GARDINER — Michael Miclon achieved one of his first goals as the new head of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center by more than doubling the number of shows at the organization’s 150-year-old theater.

Now comes the challenge: filling those seats.

The nonprofit performing arts organization hired Miclon — best known as the founder of the popular and eclectic Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, which closed in 2011 — with the hope he would energize the theater and expand its offerings.

The 27 shows in the upcoming season, running from September to June, significantly expand on the approximately 12 shows a year the organization previously hosted.

“I’m learning what the market is going to bear,” said Miclon, who started in May. “We weren’t selling out all of those 12 shows; we were selling out some of them. To go up to 27 shows, suddenly, I’m more than doubling the traditional amount of shows, and I want to fill those seats.”

So does the city of Gardiner, which gives $25,000 a year to Johnson Hall.

The arts organization, founded in the late 1980s, brought in about $175,000 in revenue in 2011 and had $161,000 in expenses, according to its most recent financial statements that are publicly available. Only around $30,000 of the revenue was from programming. Most of the rest came from contributions, grants and gifts.

Miclon said it’s every arts organization’s hope to be self-sustaining, but that rarely happens.

“Otherwise, you’re gambling all the time,” he said. “Is this going to be the season that we’re not going to break even?”

Mayor Thomas Harnett said he considers the annual funding from the city to be more important than paying for whatever operating expense the $25,000 goes toward.

“I also think that every city or every town our size just benefits from having a linchpin in the city that everyone’s going to know and everyone’s going to know they can go a number of times,” Harnett said. “To me, it’s not just an investment in Johnson Hall. It’s a recognition of what a cultural center can do for a city.”

During discussion about the fiscal year 2014 budget, residents used Johnson Hall as an example of how the city can invest in growth and of the city unnecessarily spending taxpayers’ money.

Harnett said he and the City Council view it as the former. He said he thinks the expanded schedule will work well with the recent expanded offerings of the downtown.

A steakhouse and wine bar opened in the spring, Water Street Cafe began serving dinner over the summer and, earlier this year, the Depot Sports Pub expanded its seating. A couple of service and retail businesses opened recently as well.

Harnett said it’s important to look at the funding of Johnson Hall with an eye to the future, especially if the organization completes its long-term goal of renovating the potentially 400-seat theater on the building’s third floor.

“I think we always take these funding decisions seriously, but they’re going to become harder and harder as we try to balance the service we need to supply with the residents’ ability to pay property taxes,” Harnett said. “We certainly don’t want to do anything that unnecessarily increases the taxes.”

All items in the city’s budget probably will face even greater scrutiny next year. The city could face a budget gap approaching $600,000 in fiscal year 2015 if it doesn’t get additional money from the state or increase its revenue base through development.

For Miclon, the ultimate goal for Johnson Hall is still renovating the second and third floors of the building. The projected cost has ranged from a few million to $6 million or more. Miclon hopes it can be done with around $2.5 million.

The biggest obstacle — as its been for the last two decades — is the price tag, but Miclon said the organization also needs to ensure the demand for larger shows warrants the larger space. He said he plans to grow the number of shows slowly to up to at least 50 a year, like at Oddfellow Theater.

“The No. 1 thing we do is present performances, and if we only do that 12 times a year, it’s not enough. It really isn’t enough,” Miclon said.

He said getting funding, especially with Gardiner potentially facing a significant budget gap next year, always will be a challenge.

“But I think that was another reason for us to up our game a bit, to prove that we do have value, that we do have a very important role to play in Gardiner,” he said. “The more successful we are, it’s easier for people to join. A lot of people don’t want to donate to something that they think is floundering.”

Miclon said people want to give to something when they believe their money will lead to its growth and success.

“And it’s our job to be a success,” he said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]

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