In a move that will end a mutually rewarding 33-year partnership with the highly regarded Huntington Theatre Company, the University has decided to sell the 890-seat theater at 264 Huntington Avenue and move College of Fine Arts production, design, and black box facilities to the Charles River Campus. The decision to sell the theater, along with adjoining buildings at 252 and 258 Huntington Avenue, comes after a yearlong assessment of the future needs of the University’s theater arts students.
Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, says the decision to sell the buildings came down to determining the best way to serve BU’s theater students, who are currently separated from their acting, fine arts, and music colleagues on the Charles River Campus whenever they are working at the theater.
“While our partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company has certainly enriched the Boston arts scene for many years, our first responsibility—by far our most important responsibility—is to our students,” Morrison says. “We must focus our attention on providing the very best possible academic programs and professional experiences to our students, and I believe the time is right to do so on our Charles River Campus.”
Boston University has owned the theater for 62 years, and has worked in partnership with the Huntington Theatre Company since 1982, providing space and financial support valued at more than $40 million. The adjoining buildings have given BU theater students a place to work with Huntington staff to create scenery, props, and costumes.
Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations, says that while there was a clear need to consolidate theater arts education on the Charles River Campus, the University was also mindful that the theater company would need additional support as it searched for a new partnership or stage.
According to Nicksa, both the University and the theater company acknowledged that within the context of the existing agreement, neither had the resources to create the kind of first-class main stage and patron function space that the company requires, and both parties agreed that it was time to end their partnership. In an effort to ease the transition process, he says, the University took three steps.
First, BU affirmed its intention to honor the current agreement, which provides the theater company with rent-free use of the theater and adjoining facilities through June 2016 and a $200,000 contribution; BU would also continue to pay the cost of maintenance during that period.
Second, the University explored the possibility of selling the complex to the Huntington Theatre Company. Nicksa says the theater company was interested in buying the properties, but its offer was so far below market value that accepting it would not meet the University’s fiduciary obligations.
Third, to give the theater group more time for its transition, BU offered to require whoever buys the properties to guarantee that the Huntington could use the facilities through June 2017, a full year beyond the date guaranteed by the current agreement. During the additional year, the company would continue to have rent-free use of the theater.
The Huntington has accepted this offer.
Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, says the group is grateful for BU’s many years of support. “Having come to this conclusion between BU and the Huntington, the first thing I want to say is that I have only the deepest appreciation and respect for 33 years—and it’s going to be 35 years—of enormous support that BU has provided,” says Maso, who is also a CFA associate professor of theater. “The Huntington would never have existed without the generosity and original vision of Boston University.
“We understand that the University needs to get the best value for its Huntington Avenue properties,” Maso says, “and we believe that the Huntington Theatre Company will prove to be the best partner for any developers interested in purchasing the property. We intend to work very hard to bring every asset we have to bear to enhance the value of the property both for a potential developer and for the University.”
A statement issued jointly by the University and the Huntington Theatre Company notes that both institutions have agreed to be thoughtful and supportive of each other as they go their separate ways.
“We will continue to be supportive of the Huntington Theatre Company,” says Morrison. “We appreciate what our institutions have meant to each other over three decades, and we respect the way we both came to acknowledge our divergent needs.”
Completed in 1925, the Huntington Avenue building was home to the Repertory Theatre of Boston, America’s first civic playhouse and its first tax-exempt theater. It was deliberately sited far from the commercial theaters of Tremont Street and close to venerable cultural institutions such as Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the old Boston Opera House. During the 1930s and 1940s, the theater, then known as the Esquire Theatre, was the place to see art films in Boston. BU bought the building in 1953, and its theater arts program produced its first play at the venue in 1954.