VAA unveils a vision: A new center for performing arts

Vashon Allied Arts will unveil plans for a new performing arts center this week that could profoundly shape the Island’s cultural, artistic and even architectural landscape.

The arts organization hopes to build a 20,000-square-foot structure — six times the size of the historic Minglement building kitty-corner from the new site and a fourth larger than the Village Green — that would give Vashon’s artistic community the room it says it needs to put on high-quality productions and VAA the ability to bring in crowd-drawing performers.

The plans include a 300-seat theater with a small orchestra pit, a 1,000-square-foot art gallery and a 2,000-square-foot lobby that could also serve as a gathering place for fundraising events and community galas. 

An 800-square-foot green room would double as classroom space. Smaller dressing rooms would also serve multiple purposes. A large outdoor plaza would spill into the existing Blue Heron Art Center, creating an arts campus that could accommodate classes, administrative offices, park-like gathering sites and a suite of other uses.

Asked what excites her most about the project, VAA director Molly Reed said, “That we will have spaces that allow artists to do their best work and comfortable spaces for people. It’ll be a beautiful building.”

Dubbed Vashon Center for the Arts, the building will cost an estimated $16.5 million; an additional $8 million will provide an operating reserve that Reed said will ensure the center’s long-term viability, keep ticket prices from escalating and enable financially lean organizations to rent the facility.

The organization hopes to break ground next spring, Reed said. VAA plans to hold two open houses this week to show plans to its members as well as the general public and garner feedback.

The plans don’t include detailed designs, such as all the internal and external materials that will be used or the precise shape of certain features. But Reed and VAA board members said the building will be clad largely in wood and will be barn-like and traditional in its architecture. It is being designed by LMN Architects, a well-known Seattle firm that also designed Benaroya Hall and McCaw Hall.

“We asked for a contextual building that has a traditional feel and a comfortable feel with a bit of an arts twist to it,” said VAA board member Bruce Morser, an illustrator. 

The goal, Morser added, was “to try to find something that feels like it belongs at that intersection. I think this does it. To me, it’s not an unfamiliar form for the Island.”

The project is supported in large part by one Island philanthropist. Kay White, 90, a patron of the arts with a deep interest in choral music, has given $3.5 million in cash as well as a charitable trust that is currently worth $7 million. 

Paul Martinez, a VAA board member who chairs the organization’s building committee and who works at the Seattle Art Museum, called White’s level of support virtually unheralded — not only on Vashon but throughout the region.

“It brings tears to my eyes — the generosity and vision that she has,” he said.

VAA, however, will still need to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to bring the plan to fruition. 

With White’s gift, a few other large contributions and grants from the state and the county, VAA has its $8 million operating reserve largely secured as well as a multi-million-dollar down payment toward its $16.5 million construction costs. It still needs to raise around $8 million, much of which Reed hopes will come from major donors and the rest from a broad-based capital campaign.

The campaign will far exceed any that has taken place on Vashon and comes at a time when some much smaller fundraising efforts — such as the campaign to build new athletic fields north of town and a drive to support the public schools — have found it challenging to meet their goals.

“It’s a big request for this community. … It’s a challenging financial size,” Martinez acknowledged. “But I see the opportunity outweighing that.”

For years, leading members of Vashon’s performing arts community have wanted a better facility than what currently exists on the Island. The Blue Heron, built in 1912, can accommodate only about 100 people and is ill-equipped by modern standards. The Open Space for Arts & Community, which opened three years ago, has added a new dimension, but some say that the cavernous space doesn’t lend itself to certain kinds of productions and that it lacks professional-quality acoustics. 

Vashon High School’s theater, meanwhile, is in constant demand, some note. Indeed, many in the arts community complain about the “space wars,” a demand for space that requires long-range planning and puts enormous pressure on the school theater.

“The amount of competition for our theater space at the high school is intense,” said Stephen Floyd, a drama teacher at Vashon High School and an actor involved with Drama Dock and other community theater productions. 

Coincidentally, VAA’s construction project could occur at the same time as the Vashon Island School District’s rebuild of VHS — including the school district’s construction of a new 275-seat auditorium at the high school, a project that promises to deliver a vastly improved theater space for community use only a half-mile or so from VAA’s project.

Should the two projects indeed unfold at the same time, they would usher in one of the largest building booms on Vashon in decades, leading some in the community to call on the school district and VAA to find creative ways to work in tandem.

The Beachcomber, in a recent editorial, suggested the construction of one performing arts center with two stages located at the high school as a way to consolidate resources and secure economies of scale. Steve Haworth, an Islander with a keen interest in sustainability, has also met with key players in the two projects, suggesting they “think about each other as they proceed down their various paths,” he said.

Could the two projects share a geothermal heating system, for instance, or could bike paths connect them? “I just want people coordinating so that we do the best for our economy, our environment and our resources,” Haworth said.

Officials from VAA and the school district say they are, in fact, discussing how to make the projects complimentary. But they’ve set aside the idea of a shared facility, saying a variety of issues — from parking problems to the constraints on VAA’s grants and donations — make one facility located at the high school unworkable.

After The Beachcomber’s editorial, Morser said, VAA and school district officials met for what he called a “final gut check.” The fact that the school district is now talking about a free-standing high school theater — rather than one tucked inside the school’s main structure — led them to rethink the logic of two projects a half-mile apart, Morser said.

But after considerable discussion, he said, the two parties decided a shared facility wouldn’t make sense. The teams will work “arm in arm,” Morser said. “But the program benefits from two different structures at two different locations.”

Meanwhile, many in the performing arts community say they’re pleased by VAA’s progress and thrilled that a new structure may soon become a reality. Many have been involved in invitation-only discussions with VAA’s architect, staff and board, where they’ve talked about what they’d like to see in a new performing arts center. 

Gary Cannon, the artistic director of the Vashon Island Chorale and conductor for the Vashon Opera, said he’s been to three or four planning meetings, including ones with professional acousticians on hand to talk about how they’ll work to make the new structure acoustically superb. 

“It’s been fantastic,” Cannon said. “They all know very much what they’re doing. … It’s really been an extraordinary process.”

But some of the smaller arts organizations, such as Drama Dock, say they wonder if they’ll be able to afford the new facility. Gaye Detzer, who chairs the Drama Dock board, said she’s not been invited to any of the planning meetings, though her predecessor, Jim Roy, attended some. Currently, Drama Dock mostly performs at the high school because it can’t afford the 60-40 ticket split VAA asks for from groups that use the Blue Heron, she said. 

“There might be certain times that we would use the VAA space, but we’d have to be certain it would be a high-attendance show,” Detzer said. “I say that wistfully. … It sounds so wonderful. I’m just worried the costs will be beyond what we can afford.”

Reed, VAA’s director, however, said she hopes the organization’s large operating reserve will enable VAA to keep user fees low. Martinez, too, said he and other board members have thought a lot about the project’s sustainability, making sure they don’t end up with a center too big for the Island to support or financially out of reach to small groups.

“Nobody wants to overbuild for the Island, and I don’t think we are at this point,” he said.

Like others at VAA, Martinez added, he’s looking forward to the open houses this week, when they’ll get to hear from a wide range of Islanders. 

“It is really a community project. This can’t happen without the support of the community. And that means that we have to listen,” he said.

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