts tenants. He added that if Calvin couldn’t get those dates the Messiah might not be performed again downtown as it has been since 1933, and the Society might have to disband because the group gets 80 percent of its revenue every year from those two shows.

“With 70 years of participation at this site, we believe the Oratorio Society and Messiah should have access to this community resource,” said Byker.

Byker added that he spoke with Rich DeVos and reported that the Amway co-founder told him the Society was a key reason why the DeVos family gave a large financial gift to the facility that bears its name.

The Ballet and the Society reached a settlement for the December performances. The Messiah was sung on Thursday and Friday nights, Dec. 12 and 13, while the Nutcracker was danced the following Saturday afternoon. But despite reaching a temporary compromise, both sides felt the issue had to be resolved for good.

SMG General Manager Rich MacKeigan offered Calvin Wednesday and Thursday nights for the Messiah, but Byker remarked that weekday dates have lower attendance and ticket sales. The Calvin president also said dates later in the month wouldn’t work, as students make up a third of the cast and are on Christmas break after Dec. 15.

MacKeigan recommended that the committee give the Friday date to the Ballet. Not to do so, he said, would violate the booking policy.

“My interpretation is, any changes in dates for the arts tenants would require a change in the booking policy,” he said. “The Ballet has the right to those dates.”

The booking policy offers date protection to the building’s tenants because they use the building frequently and are solely nonprofit, artistic entities.

“Although Calvin has a long history of performances in DeVos, and provides another exceptional artistic choice to this community, they are not frequent users of the facility and they are not a nonprofit entity dedicated exclusively to an artistic mission,” MacKeigan wrote in a memo to the committee.

Committee members agreed with MacKeigan and awarded the Friday date to the Ballet.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to change policy for individual situations. I think it’s a slippery slope,” said Lew Chamberlin, chairman of the Operations Committee.

The full CAA board is set to hear the appeal from Calvin College on Feb. 26.           

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