State awards VAA $1 million grant

Vashon Allied Arts is slated to receive more than $1 million in state funds to help it move forward on its ambitious plans to build an expansive new arts campus — including a state-of-the-art performance hall, exhibition space, classrooms and more.

Gov. Chris Gregoire last week signed into law the state’s capital budget, which includes $1.1 million for VAA’s project. VAA also learned last week it will receive a $75,000 grant from King County for the project.

VAA officials said they were thrilled by the news, which comes amid other signs that the Island’s largest arts organization is moving forward briskly with its far-reaching development plans.

Last month, the organization purchased two acres contiguous to property it already owns, doubling the size of its footprint on the southeast corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road. The purchase consolidates VAA’s other landholdings, which include the former McFeed’s site, the Blue Heron building and land in between the two buildings.

It has also hired an architectural firm — LMN Architects in Seattle — which has completed what VAA officials called a concept study of the new building. And it recently contracted with The Alford Group, a consulting firm with offices in Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, Boise and Hartford, to help craft a feasibility study to determine how much additional money can be raised on the Island to support the campus.

“We’re grateful that our state legislators and the governor see value in the arts and see the arts as we do, as an economic driver, especially for small communities like Vashon, where the arts are so central to our way of life,” Scarlett Foster-Moss, who chairs VAA’s board of directors, said of the governor’s decision to sign the bill.

Foster-Moss added that one of the board’s top priorities for the building project is to bring jobs to Vashon.

“We want to ensure that Island-based labor is being used, and as the organization grows, that in itself will provide jobs and help fulfill our ongoing mission to help local artists make a living here.”

The $1 million grant is part of the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development’s Building for the Arts program, which received $11.6 million from this year’s capital budget and will allocate those funds to 22 organizations. The capital budget, unlike the state’s operating budget, comes from the sale of state-backed bonds and was not the focus of the state’s budget crisis that captured headlines over the last few months.

In order to access the grant, however, VAA will have to move quickly on its fund-raising. It needs to have all of its funds for the building in hand by 2011, when the state’s budget biennium ends, to secure the state money.

The budget for the new building currently stands at $11 million, but VAA Executive Director Molly Reed said that number would be adjusted after a more thorough analysis.

“We have an idea of what our dream building would be, but we know that depending on how the feasibility study comes out, we may have to back down on some of our wish list,” Reed said.

The feasibility study, something nonprofits often undertake before launching a huge fund-raising drive, will include confidential interviews with up to 30 Islanders. Ten of those interviews, Reed noted, have already taken place, and the entire process should be completed by June or July. The purpose of the interviews, she said, is to help define the scope, timing and cost of the project.  

“We think we’ll be able to scale the project to meet the needs of VAA and the community, while being conscientious about the current economic climate,” Foster-Moss said.

As part of the study, a committee of Islanders has been convened to give input on the process, Reed said. The committee is co-chaired by Jo Ann Bardeen, president of Vashon Island Chorale, and Mary Carhart, a longtime supporter of the arts on Vashon, and is comprised of “people from all walks of life who are involved in the arts, from artists to art patrons to former board members to people who are in involved in art off-Island,” Reed said.

Until now, a significant portion of the money donated toward the project has come from one Island philanthropist, Kay White. A longtime member and supporter of Vashon Island Chorale, White, 88, donated $600,000 for VAA to buy the McFeed’s property in May 2008 and also contributed most of the $160,000 used to purchase the acreage behind that property last month. White has committed a substantial amount of additional money to the project as well, Reed and Foster-Moss said, but both declined to disclose the full amount of her pledge and both said VAA would be looking for additional donors.    

The newest land purchase, Reed said, was needed to preserve open space adjacent to the new building and ensure its surroundings were clean and well-kept.

“And if it could be a sculpture park, that would be wonderful,” she added. “That’s an idea people have had for a really long time, but that’s down the road.”

VAA has long dreamed of an art campus that would increase its capacity for current and future programs and provide performance and rehearsal space for other Island groups, including Vashon Island Chorale and Drama Dock.

Current plans for the new building include a 250-seat performance hall, exhibition space, classrooms, offices and costume and scene shops.

“We are trying to think of things that have a dual purpose,” Reed said. “We could have a fiber arts classroom in the costume shop, and also use it for an overflow dressing room for when the chorale or Drama Dock have a cast of thousands. The scene shop would be a messy room, so you could have a painting class in there.”

The design of the building would most likely be awarded to LMN Architects, a well-known Seattle firm that designed Benaroya Hall.

“LMN seems like such a great fit from a personality and project perspective,” Foster-Moss said. “Throughout the concept study, they worked very hard to understand the architecture in this community, to understand us and to understand our requirements.”

But Reed acknowledged that VAA’s ambitious fund-raising efforts extend beyond the current effort to cover the costs of the construction project. Even after that’s completed, Reed said, VAA will need more capital for other phases of the project, including extensive renovations to the Blue Heron Art Center and the creation of an endowment to sustain the arts campus.

“We want people to understand that we realize it’s a bigger picture — you can’t just build a building without knowing how you’re going to sustain it,” she said.

To raise all that money, Reed said she plans to reach out to corporations, foundations and individual donors, and to keep the community engaged in the decision-making process about the campus as it develops.

“The first public outreach to the community is our campaign feasibility study,” she said. “When we get to the point where we’re actually designing the theater, the folks at Drama Dock, the chorale and other groups will have input into the whole vision for the usability of the space. The same thing is true for the gallery. Visual artists will have input; we’ll be asking their opinion.”  

Foster-Moss  said she envisions a more formal process for community input being established for that as the building moves into the design process.

While acknowledging that up until this point, Vashon Allied Arts had not hosted  a community forum or hearing regarding the arts campus, she said, “We have selectively gone out to members of the community to seek input.”

The current feasibility study, she added, is a “reach to wider circles.”

“We definitely want and will need community input as to how the building should be situated and what it should look like, and how people see the relevancy of the building to the community,” she explained. “We’re well aware that there will be lots of vocal input into everything about this building — it’s the Vashon way. We’re doing our very best with the opportunity that has been given to us to have something that meets the organization’s needs and the community’s needs.”

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