When Amazon leases its latest office space in Boston’s Seaport District in 2024, as the tech giant recently announced, the neighborhood will be getting more than just 3,000 new employees. The 630,000-square-foot office building will feature two new theaters reserved for the city’s nonprofit performing arts organizations.
A third space, likely a 100-seat “black box” theater, is also slated to open in a building yet to be determined in the fast-rising area that’s been dubbed Seaport Square. The influx of new stages will give the Seaport District, which has been criticized for its lack of public spaces and cultural diversity, a welcome new hub for live events.
The two theaters in the new Seaport building are expected to have capacities of 500 and 150 seats. Jonathan Greeley of the Boston Planning and Development Agency calls the proposed Seaport Performing Arts Center, or SeaPAC, a “Swiss Army knife” that will be adaptable to suit the needs of various types of performances.
“It’s extremely important that the theater space has a distinct presence as a welcoming part of the community,” Greeley said. “We look forward to working with the developer with broad brushstrokes, and then with the user on how to design the theaters more specifically.”
When the builder, Boston-based WS Development, took over the Seaport Square project some years ago, it inherited an agreement that originated more than a decade ago with the mayoral administration of the late Thomas M. Menino. At the time, the city wanted a 200,000-square-foot performance space. But arts organizations maintained — and a study commissioned by the city confirmed — that what Boston really needs are more small- and medium-size venues.
“Everyone is excited about doing this right,” said Gary Dunning, president and executive director of the Celebrity Series, the nonprofit presenting organization that brings various events to stages across the city. Talks are ongoing about the possibility of the Celebrity Series operating the two venues in the Amazon building, overseeing its own programming and providing affordable access for other arts groups in the city.
Dunning said he is researching what it would mean for the Celebrity Series, known for hosting events in a wide variety of atypical spaces, to serve as the operator of the theaters. Is there enough appetite among the philanthropic community to mount a successful fund-raising campaign? Are there enough arts organizations interested in renting the spaces?
“Until I can answer those questions, there’s nothing I can propose to my board,” he said.
Still, he said, the parties involved are keen to explore the possibilities.
“Do we want a theater? Yes. Boston has a rich tradition of great venues, but this adds so much more that Boston doesn’t have now. We could have different configurations — theater in the round one night and a small cabaret the next. That flexibility is extremely important to us.” The developers are consulting with Charcoalblue, an innovative global theater design firm founded in the United Kingdom, Dunning said.
The city hopes the Celebrity Series, established in 1938, could act as a mentor to less seasoned arts companies.
“They’re a sophisticated organization that knows how to do things,” Greeley said.
The nonprofit Boston Theater Company, which has no permanent home, would welcome affordable new space to rehearse and perform.
“If we were to contract into a permanent space, it would dramatically increase the number of artists we could hire and the amount of art we could produce for Boston,” said artistic director Joey Frangieh, whose company produced the Boston Marathon documentary play “Finish Line.”
Boston has been hungry for more small theater space for years, said Dawn Simmons, executive director of StageSource, a leading resource for theater-makers in the city and across New England.
“We have quite a few itinerant theaters,” Simmons said. While welcoming the day when the new theaters open, she has questions.
“Who are they talking to to actually figure out what ‘affordable’ means?” Simmons said. The Seaport, she added, “is a tony, upscale part of town. It’s already got a lot of value. How then is the city sharing the wealth back out into other parts of the city?”
She’s interested in hearing how the smallest of the planned theaters, the black box venue, will be managed.
“That feels like the space where there’s the most opportunity. What’s the conglomeration running that? A consortium of small theaters? Is there an opportunity for that to be more of a people’s space?”
In recent years the city of Boston has partnered with local arts organizations to ensure their viability, helping the Theater Offensive find a new home in the Fenway and the writing workshop GrubStreet move into new space in the Seaport. In 2017 the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh forged a public-private partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company so it could continue operating the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
“These are complex deals, and it hasn’t been easy, but the object has always been to leverage growth to create sustainable affordability for nonprofit arts organizations,” said Joyce Linehan, chief of policy for Walsh. “We still have some things to work through — property tax liability issues come immediately to mind — but I think in the end we will have created a model that can be replicated throughout the state and the country.”
Boston has looked at programs in other high-rent cities designed to facilitate a more hospitable environment for nonprofit cultural institutions. San Francisco has CAST, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, founded in 2013. In Seattle, the mayor recently signed a charter for the Cultural Space Agency Public Development Authority.
In Nashville, where Amazon has made an investment similar to its plans for Boston, the company will occupy a business park currently under construction that will include a new theater.
The cultural aspect of the Seaport Square project falls in line with WS Development’s commitment to “placemaking” and civic engagement, said Yanni Tsipis, a senior vice president at the company.
“A project of this scale brings with it a tremendous responsibility to the city,” Tsipis said. “Certainly the performing arts venues will continue to infuse soul, culture, and character to the Seaport neighborhood.”
While the pandemic has devastated the performing arts world, Dunning believes that the public will be eager to fill the theaters by the time the Seaport’s performing arts center is completed.
“I think this is going to unleash a tsunami of demand for high-quality experience,” he said. “That’s why in some ways this is oddly good timing. If we can act boldly but calmly and thoughtfully, then I think this helps position the arts in Boston in a terrific way, as a great new resource by the time it opens.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.