Parks and Rec shows it can revive Downtown Arts Center

Downtown Arts Center director Celeste Lewis straightens framed posters on the Downtown Arts Center's wall of fame, featuring productions that had been presented there, which was put together by technical director Tom Willis. The Downtown Arts Center has been managed by the Lexington Department of Parks and Recreation as one of several cultural facilities it manages since July 2014. Photos by Rich Copley | Herald-Leader staff.

Downtown Arts Center director Celeste Lewis straightens framed posters on the Downtown Arts Center’s wall of fame, featuring productions that had been presented there, which was put together by technical director Tom Willis. The Downtown Arts Center has been managed by the Lexington Department of Parks and Recreation as one of several cultural facilities it manages since July 2014. Photos by Rich Copley | Herald-Leader staff.

When the Lexington Department of Parks and Recreation took over management of the Downtown Arts Center in July, new director Celeste Lewis was prepared for a getting-to-know-you period before arts groups and presenters bought into the new era.

But quite the opposite happened.

Downtown Art Center

Celeste Lewis.

“I think there’s kind of a hunger for this to be ­inclusive,” Lewis says. “People are coming to us with great ideas and great hopes and dreams for what this space can be. And we’re listening.”

Amber Luallen, cultural arts director for the Department of Parks and Recreation says, “It was like, the doors were opened and people came flooding in. They are meeting with people daily, booking daily, booking into 2016. People seem really supportive and enthusiastic about a new direction.”

The center opened early in 2002 under the management of LexArts, which was then named the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council.

For much of its almost 13-year history, the center had a reputation for costly rentals and uncooperative management. In recent years, it had floundered after the departure of Actors Guild of Lexington, the center’s onetime resident theater company. Early last year, amid complaints that the DAC was underused, LexArts publicly expressed a desire to relinquish management of the city-owned building, saying it was a drag on the arts council’s core mission of fundraising. (Since then, former LexArts President and CEO Jim Clark has retired, and his successor, Ellen A. (Nan) Plummer began work in late November.)

Downtown Art Center

Downtown Arts Center director Celeste Lewis and technical director Tom Willis on the center’s unfinished third floor.

And Luallen and Lewis were interested in taking it over, seeing an opportunity to reinvigorate an underperforming venue. In addition to booking the black-box theater and opening the first floor City Gallery, Lewis and technical director Tom Willis are thinking about ways to use the center’s third floor, which has never been finished, and its fourth floor, which held the offices of ­Actors Guild until the company moved out in 2009.
And no, none of those plans involve Frisbee golf or other things normally associated with Parks and Rec.

When news came out that her office would take over management of the center, Luallen said, she anticipated dissenting voices asking what her department knew about running an arts center.

“What we know, and what a lot of people don’t know, and we spent time talking to council about, was when this building was built as the Downtown Arts Center and the city entered into the agreement with LexArts, we didn’t have anyone in the government to do that,” Luallen says. “In the years since, we have developed a pretty strong arts department, and the infrastructure and professionals to take it on. That’s what we felt when said, ‘Give us a shot.’ Our whole job is working with the community and working with arts groups.”

In addition to the DAC, the Cultural Arts Department manages the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater, which Lewis also oversees, and the Artworks Cultural Center on Patterson Drive, which offers performing and visual arts classes and workshops for children and adults. The department also presents or co-presents Ballet Under the Stars, the Woodland Art Fair, and Jazz at Ecton Park, to name a few.

Students from the Sayre School explored the new City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center Wednesday afternoon.

Students from the Sayre School explored the new City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center Wednesday afternoon.

But in the DAC, city ­employees are aware that they are taking on a high-profile project, which is partly why they think it should work.

Even when arts leaders complained about the rent, terms of use and other ­issues, they would say they loved the Downtown Arts Center space. They particularly lauded the flexibility of the black-box theater and the high-profile location in a busy section of Main Street.

One advantage to city management of the center is a much more seamless interaction with other departments, notably maintenance. A knock on the center had been that it was hard to get in touch with someone when things went wrong, particularly on the weekends, when arts venues are often in use.

“We know how to navigate the bureaucracy of the city,” Luallen says. “We know how to work with council, we know how to work with maintenance, we have these relationships.”
Lewis says, “The collaboration with the different divisions of the city has been amazing. General services, parks and rec, council — there has been a real march forward together on this that has been so delicious.”

The most important collaborations are with arts groups. From them, through last fall, Lewis and her team generally received rave reviews.

Asked what was most improved, Bo List, whose AthensWest Theatre will present its debut production at the DAC next month, said, “Reliability and predictability. And service with a smile. The rates are reasonable, the personalities involved are friendly and trustworthy, and there’s a genuine interest in programming and community service — fulfilling the promise of the facility.”

With calendars that line her office walls filling up with bookings by AthensWest and Message Theatre, the dance groups Movement Continuum and Blackbird, concerts by WRFL-FM and other events, reactivating the center is happening. Lewis does note that unlike before with Actors Guild, she does not plan to have a resident theater company in the DAC.

The third floor of the Downtown Arts Center is currently being used for storage. Center directors are considering several possibilities for developing the space.

The third floor of the Downtown Arts Center is currently being used for storage. Center directors are considering several possibilities for developing the space.

Lewis says she can start to consider goals such as raising the profile of the building’s exterior and finding the best uses for the fourth floor offices, which she says could become office space for several area arts groups, and the wide-open third floor, which has been considered for a performance space and artists’ studios.

“We have to carefully consider how the third floor would best serve the Lexington arts community as a whole,” Lewis says.

Says Luallen: “That’s the thing we have to consider being a city-owned building, managed by the city: We have no other agenda but to assess the needs of the city and serve them.”

IF YOU GO

Downtown Arts Center
Where: 141 E. Main St.
Contact: (859) 425-2550 or (859) 425-2349.
Online: Bit.ly/1BiirSu.
Email: Director Celeste Lewis at clewis2@lexingtonky.gov .
Upcoming events
Jan. 30: Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, with soprano Karen Slack and pianist Cliff Jackson.
Feb. 6-15: AthensWest Theatre presents Doubt
March 6-8: LexArts Arts Showcase Weekend, with performances and presentations by Lexington Children’s ­Theatre, Balagula Theatre and artist Marjorie Guyon.
March 6: UK historic preservation symposium.
March 20: Gallery Hop. City Gallery presents work by Charles Ellis and Anne McCracken.
March 27 & 28: Bluegrass Community and Technical College theatre presents The Greater ­Watauga County Annex’s 17th ­annual Hollerin’ Contest, ­Sponsored by Mabel Meriwether’s Blackberry Jam by Jonathon Fitts.
April 3, 4: Movement Continuum Dance Theatre.
April 10, 11: Blackbird Dance Theatre.
April 17, 18: Sayre School theatre presents Whale by David Holman.
April 24, 25: SCAPA performs works by O. Henry.
May 1-3: Message Theatre ­presents Good Black Don’t Crack by Ron Penny.
May 15: Gallery Hop. City Gallery presents Creative Arts Alliance.
May 22-24: Movement Continuum presents Returning Home.

Note: This article is slightly longer than the print version that appears in the Living Sunday section of the Jan. 25, 2015, edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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