The Arkansas Arts Center is taking a look at its building rental policies as a result of complaints about plans to rent the Arts Center theater to evangelists for 21 nights.
Susan Pfeifer, a member of the Arts Center Board of Trustees, was among those unhappy about the rental.
"I had no idea about it and it really upset me," Pfeifer said. She, and others who objected to use of the publicly owned Arts Center for a religious program, learned of it last Friday when a mass mailing hit mail boxes. Pfeifer was among several who called Nan Plummer, executive director of the Arts Center, to object.
Plummer said the rental was handled routinely by the rental office.
As it happens, patrons in a New Hampshire school district protested the use of a high school lecture hall for a program of the Northwest Evangelism Institute several years ago. In explaining that the rental met school district rules - which allowed rentals to a wide range of community groups - the superintendent noted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said once a school district opened its facilities to community groups, it must allow religious groups access on an equal basis.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter had a similar opinion. "If we make property available on a commercial basis, the message can't be any of our concern," he said. The arts center is city property, though it is supported mostly by donations.
The advertising flyer shows an armed soldier under the headline, "Bible Prophecy offers Hope in a World of Terror." Speaker Jack DuBosque and singer Rudy Micelli are headliners. Topics include "Signs of the End Times Everywhere." The brochure explains that the Bible talks show "how history has been fulfilled and what we can expect for the future."
Pfeifer said she was concerned about not only content, but also potential conflicts with the summer program for children, which uses the theater. Plummer said the evangelism would occur after normal business hours, beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 5 and continuing five nights a week, a total of 21 nights, through early July. She said no setup was required during the day that would interfere with use of the theater by classes.
Pfeifer said she'd recently participated in a board planning session on strategic planning. "Our idea was to accentuate the things we are strong in. I don't think this falls under that strategy."
Plummer said the Arts Center rented to "all kinds of groups for all kinds of purposes" and had to be mindful of the law in deciding who could and could not rent. "We appreciate people's concern and are studying the matter and figuring out what we may and should do." At press time, cancellation of the rental had not been ruled out.
Plummer noted that she was not aware when the facility was booked that there was to be a public solicitation for attendance. "Most of our [rental] events are by invitation. For example, a wedding. So I think this mailing has prompted the criticism and concern. The very broad public dimension was a surprise."
Plummer hastened to clear up one misconception. The recipients were not taken from an Arts Center mailing list. "We do not sell or lend or rent our mailing list," she said.
Because of declining government support, the Arts Center is always in search of ways to raise money. The theater rents for $1,200 a night, but the Evangelism Institute got the 21 nights for$15,950.
Arts Center rules are not open-ended on rentals. Politicians are not allowed to use Arts Center facilities, for example. And the rules generally don't anticipate use of facilities for commercial purposes. Charitable fund-raisers may be held there, but the rules say that the tickets have to be pre-sold. The prophecy program, which includes music and preaching, is advertised as free. The brochure doesn't mention if collections will be taken.
The Evangelism Institute lists a post office box in Vancouver, Wash., as its address. A phone number on the brochure goes to an automated line for seat reservations. There's no telephone listing for an organization by that name in Vancouver, Wash.