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Grappling with size: Is arts center too big, too small or just right?

If Vashon Allied Arts were to build a 20,000-square-foot structure with a 300-seat theater and small orchestra pit, it would be one of the largest and best-outfitted island-based arts centers in the region, according to a review of regional centers.

Whidbey Island, for instance, has a 246-seat theater. Bainbridge has a 245-seat structure. And Orcas Island has a 213-seat facility. Salt Spring Island, a Canadian atoll with a population the same size as Vashon, boasts a 265-seat theater in a 11,800-square-foot structure. None of them has orchestra pits.

But executive directors at the other performing arts centers also said that if they could do it over again and could raise the money, they’d likely add an orchestra pit. They also expressed enthusiasm for Vashon’s project, noting the way their own institutions have added to their community’s vibrancy.

“It improves the quality of life. ... If Vashon can do it, it just makes for better community living all around,” said Stacie Burgua, director of the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

Burgua’s organization just completed a $2.5 million capital campaign that doubled the size of its center, bringing it to around 16,000 square feet. She expressed surprise at the $16.5 million price tag for Vashon’s performing arts center and the $7.9 million capital campaign it will entail. When she heard those numbers, she said, “I almost fell out of my chair.” 

At the same time, she added, she wished Vashon the best. “I hope their project flies. I know ours is a gem for our community,” she said.

Artha Kass, the front-of-house manager at Orcas Center, also expressed both support and caution, noting that they’ve struggled to keep their doors open in the face of a declining economy. 

“It’s hard for me to not say, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ But at the same time, we’ve been struggling,” she said.

The issue of size and scope of the project has been a tricky one for Vashon’s venerable arts organization, which initially said it anticipated building a 250-seat theater in a 16,000-square-foot structure, with a price tag of around $11 million.

But Paul Martinez, who chairs VAA’s building committee, and Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, said conversations with potential users suggested a 300-seat theater made more sense. The expansion is actually modest, Martinez said. Going from 250 to 300 seats required adding only two more rows of chairs, he said. 

“All (the organizations) were pushing for a space that was a bit bigger,” he said.

“Over 300 in our minds seemed too grand,” he added. “We understand we’re not packing the house every weekend. To build a space that seems cavernous except a few nights of the year didn’t make sense; 300 seemed like the right balance.”

What’s more, the theater will be designed in such a way that the back section can be cordoned off during smaller shows, Reed said, giving the organizations that use the space flexibility. “It works when we have the big groups, and it works when we have the small groups,” she said.

According to public documents, VAA doesn’t expect to fill the theater often during its first few years. A spreadsheet VAA submitted to Water District 19 lays out its anticipated water needs based on audience size. The document predicts a full house at the theater 10 nights during the course of a year. All told, according to the spreadsheet, VAA anticipates performances and gallery openings to take place 79 times during the year; most of those, VAA predicted in its analysis to District 19, would have audiences of 200.

Kirk Robinson, VAA’s project manager, said he did not put forward conservative numbers so as to lower the project’s anticipated water load. Rather, he said, when Reed gave him a range of 150 to 200 people for a show, he listed 200 on the spreadsheet for District 19. “I vetted this pretty hard,” he added. “I wanted it to be right.”

But Martinez said the spreadsheet is only a snapshot in time. In fact, he said, VAA officials believe that once a performing arts center is built on the corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road, new ideas and projects will blossom, transforming the Vashon Center for the Arts into a place far more bustling than the tiny and often crowded Blue Heron is right now. 

“That’s really the exciting part. Once the building gets built, it expands our level of thinking, our ideas,” he said. 

“We haven’t let our imagination out of the box yet,” he added. “We’ll have a facility that will allow some of that out-of-the-box thinking.”

Adding to the size of the structure is a 2,000-square-foot lobby directly adjacent to a 1,000-square-foot art gallery. The proposed gallery was initially a bit smaller, Martinez said; it grew in size, he said, “after a great meeting with Vashon’s visual artists.”

The result is a 20,000-square-foot arts center that will extend 250 feet from the corner at the intersection south towards the existing Blue Heron, a building some say will dwarf the white-washed, turn-of-the-century structures currently at the intersection.

“I think that the building is completely out of scale,” said Evan Simmons, an Island builder who attended one of the recent open houses where a model of the structure was on display. “In a town of 10,000, it’s completely off the charts in terms of appropriateness.”

He also took issue with VAA’s process, which included several invitation-only sessions with Island artists but no opportunities — until earlier this month, when a schematic design was already complete — for public input.

“It’s a little late to be asking people what they think,” Evans said.

But VAA staff and board defended the size, saying a large lobby will enable them to host receptions and other small galas at the center and that a dedicated gallery was important to Vashon’s visual artists. “Our level of commitment to artists is that we really want to give them a dedicated space that stands alone. We did that very consciously,” Martinez said.

What’s more, according to Charlie Rathbun, the arts program manager with 4Culture, a King County cultural arts agency, VAA wouldn’t save much by cutting 100 seats out of its theater — and down the road, many might wish for a larger performing space. He works with several arts organizations that struggle with the size of their space and hanker for something larger.

“I wouldn’t be afraid of that size,” he said. Noting that VAA has to raise nearly $8 million from the public to build the project, he added, “I’d be afraid of spending $8 million and wishing you had more seats.”

 

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