December 19, 2004
The students, teachers and administrators at the Mesa Arts Center have made do for so long.
Decades of cramped classrooms. Antiquated electrical wiring. Hand-me-down air conditioners in the classrooms; none in the hallways.
Creaky, worn wooden floors. A meager visual arts gallery and uncomfortable theater. A permanent art collection protected from fire more by crossed fingers than automatic halon extinguishers.
That a new $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center, the largest of its kind in the state, will open its doors in the spring has everyone excited — but there’s a bittersweet tinge today. The old center is closing for good.
For all its faults and blemishes, the 68-year-old, blue-hued building on the northwest corner of Center and First streets has been a testament to the enduring worth of the arts in Mesa.
"Look at what we’ve overcome," says Frank DeCurtis, an artist and associate curator at the center.
Granted, this wasn’t supposed to be a permanent home for the arts center. A Works Progress Administration project in 1936, the building was originally constructed as a school. Mesa purchased it in 1975 to serve as a parks and recreation activity center before it became the arts center in the ’80s. As student figures and the number of classes rose, early attempts to get the city to pay for a new, bigger center failed. But the center kept growing.
Now, with some 600 classes and 5,700 students per year in its 12 classrooms, the center stands as Arizona’s largest provider of arts education. More than a million students, mostly adults in visual arts and children in performing arts like theater and dance, have passed through its doors.
A half-cent "quality of life" sales tax increase passed by Mesa voters in 1998 paved way for the new arts center.
In retrospect, the old center has been surprisingly accommodating over the years. Only lately, it seems — with the new center’s vibrant white outer canopy sails peeking from down Center Street — does the old building look less dignified and more obsolete.
"It’s sort of like an old shoe," says Robert Schultz, center administrator. "We could have done a lot worse for an arts center."
Administrators are paying tribute to the history of the old center with a public ceremony this afternoon. Former artists, students and supporters of the center can tour the building, see a remaining art exhibit and visit over refreshments.
"It makes me happy and sad at the same time," Gerry Fathauer says of the move. As executive director for the city’s Arts and Cultural Division, she established the center in the early ’80s and is overseeing the transition to the new facility.
"It’s time," she says, "for us to move up."
PACKING BOXES, MEMORIES
Schultz walks through vacant classrooms, past music stands huddled in a corner near a silent boombox and old, chipped blackboards. In the lapidary classroom, he flips on a light and glances at the wellworn machines that line the wall.
Most everything — machines, props, tools, art — will have to be moved to the new center after major construction is completed (scheduled for Jan. 22) and well before the center opens in April. In the weeks following the old building’s closing, Schultz’s staff will be busy packing for the movers, who are hauling an estimated 70 tons, or nearly 1,000 boxes, of stuff.
Out back, pottery kilns — including a massive woodburning one has been used so much its bricks have fused together — await their fate, whether to be used by future occupants or demolished. Fancier new ones are being installed at the new center.
In the old theater, performing arts supervisor Jennifer Akridge laughs at rectangular wooden pedestals sitting in the seats like stiff audience members watching an empty stage, waiting to be moved to storage at the new center. She pushes down on a dusty wooden seat, producing an aging creak.
"Our older patrons," she says, "won’t be missing these."
Classes at the new center will be spread out across 14 classrooms in two buildings. That expansion means students such as longtime potter Larron Lerdall, 50 — seen walking through the old center and finishing projects last week — will have a harder time keeping tabs on friends and classmates who switch to studying other media. But the Mesa artist says that’s OK, a factor of growth. Besides, he’s teaching his own course, raku pottery, when the new center opens.
"Everything’s grown" in his 15 years at the arts center, he says. "It’s great."
Both Mesa Community College and Mesa Unified School District have expressed interest in taking over the old building— a return to its roots as the Washington Irving School.
Then there’s talk of the city leasing the space to arts groups. Most of the new Mesa Arts Center’s "affiliate" groups — including Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Symphony Orchestra and Mesa Encore Theatre — are in need of rehearsal and/or office space, which they won’t get at the new site.
But the City Council hasn’t decided on what to do with the old center.
"For a building as old as it is," Fathauer says, "it’s still in demand."
What: Mesa Arts Center closing
When: 2 to 4 p.m. today
Where: Mesa Arts Center, 155 N. Center St.
Information: (480) 644-5773