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Rationale: Vashon Center for the Arts

Part 1
Occupying almost half of the main floor at the Blue Heron Arts Center, the current performing area can barely seat 100 and offers very little buffer for the gallery just to the right of the stage. Stephen Moody (right) teaches comedy and improv on the Blue Heron stage.
Occupying almost half of the main floor at the Blue Heron Arts Center, the current performing area can barely seat 100 and offers very little buffer for the gallery just to the right of the stage. Stephen Moody (right) teaches comedy and improv on the Blue Heron stage.

Controversy over, well, everything... is more or less a Vashon Island tradition. In this respect, a little controversy around the planned Vashon Center for the Arts is evidently business as usual. So we at the Loop decided to review some of the issues to see if a new arts center had some merit.

Firstly, we started with the basic assumption that spending money/resources on the arts per se was a legitimate thing to do. After all, it's the law. Seriously. It's the law. The official position of the State of Washington with respect to the arts, according to RCW 43.46.005, is "The conservation and development of the state's artistic resources is essential to the social, educational, and economic growth of the state of Washington. Artists, works of art, and artistic institutions contribute to the quality of life and the general welfare of the citizens of the state, and are an appropriate matter of concern to the government of the state of Washington." So if you want to take the position that the arts have no value, it's basically you against the State of Washington, and that's just a place we at the Loop didn't want to go.

So what were the things we found in favor of a new Vashon Center for the Arts?

1. Nuances of the "quality" of performance venues aside, there are insufficient performance spaces here on Vashon Island to serve the current demand. Aside from the Blue Heron and the Open Space, all of the performance venues available on the island are intended, by specific design, for purposes other than live performances (churches, school facilities, Vashon Theatre, etc.) and have other intended purposes, and performances must compete with these facilities intended usages in order to use the spaces.

Susan Hanson, Principal of the Vashon High School and nominally in control of the Vashon High School theater, one of the most sought-after performance venues on the Island, says that the theater is completely booked a year in advance. Said Ms. Hanson, "I had a person who wanted to do a benefit in my office a week ago who asked if they could use the high school theater and I said 'not for a year'."

Organizations such as Drama Dock, Vashon Allied Arts, Vashon Dance Academy, Vashon Park District Dance Program, and others have all historically vied for use of the Vashon High School theater.

Vashon Allied Arts, whose only direct performance facility is the quaint, homelike building known as the Blue Heron, can barely seat 100 and support space for a five-member band for its performances. For many of the events that they sponsor, VAA is quite often forced to look beyond their own facilities to book performance space. Janice Randall, Director of Communications & Performing Arts for VAA, has procured all of the booking for VAA since 1999. She says, "I've had so many touring groups that come through, wonderful opportunities to have a fund-raising event or benefit for our arts in schools program and for our scholarship program and there's no place to perform. I've had to get someone's field and bring in risers for staging or use Camp Burton once a year. I had a performer who came to me this month and I had no place for them to go. The high school theater was closed for cleaning during August and immediately after that Vashon Opera is in there."

Additionally, many performance organizations are finding it very difficult to live with compressed rehearsal schedules. Often times performance groups barely have time to transition their casts from a rehearsal space such as the lunch room at McMurray to the actual performance space because of facilities conflict. Additional space can only serve to relieve this issue.

2. Is siphoning resources from the Vashon Island High School (and, to a lesser extent, some of the other schools) really a legitimate thing to do to Island students? The intense demand for the high school theater as a community performance venue creates an unfortunate downstream effect for the high school when trying to make reasonable use of its own facilities. "The frustration comes when we have band concerts or the science department wants to bring in a guest speaker and meet on a Wednesday night so all the students can come and see it or invite their parents and we have to bump a community group who has scheduled a rehearsal, or they have to do it in the lunch room or the gym because the theater is booked", said Ms. Hanson.

The ill effects upon high school resources as the school tries to accommodate community demand for their facilities are not limited to having to compete for access to their own resources, but also results in vastly increased wear and tear on the resources themselves. "We're having things wear out not because of misuse but simply because of excessive use. Our grand drape curtains are starting to get very, very thin in places. No one misuses a curtain that opens and closes. It's just that it has so much use", said Ms. Hanson.

