A cultural transformation

Arts council opens gallery at the site of former armory

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2007

What a difference a month and 70-plus volunteers can make.

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In just a few weeks, the decrepit National Guard Armory at 350 Whittier St., has been transformed into the freshly painted Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

The revamped space is the new location of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council and will soon host concerts, seminars, lectures and plays on the 270-seat-capacity, hardwood floors of the old basketball court.

Events have been booked for 2009, and the arts council hopes to announce a rental-rate structure for the room by the end of the week.

Alaska Folk Festival dances will return to the space, and an assortment of other arts organizations and community groups have expressed interest in using the court.

"Some time on the Saturday that we started to move in, the summer sun was shining in and (the gym) was looking really nice," arts council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney said. "We were putting up the paintings, and I heard people say, 'This is a really nice space. Instead of using the yacht club, I'll use this space for my wedding.'"

The arts council is leasing the old armory from the city, under the agreement that there's no money in the Assembly's budget for renovations.

The city will continue to fund the arts council's operating costs. But the money to cover capital improvements - such as the estimated $300,000 roof repair project - will have to come from donations, grants, fundraisers and rent.

The arts council also pays for maintenance and utilities, and ultimately, may need to hire someone to help manage the facility.

"All of those costs escalate our monthly payments more than double from what we have been paying," DeCherney said. "We're taking a risk doing this. But I think we can do it with the help of all the other arts organizations."

Already, a small army of volunteers turned out to help spiff up the place and move the arts council from Franklin Street.

And this week, the arts council received a $12,000 contribution from the nonprofit Alaska Community Foundation to pay for operation and programming costs.

DeCherney and the council board do not want the arts and culture center to be viewed as an alternative to a new performing arts center.

"This is clearly not an ideal space," DeCherney said. "It's a functional space. But a performing arts space would be a much preferable situation to having something with buckets on the floor."

The Performing Arts Commission is still intact and working toward building some sort of state-of-the-art center.

"We've been here a week, and we're already full of too much stuff happening," DeCherney said. "That indicates to me that the community is looking for an arts center."

A long list of renovations is planned already at the arts and cultural center.

First, Behrends Mechanical will help convert one of the men's restrooms into a men's and women's facility.

Next, a long wall will be constructed in between the center's walkway and the gym. Double doors will be built at both ends.

"The nice thing about having the lobby is it might allow us to have something going on in the gallery and something going on in (the gym)," DeCherney said.

The gym space will seat 250 to 275 people. It also has long skinny tables, appropriate for a seminar or classroom setting. The Juneau-Douglas Little Theatre will be dropping off some of their gear, such as sets and stage platforms.

The space still looks very much like a basketball court. In fact, with the hardwood floors, the board briefly considered setting up a roller-skating rink.

"We decided the liability would kill us," DeCherney said. "In the real big picture, it's not part of our mission to have a roller-skating rink."

Ultimately, the arts council wants whatever staging they have to be flexible, so the space can be used by as many different groups as possible.

The space will serve as a de facto fourth ballroom of Centennial Hall.

Groups will be able to rent the room from Centennial Hall staff, who will sublease it from the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. The Juneau Public Market and the Juneau Boat Show, for instance, may overflow into the space.

Representatives from the Juneau Lyric Opera visited the hall Wednesday morning to see whether it would be a suitable space for a future production.

The Gastineau Humane Society has discussed using the space for dog-training sessions during the week.

Soon, the basketball hoops will be removed. Most of the large Tlingit murals on the wall will remain.

DeCherney has obtained some of the large curtains that used to hang around the commons of Juneau-Douglas High School. Those will be draped on the walls to help soften the sound.

A group of volunteers that produced musical events in the old Armory also will attempt to retune the difficult acoustics of the space.

The arts council's administrative offices are tucked just inside the door and look plush and comfortable.

One room down the hall, the new gallery also functions as a conference room. It has about 10 less feet of wall space than the old Franklin Street gallery. But it has a series of large windows, currently covered with panels designed by Jim Heumann. The gallery eventually will be fitted with track lighting.

A small community kitchen lies just north of the gallery. Excellent Radio program director Andy Kline has recorded DeCherney using the space for a series of five-minute cooking segments, which he plans to air on KXLL/102.7 FM.

Two spare offices sit at the north end of the hallway. Juneau Jazz & Classics and the Juneau Symphony likely will rent them as administrative offices.

Sound engineer Albert McDonnell plans to rent the space upstairs for an all-new, expanded Skatebottom Sound studio, DeCherney said.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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