After 33 years, Boston University and the Huntington Theatre Company are parting ways, and the university is putting the BU Theatre up for sale, effective immediately.
For the highly regarded Huntington, which just two years ago won a Tony Award for regional theater, the dissolution of the partnership with BU ushers in a period of uncertainty.
For the wider theater community, it is the third bombshell in the past month, following the announcement that CitiBank Inc. will end its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center and news that downtown’s Colonial Theatre will go dark for at least a year of renovations, with its future very much up in the air.
Though the Huntington and BU framed their split as amicable, the university had rejected an offer by the Huntington to buy the BU Theatre and two adjoining BU-owned buildings, after protracted negotiations.
“It really was just a question of price,’’ Gary Nicksa, BU’s senior vice president of operations, told the Globe Wednesday. “What they felt it was worth, we felt it was worth more. We felt the only way to settle that was to market it and see what buyers were willing to offer.’’
In the short term, the Huntington can stay put. A joint statement said that BU will stipulate that any buyer must “guarantee the Huntington’s use of the facility through June 30, 2017.’’ But in the long term, depending on the buyer, it is possible that the space will not operate as a theater at all.
In an interview, Huntington managing director Michael Maso said the Huntington still hopes to buy the BU Theatre and the two adjoining buildings, which the university is also putting on the market. Maso said the Huntington may seek a partnership with a commercial developer or another institution.
He sketched ambitious plans for the purchase and renovation of the theater and the creation of more facilities, saying the project could include the addition of a café, a rehearsal hall, and space for the company’s offices and education programs. A capital campaign of between $40 million and $60 million toward that goal “is not out of the question,’’ Maso said, though he stressed that is a “very rough notion.’’
“If in fact we don’t succeed in making the deal to own the space or partner with the space, we’re going to have to make alternate plans,’’ he conceded.
Might those plans involve moving operations entirely to the Huntington-run Calderwood Pavilion, in the South End? Maso suggested not.
The Huntington stages large productions, such as the current “A Little Night Music,’’ at the BU Theatre but often presents smaller productions in the Calderwood Pavilion, which it operates at a cost of $400,000 per year while offering space to dozens of midsize and small theater companies at subsidized rates.
Maso was adamant that he does not want to displace other theater companies. Moreover, Huntington spokeswoman Temple Gill said Wednesday night that the company needs a theater in the 700- to 800-seat range, with a good-sized stage, in order to present its larger productions. None of the theaters inside the Calderwood is that big.
BU’s Nicksa said the university is selling the BU Theatre and the other two buildings — where students learn scenic and costume design and other aspects of production — in order to consolidate theater education programs on its Commonwealth Avenue-area campus. He said the university has retained a broker and expects to list the properties within the next few days.
The university and the Huntington had been talking for a couple of years about the fate of the BU Theatre.
“It was obvious that the facility, while wonderful, had years of deferred maintenance,’’ said Maso, adding: “The Huntington was willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to bring the BU Theatre and its support space up to world-class status. But in the middle of the conversation, it became clear that we had two separate agendas.’’
It’s similarly clear that the Huntington will not receive a discount as the company bids for the theater. BU’s Nicksa said the university has a “fiduciary responsibility’’ to “receive fair value, market value, for the properties’’ — money that he said will be invested in teaching and research. “We think the highest and best use is some form of mixed-use development,” said Nicksa.
Founded by BU in 1982, the Huntington became independent in 1986. BU has provided free use of the 890-seat theater to the Huntington, along with a subsidy that this fiscal year will amount to $200,000, Nicksa said. The Huntington’s budget for the current fiscal year is more than $14 million, according to Gill.
During their partnership, the financial support provided by the university to the Huntington, including cash contributions and the free use of the theater, has amounted to more than $40 million, Nicksa said.