3. VashonIsland currently lacks an actual live performance theater in the specific, technical sense. Genuine, live performance/performing arts theaters have suspension grids, dressing rooms, wing spaces, orchestra pits, electrical infrastructure of varying types, lighting facilities, sound facilities, restroom facilities appropriate to performance needs, green rooms, etc. The deleterious effects created by the lack of an actual theater on the health of performance art on the Island cannot be overstated. "Puttin' on a show in the barn" does possess a certain amount of small-town charm and can provide a strong sense of accomplishment to performers and support personnel that carry off a performance that rises above its circumstances. But the inescapable truth is that the fundamental facilities provided by a true live performance theater are a nonnegotiable, practical requirement of certain kinds of performances. This is not a conceit. Without a venue specifically constructed to meet the wide-ranging, cross technical demands of certain kinds of performances, those performances are forever barred from being presented on the Island. Once completed, the Vashon Center for the Arts will be able to present performances that would otherwise require Islanders to go off island to enjoy. The creation of the arts center will permit the Island to enjoy performances it is not currently able to enjoy.

4. Accoustics, though related to item 3 above as a component part of a legitimate live performance theater, the issue of acoustics is important enough that we're giving it its own bullet point. The acoustics are less than ideal in many of the Island facilities that are drafted for performance use. Most of these facilities were not intended to support performances when designed and constructed. Churches, warehouses, old residences, all have been drafted to help try and meet the demand for performance spaces, but their designs center around their intended purpose and their acoustics have been secondary concerns when they've been concerns at all. For some kinds of performances, a facility with "appropriate" acoustics does not currently exist on the Island.

And one must remember that the two primary venues on the island explicitly intended for community performance use are an old Oddfellows Hall and a former warehouse and packaging plant.

While we were not able to reach any representatives from Vashon Opera for comment before this went to press, Gary Cannon, the Artistic Director for the Vashon Island Chorale and the Principal Conductor for the Vashon Opera was complimentary of the "acoustical personnel" working with LMN Architects on the project.

Jo Ann Bardeen, President of the Vashon Island Chorale, had this to say when we asked her if there were any venues currently on the Island capable of doing full justice to a chorale performance, "It's just not possible to do justice to the music anywhere in any of the wonderful churches and places that are being terrifically hospitable to our groups. They're just not acoustically appropriate places. [The new venue] will not only be acoustically appropriate for the people presenting the program, but for the instrumentalists, for the people listening to it... the audiences are getting short shrift on this too because they're never hearing the music anywhere you perform now in its best way of being heard. ... The best place to listen to music [currently] as an audience member I think is the Methodist Church. But the chorale can't perform there because there's not room for 90 singers. The only place where the chorale can perform right now is the Bethel Church and thank goodness they like having us there. It's so friendly there and they are wonderful to us, but it's not a theater. It was not designed to be a place to listen to chorale music or symphonic music or anything like that. It's a worship space. But we're happy to be there now." Ms. Bardeen went on to observe that there were other venues, such as St. John Vianney, which have very good acoustics but that there were practical problems with the interior configuration of the space and, not surprisingly, scheduling issues as well.

Some of the local performance organizations that are envisioned to directly benefit from the outstanding acoustics the new venue will offer are Vashon Opera, Vashon Island Chorale, Vashon Chamber Music, and Drama Dock (especially their musicals).

5. As Molly Reed,  Executive Director for VAA points out, the proposed Vashon Center for the Arts is not just a performing arts center, it is in fact an entire arts "campus". "It is a new gallery, it's new classrooms, and it ties in with the current building which we'll be rehabbing and reconfiguring to be more efficient." As its name implies, Vashon Allied Arts is an organization supporting artistic endeavor for the Island in general, across almost every imaginable artistic discipline including painting, sculpture, opera, drama, dance, music and so on. The organization supports and promotes not only performances but arts education, fundraising, scholarships and arts oriented community outreach programs. The new arts center is intended and designed to support and encourage all of these activities and to provide the infrastructure and facilities these demanding endeavors require.

The performance and gallery activities of VAA are it's most publicly apparent expression, but it does so much more within the community that is not so visible, and the organization is literally packed so tightly within its current facilities that it's beginning to split its seams. Molly Reed, the Executive Director and Janice Mallman, Gallery Curator, sitting literally back to back, share a single small office. Janice Randall, Director of Communications & Performing Arts for VAA must actually walk through their office, squeezing between them, go beneath the staircase often resounding with feet tromping up and down to get into the literal storage closet that has been her "office" for 17 years. VAA personnel regularly perform their duties with rows of ballet dancers on pointe pounding away over head.

Vashon Allied Arts is Washington State's oldest private, nonprofit arts center, founded in 1966, which means they are approaching their 50th anniversary, with 25 years in their current building, built in 1912. With the new building, VAA will have a new 300 seat theater with orchestra pit and othertypical theater amenities, a large greenroom that doubles as a classroom, a small meeting room, administrative offices, 1000 square-foot gallery, large lobby area which will also be used as an event space and for sit down dinners, receptions, etc., storage space for a piano, and a small kitchen.

In the second part of this article, in a subsequent issue of the Loop, we will look at some of the potentially negative issues of the Vashon Center for the Arts project.