Center establishes identity with planned expansion project

Community emphasized in arts center proposal

While the effort to bring the amenities of a world-class arts destination to the upper Gunnison Valley are starting to gain steam, the line between the two projects leading the way—the expansion of the Crested Butte Center for the Arts and the Mt. Crested Butte Performing Arts Center (MCBPAC)—is getting blurred. 






But the educational campaign being undertaken by the Center for the Art’s board of directors is trying to set the record straight. The message: the Crested Butte-based Center is expanding into a community arts center, open to non-profits and all kinds of art. Also, the two projects will complement one another, not compete.
Besides having a construction schedule planned for consecutive years, not to overlap, in neighboring towns, the missions of each facility (and the organizations running them) are heading in different directions.
At the start of the Center for the Art’s move toward expansion in 2003, they had the Crested Butte Music Festival as a partner. Then a 2007 funding feasibility study showed there was a need, and the capacity to support, two different venues.
With need for a large facility, the Music Festival moved toward a partnership with the town of Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte Mountain Resort and developed the plan for the MCBPAC, with between 400 and 500 seats and the trimmings of a theatrical stage.
“I really see the concept of what we’re doing here as being three performance halls. There’s the Mallardi Cabaret Theater, which is a little black box theater; we [the Center for the Arts] have 215 seats and we like the intimate setting we have; and they [MCBPAC] would have 400 to 500 seats,” Center for the Arts executive director Jenny Birnie says. “So really I think there are three different venues that will serve our population well.”
For tourists coming into town, out of town donors and even locals, Birnie understands the confusion between the MCBPAC and the Center for the Arts’ expansion project and says the boards of both organizations are working together to address the perception of competition.
While both facilities are catering to the arts, their respective offerings will be as broad as the arts themselves.
The facility being envisioned by the Center for the Arts is huge, by Crested Butte standards, and will more than triple the size of the existing facility, from about 7,000 square feet to 23,000 square feet. From where the current building sits, the expanded Center for the Arts will stretch nearly to Seventh Street and north to the walkway bordering Pitsker Field. And the plan could change.
The outdoor stage, where summertime Alpenglow performers play, won’t move or get any bigger but the space supporting it will. In an expanded Center for the Arts, artists will have room to warm up and stretch out.
Aside from Alpenglow, the Center for the Arts hosts 15 shows in the winter season, installations in the Piper Gallery and a few inside performances during the summer season. “The Center’s productions are a pretty small part of it,” Birnie says.
So the theater is being designed with just 215 seats, in hopes of maintaining an intimate feel, and the expansion will give local arts non-profits the space they need to improve and expand. “We want to make sure this is a holistic facility that is touching every single aspect of the arts that we can possibly have in one facility,” Birnie says.
In the plan, the Crested Butte School of Dance is going to play a prominent and fairly permanent role at the expanded Center for the Arts, with about 2,300 square feet of rehearsal space in a block of the new facility.
For Birnie, having an organization like the School of Dance invested so heavily in the Center for the Arts is one way both can find some permanence in an environment that is proving hard on the non-profit community.
As the economy in the valley started to turn a few years ago, Birnie said, she couldn’t get people to come out for concerts. “People just weren’t buying tickets; they were saving their money for the basics, whatever was a priority,” she said.
But the School of Dance and Crested Butte Dance Collective were selling out performances.
“The school of dance is a long-term arts organization with a proven track record, and yes, we are trying to connect ourselves with organizations that we believe are successful and we believe will flourish in an expanded facility,” Birnie says. “The dance collective: They sell out all of their shows and it’s all run by volunteers. They’re great. So that’s why we want to attach ourselves to them as much as possible.”
With its physical plant secured—after signing a 50-year lease with the town last December, getting initial support from the Crested Butte Town Council and the Center’s inclusion in the Master Plan for Parks and Recreation—bringing popular and successful arts groups into the fold is a way the Center for the Arts can make sure that its mission is secure.
“With the School of Dance, the goal has always been just to have them co-located with us,” Birnie says. “Really more what I’m looking at is having successful arts organizations be involved with the expansion.”
Outside the realm of art, but important for self expression in its own way, the Trailhead Children’s Discovery Museum, now located at the Mt. Crested Butte base area, will be making a new home in 3,000 square feet of the expanded Center for the Arts, where Trailhead board member Andrew Hadley sees a perfect mix of activities and kids.
“I think it’s great,” Hadley says of the collaboration between the Center for the Arts and the Trailhead. “Children love to hang out in the park in town and it’s really where the youthful activity happens in the summer. So combining the two together with a community arts center is perfect.”
So far the plan also anticipates a more open lobby and bigger set shop, dressing rooms and a green room that will be more comfortable for artists and expanding the Piper Gallery by 600 square feet.
There is also 1,800 square feet in the preliminary design for as many as three separate classrooms that will be available to local artists and workshops taught by visiting talent.
There will also be space to accommodate state of the art technical systems—and it’s all anticipated to start in 2014 after a few years of education and fundraising. If everything goes according to plan, the expanded Center for the Arts should be open for business in 2016.
With what’s planned to be offered, in diverse areas, the Center for the Arts is already filling the space before it’s built and is taking that success to potential donors in Tulsa, Dallas, and Shreveport throughout the spring before having some informational sessions around town this summer.
Filling the space is also a sign of success for the Center for the Arts in the future, as that’s the way they carry the mission of “bringing the people together to share, inspire, nurture, educate, and enjoy the arts and culture of our mountain community” forward.
“A big portion of what we do at the Center is rent our facility. We wouldn’t make it if we didn’t rent our facility,” Birnie says. “We really just want a dynamic, larger facility to support our renters more than anything. People use our facility every year for the same purposes and they deserve a nicer facility, in my opinion.”
And a nicer facility, along with the MCBPAC up the road, will bring more high quality performances to the valley, which will make it a more attractive destination for people pursuing the arts.
But the vision for the expanded Center for the Arts is big and the economy is what it is, at the moment, and the future of fund raising is uncertain. For the Center’s board, flexibility is key in riding through the peaks and valleys of a non-profit.
“The beauty for us is that we have a facility and we’re very flexible. We can phase [the construction] if we need to. The expansion task force and our board have not said firmly that ‘Yes, we will’ or ‘No, we won’t [build].’ It is still up for discussion,” Birnie says. “If we can’t do [raise the capital] in the $10 million realm then we’ll have no choice but to phase it.” The Center for the Arts is also hoping to build a $2 million endowment to sustain the operations.
The expansion is truly an investment, however, and what the local community and its visitors put into the facility, Birnie believes, will be returned many times over.
“The economic benefit for our community will be huge. The arts really do bring a lot of activity to this valley,” she says. “When you have shows and things for people to do they spend money.”
So the arts and the community are coming together to support each other in an environment where other areas are tapping into the cultural and financial benefits of being known as an arts destination—other areas the upper Gunnison Valley competes with.
“Because we are a tourist destination and we have so many second-home owners that demand arts activities—they really support and appreciate the arts—as do the locals, it’s time for us to grow if we want to compete with some of the other [arts] communities.”

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