Hippodrome uses new grant to give nonprofits a broader stage

The Hippodrome Theatre is largely defined by marquee Broadway shows, from "The Lion King" to "South Pacific." But starting Monday, the theater aims to be a hub for local arts groups, becoming much more than just a stopping-off spot for touring artists and productions.

With the Hippodrome Art Fund, the theater envisions being able to offer a bigger stage and financial support for nonprofit dance companies, music ensembles and more.

Broadway Across America, the leaseholder of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, which houses the Hippodrome, has contributed $300,000 to launch the effort. The goal is to attract more donors, increasing the fund to about $1 million over the next few years.

"It is definitely a new chapter for us and the Hippodrome Foundation," said Jeff Daniel, president of the France-Merrick center. "It's a new business model. We want there to be healthy nonprofits here, and we will be one of the investors."

The first recipient of a grant from the new arts fund is the Soulful Symphony, an orchestra founded in 2000 by composer, pianist and conductor Darin Atwater and made up of predominantly African-American musicians.

"When I met Darin and learned of the Soulful Symphony, I couldn't have been more excited," Daniel said. "We made a three-year agreement to fund them."

The Soulful Symphony previously performed at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and had an association with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It is particularly known for showcasing Atwater's large-scale pieces that fuse pop idioms, including gospel and hip hop, with symphonic elements.

Money from the Hippodrome Arts Fund will be used to cover artists' fees and other expenses for the Soulful Symphony, which will offer four monthly events, starting in January.

For the inaugural Hippodrome season, Atwater plans to premiere a ballet in the spring with a new score he has composed. To do a ballet at the Meyerhoff, dancers would have to share the stage with the orchestra; the Hippodrome has a pit.

"This gives us an opportunity to re-invent ourselves," Atwater said. "We can also do more with lighting and set design. We can change it up a little from a concert feel to an experience, change the dynamic of it. But we are not going to change the Soulful recipe. We are where we are because of our audience. And I'm very confident the audience will follow us to the Hippodrome."

The end of the BSO/Soulful association was a "mutual decision," said Eileen Andrews, the BSO's vice president of marketing and communications.

"The BSO remains very proud of its relationship with Soulful Symphony," Andrews said. "It was hugely successful and drew a more diverse audience to the Meyerhoff for symphonic music. Having Darin and the Soulful Symphony at the Hippodrome will be so good for the cultural scene here. It's a very interesting and very promising partnership."

Daniel said that a recent adjustment to prohibitive utility bills at the Hippodrome will make it possible to focus on the arts fund project. When the renovated theater opened in 2004, remaining debt was rolled into utility costs, to about $1 million annually. Those payments have been substantially reduced under a financing plan worked out over the summer with the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Decisions on what groups receive grants from the arts fund in the future will be made in consultation with the Hippodrome Foundation, a separate entity that promotes educational and community activities each year.

At some point, the M&T Pavilion in the France-Merrick Center may figure into plans for the nonprofits, organizers said. Originally intended as a no-frills theater space, the pavilion is underused and could provide space for a variety of uses by arts groups.

The Hippodrome's funding project comes just as the neighborhood is preparing for another performing arts organization — Everyman Theatre.

"With Everyman moving here across the street and the mayor's focus on the West Side," Daniel said, "this will be good for everybody."

Daniel plans to spread the news about the Hippodrome Arts Fund at national conferences.

"We'll be selling Baltimore and we'll be selling this theater," he said. "We will endeavor to attract national and international groups who would like to tour, who would like to develop a company here and perform in a 2,200-seat house. Arts groups can contact us. I hope to get a load of phone calls."