In 1997, when the North Carolina Museum of Art began presenting concerts at its outdoor Joseph M. Bryan Jr. Theater, it was a fairly modest undertaking. Most of the bookings fell toward folk, blues, jazz and old-time, and the season had the feel of a summer-long folk festival.
Twenty years later, the museum amphitheater is bustling by comparison, with a lot more rock than folk on the schedule – Sheryl Crow, Belle & Sebastian, Jason Isbell and Superchunk, to name a few.
And with one paid show to go on this year’s schedule, 2017 already has set a venue record for attendance. The museum’s total paid attendance should top 30,000 after Sept. 16’s final show, the music-movie pairing of country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore with “The Big Lebowski.”
That’s well above the previous record of 22,919, set last year, and more than double what the 2,800-capacity venue drew in that inaugural 1997 season.
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“Twenty years ago, presenting someone like Sheryl Crow would have been a complete fantasy,” said George Holt, the museum’s director of performing arts and film. “It was our good fortune in those days to be able to present a lot of roots and traditional music, which was my forte. That kind of crested, and we had to figure out another direction.”
That other direction meant booking more rock, mainstream as well as alternative, and it turned out to be well-timed. Between a generation of club-level rock acts growing to larger stages and formerly huge pop acts declining a bit, the museum’s attendance is a good size for the modern-day scale of the rock-concert business.
Plus, concerts have produced a profit the past two years, mostly from concession sales at the shows.
Holt said the museum’s overall budget for performing arts is about $1 million per fiscal year, drawn from its fundraising foundation.
To make the shift in direction, the museum enlisted a presenting partner in Frank Heath, proprietor of Carrboro nightclub Cat’s Cradle. Heath has co-promoted most of the museum’s shows the past two years, primarily drawing from acts that played the Cradle in the past and grew beyond the club’s capacity. Six of this year’s co-presented dates have drawn sellout crowds, including Belle & Sebastian and Mandolin Orange.
“This gradually came into being by virtue of bands looking for places to play that fit their vision for size and type of venue,” Heath said. “George was wanting to broaden their style and reach a bit, too. It took a few years to get together, but it’s been great.”
Vulnerable to the elements
Had things gone according to plan, the museum amphitheater would have been celebrating its 20-year anniversary last year. It was originally supposed to open with a performance by Squirrel Nut Zippers on Sept. 6, 1996 – the day Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh.
That canceled the show and postponed the amphitheater’s opening until the following year, but there was an upside.
“Fran did a huge amount of damage,” Holt said. “But it was actually helpful in revealing some drainage problems that we were able to correct.”
It’s somewhat fitting that the amphitheater’s first significant event was weather-related, because it’s probably the most vulnerable to storms of all the Triangle’s major outdoor concert facilities. Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek and Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh and Booth Amphitheatre in Cary all have shelter available in the event of weather emergencies. (Red Hat can use the nearby Raleigh Convention Center.)
But the museum facility is at the mercy of the elements with no shelter for the audience, which makes every booking a roll of the dice. Weather worries have been particularly unnerving with this year’s more expensive bookings, Holt said. In June, storms threatened both Crow and Four Voices featuring Joan Baez. It prompted the Baez show to be postponed two days.
“Weather is always the big unknown,” Holt said. “We’ve had to evolve a comfort zone about how much we can put on the line any given night knowing we might lose it all. The artist gets paid regardless and ticket-holders get refunds if the show is canceled. So it’s a super-risky proposition.”
Holt, now 65, has run the amphitheater from the beginning. He began his career 40 years ago with the North Carolina Arts Council, where he ran the folklife section before leaving in 1994 to produce the music festival that accompanied the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
That proved to be an adventure, after the late-night bombing attack during one of the concerts at Centennial Olympic Park. The festival was shut down for three days before resuming, during which time the musicians carried on as best they could.
“It wound up being the most incredible nonstop jam session back at the hotel,” Holt said. “Scotty Moore from Elvis’ band playing with Cajuns, native Americans, Memphis folks like Rufus Thomas. It was amazing.”
Holt went from the Olympics straight to running the museum amphitheater, and things went well for the first few years.
But 2004 was a bad year, with rain disrupting many shows while a lot of those that did go on didn’t live up to commercial expectations. Total attendance for the year was 13,717, less even than the museum’s first year, 1997. After that hiccup and several years of conservative retrenchment, attendance has trended steadily upward, hitting new thresholds the past two seasons.
A look at capacity
These days, Raleigh’s 20,000-capacity Walnut Creek does most of its business with mainstream country acts. Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre has a capacity of 7,000 while downtown Raleigh’s Red Hat can hold 5,600, and both do more rock.
The museum in west Raleigh, with space for 2,800, has a capacity comparable to the Durham Performing Arts Center. That makes it just right for acts like Crow, who was playing Booth Amphitheatre in 2003 and Walnut Creek before that.
“You see this in the San Francisco Bay Area, too, where the Mountain Winery holds only a couple of thousand people,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert-industry trade magazine.
“But they’re able to get acts now that used to play Shoreline Amphitheater, which holds 15,000,” he said. “There is this whole group of acts that can only draw about half the capacity of the large facilities anymore. So if they play smaller places filled with fans coming to see them, it’s a much better environment for everyone.”
The art museum is also able to offer more of a boutique experience than some the larger outdoor venues, for performers as well as audiences.
“It’s good that we all have different capacities, which makes things a little less competitive,” said Holt. “But it is kind of encouraging to discover that money is not the only decision-making factor for artists. The word’s out that we have a good experience different from what they might expect in bigger places.”
What: “The Dude Abides Party” with Jimmie Dale “Smokey” Gilmore and “The Big Lebowski”
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 16
Where: Joseph M.Bryan Jr. Theater at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Details: 919-839-6262 or ncartmuseum.org