Morgan State University’s main performance venue, the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, is easy to overlook. The facade of the $40 million, 140,500-square-foot facility undulates beautifully from curves to planes and back again, but the towers of the women’s residence hall across the street dominate the skyline and from some angles the bold design isn’t apparent. It’s hard not to see the building as a metaphor. Even as it celebrates its 10th season, this unique Baltimore arts space is still trying to get the city’s attention.
Built in 2001, the Murphy Fine Arts Center (MFAC) was named after longtime NAACP board member and Afro-American newspaper editor Carl J. Murphy. It houses the school’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts, which includes the 133-member Morgan State University Choir. Morgan’s choir has performed at the White House and Carnegie Hall and on at least four continents. Before Murphy was built, the group’s popular annual concerts were held at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It now draws the same large crowds to the 2,000-seat James H. and Louise Hayley Gilliam Concert Hall, which was designed with input from the renowned late conductor Nathan Carter, a statue of whom sits in the lobby. In addition to a recital hall and a black box theater, the building houses classrooms, music practice rooms, artist studios, and the James E. Lewis Museum of Art.
But while university groups make ample use of these facilities, from the beginning, Morgan wanted the MFAC to do more. Monica McKinney-Lupton, the Center’s director, says early blueprints called for at least 500 fewer seats in the concert hall until Earl S. Richardson, the university’s president at the time, pushed the architects to include more. The idea was that Murphy would compete with downtown venues like the Lyric and the Meyerhoff.
Occasionally, Murphy does just that. Opera singer Jessye Norman, a Kennedy Center honoree and Grammy winner, was the featured performer at the MFAC’s inaugural concert, and since then other big names like Bill Cosby, Dave Brubeck, Maxwell, Anthony Hamilton, and Angie Stone have headlined. In 2007, radio and TV host Tavis Smiley organized a Republican presidential forum that aired live from Gilliam Hall.
But securing A-list talent consistently has been a challenge. “The Lyric has been eating our lunch,” says Dale Alston, Murphy’s marketing manager. “I remember looking up and seeing [comedian] Mike Epps was going to the Hippodrome. Why isn’t he here?” While McKinney-Lupton estimates that the house is 75 to 80 percent full for the roughly one to two dozen outside events Murphy hosts each year, she has some theories about why larger acts don’t come to Murphy more often.
One is geography. In the area surrounding the MFAC, there are places where you can see for miles, all the way down to the skyscrapers of the Inner Harbor. It’s a great view, but one that can reinforce how far away the university is from the city center. Murphy is the only venue of its kind in Northeast Baltimore, but there are few restaurants and other complementary businesses that can turn a trip to campus into a night on the town. Some potential patrons might also have safety concerns. “There may be a perception that because we’re in East Baltimore this is not the safest place to be,” McKinney-Lupton says. “People may not realize we’re in a safe community [surrounded by] homes.”
There’s also no dedicated advertising budget. Here and at other venues, it’s normal for outside promoters to do their own advertising, but, even so, you’re not likely to see, say, a full-page ad in a local print publication for an MFAC event.
But the biggest challenge, McKinney-Lupton says, is scheduling. Student events take priority, which is great for Morgan’s artists-in-training but narrows the range of dates open to outside acts, some of which are more suited for the space than others. “There was a general understanding [under the] previous administration that MFAC . . . is probably not conducive to hip-hop,” McKinney-Lupton says, citing Gilliam’s design as a fine arts performance hall and the huge audiences hip-hop artists can draw. That unwritten rule still stands. Rappers like Busta Rhymes and Lil’ Wayne have performed instead to sold-out crowds in Hill Field House, home of the university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The staple public event on your typical university campus is a talk by a notable national figure. Goucher College President Sanford Ungar says he employs the gentle art of persuasion to book speakers such as Bob Woodward, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Newark, N. J., Mayor Cory Booker at Goucher’s Kraushaar Auditorium. “In some cases we bargain with people, play on their feelings of guilt,” he says. “We press them to understand that they have an obligation to young people too.” Every year, Johns Hopkins University’s undergraduate-led Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium brings similarly high-profile guests to Shriver Hall. And over the past few months, the Maryland Institute College of Art offered talks by the controversial internationally known artist Jeff Koons and Wire creator David Simon, among others, in Falvey Hall.
These events, which are usually free, can coax residents who have no university affiliation into thinking of campus as a destination. Morgan has a different approach, says Jarrett Carter, associate director of the Office of Public Relations and Communications. This semester alone, public intellectual and activist Cornel West and former Essence magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan Taylor visited campus, but both spoke to student groups of a few hundred, in an intimate setting. Morgan staff have discussed the possibility of a speaker series for a number of years, but here the concert hall’s grand size could actually be a disadvantage, dwarfing even a large audience.
Performance venues also need a clearly defined niche. The Lyric built its reputation on opera. The Meyerhoff schedules 50 to 70 dates per year around the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s schedule. And the Hippodrome was redesigned to host Broadway shows. The MFAC, however, is neither fish nor fowl—neither the campus facility exposing the public to the life of the mind nor the commercial performance venue within walking distance of the city’s nightlife.
But McKinney-Lupton hopes that Murphy’s position as a hybrid is exactly what will set it apart going forward. She cites the Morgan State University Opera Workshop’s four-performance revival of Porgy and Bess in March as a model. Morgan alumna Anne Brown was, literally, the very first Bess, giving voice to many of the show’s songs as George Gershwin wrote them, and inspiring the composer to expand what had been a relatively minor part in the novel and play that preceded the opera into a title role. This year, Tony-nominated choreographer Hope Clarke directed a cast that included Morgan alumni Kevin Short and Kishna Davis in the title roles backed by 50 musicians from the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra on a set purchased from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. It was the first major production of the work in Baltimore in more than 20 years. “It was a full-scale, Broadway-style production,” McKinney-Lupton says. “The magnitude of the performance is an indication of the kind of things that we can do.”
Part of what the MFAC is looking to do, she says, “is really define who we are,” so the Center’s 10th-anniversary calendar is both a celebration and an experiment. The question is, can Murphy leverage Morgan-trained artists and its position as a historically black university to become a go-to venue for performances that have mass appeal and special resonance with African-American audiences?
Porgy received a healthy dose of free publicity, including a detailed preview in The Baltimore Sun, but on its best nights played to 1,000 people, half of Gilliam’s capacity. McKinney-Lupton says the show was nevertheless a success, drawing crowds that would normally go downtown instead. Earlier this year, Murphy hosted August Wilson’s play Jitney, African-American classical pianist Leon Bates, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble. A student production of the Greek tragedy Medea runs April 19-22 and 26-29 and the much-loved play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf arrives in October.
But the real test may take place next month when a touring production of the Broadway musical Fela!, produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Baltimore-born Jada Pinkett Smith, comes to Gilliam Hall May 15-20. That’s a lot of star power, enough, perhaps, to light the public’s way back to campus long after the show packs up.
For more information on the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, visit murphyfineartscenter.org.