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VAA lays the groundwork for a new arts center

Vashon Allied Arts has hired a new deputy director and increased the size of its board in recent months — steps the arts organization is taking to enhance its capacity as it moves forward on plans to build a performing arts center.

The membership-based arts organization has also signed a one-year contract with a well-known firm to oversee a capital campaign and continues to work with a Seattle-based architectural firm on design concepts.

At the same time, however, the size and shape of a new performing arts center are still far from determined, staff and board members say. In fact, they say, board and staff members are fundamentally rethinking the project to make sure they understand both what the Island might need in a new center and the financial resources it will take to sustain it.

“What programs need additional facilities? ... What classes fill up? What performances receive limited stage time because of limited resources at the high school?” asked board member Bruce Morser, describing the thinking the board is currently engaged in.

The arts organization “definitely wants to build a new structure — there’s no question about that,” Morser said. But, he added, “It’s not about building a building; it’s about providing a facility.”

Staff and board members recently visited a performing arts center on Orcas Island and another on Whidbey in an effort to learn from other island communities how best to proceed. Paul Martinez, a VAA board member who chairs the organization’s building committee, said the biggest take-home message from those field trips was one of encouragement.

“It can be done. … When you walk around a building and kick its tires, you realize, yes, this isn’t that big of a deal. We can do this, if the community has the will and enthusiasm,” he said.

At the same time, Martinez, like Morser, said the organization is far from unveiling designs or breaking ground.

“I know there’s been talk and rumors and innuendo about the building already being designed. And it’s not true,” said Martinez, associate exhibition designer at the Seattle Art Museum. “It’s a process. And we haven’t reached the design part of the process yet. We have a long ways to go.”

The arts organization began publicly discussing its vision for a new performing arts center on the southeast corner of Center — where Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road intersect — about two years ago, after it purchased the half-acre parcel where McFeeds now sits. Last year, the organization purchased the adjacent property, a two-acre parcel east of McFeeds, creating a contiguous landscape more than four acres in size.

VAA administrators have long talked about the need for a state-of-the-art performance hall. Though full of character, the Blue Heron Arts Center — where VAA performances currently take place — is cramped and ill-equipped and the theater can hold only 90 seats, board and staff members say. According to early drafts of its plan, the arts organization hoped to build a 250-seat theater adjacent to the Blue Heron, creating an expansive arts campus that would provide space for performances, classrooms, galleries, administrative offices and more.

Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, said the organization is still envisioning an arts campus made up of a new performance hall with classroom and studio space as well as a renovated Blue Heron. But the size and design are less clear.

“We’re retesting the assumptions of the building in terms of programming,” she said. “We’ve been going under the assumption of a 250-seat theater, a gallery, this and that. Now, we’re going back and reviewing all of that work to make sure it still makes sense.”

Some givens continue to drive the process, she said. A performance space with good acoustics, for instance, is a must, she said. “That’s important to the opera, the chorale, Drama Dock, even rock ‘n’ roll,” she said.

But the size and shape are less clear, she said. “Maybe it will have more seats or fewer seats. We just don’t know.”

The biggest issue, Reed and board members said, is finding the financial resources to not only build a new center but also sustain it. To that end, the organization has been gearing up for an ambitious capital campaign and in April signed a one-year contract with the Alford Group, a national consulting firm that helps nonprofits run capital campaigns.

The organization also has begun staffing up, building the capacity that will enable it to take on such a big project, Reed and others said.

The organization, for instance, recently added eight new members to its board, bringing the board size to 21 — the biggest board it’s ever had. Among the new recruits are Morser, an illustrator who was on Colgate University’s board when it expanded its campus; Kevin McCurdo, a marketing professional who works for Perkins Coie, a national law firm; and Kathy Pine, a jeweler who recently retired from Russell Investments, where she worked as a senior trust officer.

The organization has also added staff, including its first deputy director. Angela Luechtefeld, who was hired a year ago as VAA’s artists-in-the-schools director, was recently named deputy director, Reed said, an expansion of duties that makes her second in command to Reed.

Luechtefeld, who has worked as an arts administrator at two other theaters in the Puget Sound region, is ideal for the position, Reed said. Her appointment also frees Reed up to focus on fundraising for a new arts center.

This fall, the organization plans to make another hire — a project manager who will help to develop the complex timeline for the construction project as well as oversee the actual building process, Martinez said.

“Everything we’ve been doing has been to improve the infrastructure and get ready for a capital campaign and moving forward,” Reed said.

Martinez concurred: “We’re developing our internal capacity to really take on a project of this nature.”

The organization has put the price tag for such a facility at $11 million and has secured $7.5 million in pledges and cash from its major donors. But the financing is tricky, board members said, because they know that sustaining the structure over time will also require an even healthier stockpile of resources.

“Everybody who’s in-volved in this is asking, ‘How do we create a facility that’s sound financially and that doesn’t require huge volumes of people from off-Island to sustain it,’” Morser said.

As VAA crafts its project, he said, staff and board members know they have to consider “the full picture of the costs of operating a building. The last thing we want is to create a structure that has to fly on what it can bring in the door.”

Morser, a longtime Is-

lander who has been involved with a number of Vashon issues over the years, also said he and others on the board are eager to get out into the community and discuss VAA’s vision for its future.

But the release of preliminary designs that suggested a certain look for the new structure — part of a funding proposal that several Islanders saw — was premature, he said, painting a picture that was far from accurate.

“Literally, we’re at the stage now of getting our act together so that we have a correct story to tell,” Morser added. “It’s all just starting now.”

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