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Plugging into the arts

by Keith Barber

Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts offers a magnet for the creative class and the promise of future economic development in Winston-Salem

The sounds of jackhammers, power drills and sandblasters filled the air near the corner of North Spruce Street and 2nd Street in downtown Winston-Salem on Aug. 5. Beneath a bright blue metal overhang, workers installed a metal hand railing on the steps leading up to a building that will be unveiled next month as the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts.

Siohban Olson, co-chair of the Center’s opening celebration, led a reporter inside the main entrance of the ultramodern building and cautioned against going any further into the main foyer. A large mosaic on the stone floor of the entrance, created by an artist commissioned by the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, was still drying.

“This is her interpretation of the merger of creative energies,” Olson said of the piece. “It is also loosely based on hurricane patterns in North Carolina.”

A merger of creative energies is one of the promises of the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts. The very nature of art is to connect people, said the new center’s namesake, Milton Rhodes.

“The arts connect people with life and have for 5,000 years, from the early cave drawings to the cathedrals of Europe to the African mask and Native American hieroglyphics that are on the wall in the [near] East,” said Rhodes, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

“Arts are a way of expressing our human condition,” Rhodes continued. “Each of us has our way of expressing ourselves, so I think the challenge is the arts have a connotation of being an elitist, but the truth is it’s part of everybody’s metabolism.”

The struggle, he said, is to deliver that message. Olson said from the very beginning, the primary goal of the scores of volunteers that planned the Light Up the Arts Gala with Tony Bennett on Sept. 10 and Community Weekend Sept. 11-12 was to entice the community as a whole to join the city’s vibrant and diverse arts community.

“The emphasis is on the diversity of arts that all exist within Forsyth County,” Olson said. “We have everything from the Hispanic Arts Initiative to Flutes on Fourth to the Piedmont Opera Company partnering with the [UNC] School of the Arts to put on Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Community Weekend will feature more than 100 arts and cultural experiences under one roof. During the Sept. 10 gala, which kicks off at 6 p.m., arts patrons will enjoy performances by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, No Rules Theatre Company of Washington, DC, and the UNC School of the Arts.

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Arts organizations involved in the Community Weekend celebration include: Associated Artists, Delta Fine Arts, Kernersville Little Theatre, Piedmont Chamber Singers,

Piedmont Opera, AJ Fletcher Opera Institute, Piedmont Wind Quartet, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Twin City Stage, Children’s Theatre of Winston-Salem, Winston-Salem Symphony, Winston-Salem Youth Chorus, Bookmarks Book Festival, Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem, Old Salem Museums and Gardens, the Enrichment Center Percussion Ensemble, Authoring Action, Arts-Based Elementary School, Arts for Life North Carolina, Winston- Salem State University Diggs Gallery, the Healing Force, Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Burke Singers, Forsyth Community Band Festival, Giannini Brass, Piedmont Slam, Three Graces Entertainment, StoryLine, Flutes on Fourth, Joe Robinson, RiverRun International Film Festival and more. The opening of the Center is truly a community event.

Olson turned left down a hallway and entered a room designated as the Womble Carlyle Gallery. The room was empty, but Olson explained it would soon house its first exhibition — Opening Acts by the Piedmont Craftsmen. Opening Acts will feature a collection of artwork from 45 artists working in all media from the guild’s five-decade history. Olson then ticked off the events of opening week one more time. On Sept. 7, a private dinner for donors will be held at the Center. On Sept. 10, the Light Up the Arts Gala with Tony Bennett will start the big party that will last a full three days.

Olson said the Center is fully expecting 1,800 visitors to attend the opening night gala, with nearly 1,200 of those guests buying tickets to see Tony Bennett perform at the Stevens Center. There are four ticket packages currently on sale. For $300, you can attend the entire party and get lower level seats to Tony Bennett. To attend the entire party and see Tony Bennett from the balcony, it’s $225. An all night party ticket without Tony Bennett is $125, and for $50 you can get a late night ticket to the disco in the new Hanesbrands Theatre.

Olson then walked through several service hallways to reach Reynolds Place, a large multi-purpose space with 25 to 30-foot ceilings supported by exposed wooden beams and enormous plate glass windows.

The key aspect of Reynolds Place is its versatility, Olson said. The space’s audio/ visual system is going to be tested by the gala on Sept. 10. The No Rules Theatre Company, a Washington DC-based group composed of UNC School of the Arts graduates, will perform a vignette from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, utilizing the room’s “Romeo and Juliet” balcony. In the spirit of the evening and the space, the UNCSA School of Drama will perform scenes from Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story. The UNCSA School of Design and Production will demonstrate their motion control project during Community Weekend as design students invite visitors to fly like Peter Pan through Reynolds Place.

“You’re going to put on your hat and your magic shoes and off you fly along all those windows in Reynolds Place to demonstrate that combination of artistry and technology they’ve got at the school,” said Olson.

UNCSA’s music, dance and film departments will also be involved in the opening gala, highlighting the Center’s emphasis on arts education.

“We see our role to supplement what the classroom teacher does with at least four performances a year in all the elementary schools,” said Rhodes. “We have an enlightened school board and superintendent by other school standards. We still have more than 250 teachers teaching art, band, chorus and film. Our role is to help stimulate learning by showing every child there’s some value in everything they can produce.”

Upstairs from Reynolds Place is the Sawtooth School, which comprises 20,000 square feet of space within the entire 78,000 square-foot complex. Olson climbed the stairs and spoke of the school’s renovation and expansion.

“The number of students they can handle has increased by 300 to 400 percent just because of smarter use of space,” she said. “The building is that perfect merger of artistry and innovation coming together.”

Olson then greeted several of the teachers of summer camp classes. She said renovating the school was a top priority for Rhodes and the Center’s architectural firms — Calloway Johnson Moore & West and Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce.

“Sawtooth is fabulous because it’s a unique facility and it’s an important facility in our community because when you’ve got the cuts in the funding from the school systems to fund the arts, more and more people, school teachers included find the value in a program like this,” Olson said.

As she walked along the corridor that connects the various classrooms of the school, Olson pointed out that school teachers were the largest group of individual donors to the Center.

“Of all the groups, they were the ones that were by far the most generous,” Olson said.

Teachers understand the importance of arts education to the future of our community. Community leaders like Rhodes understand the importance of a vibrant arts community to the city’s economic prosperity.

“I think that Winston is rebranding itself these days to be a place where young people can come to and be part of a vibrant arts scene,” Rhodes said. “The arts center is part of the equation and the new theater district will be one of three performance places — all of that adds up to a vibrant arts scene.

“North Carolina is uniquely positioned to be a gathering place for the creative class of individuals that will make their living off creating new works in the arts, medicine and science,” Rhodes added.

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Winston-Salem has already taken the lead in establishing itself as a biotech hub. On June 4, Gov. Beverly Perdue helped christen Wake Forest Biotech Place, the 242,000 square foot facility that will serve as the new northern campus of the Piedmont Triad Research Park. Now, with the opening of the center, there will be a state of the art space for artists to create and perform while offering the community a place to come together.

“The goal is having a place where those individuals can meet and begin to talk to each other,” said Rhodes. “The new arts center will provide that forum for lots of these discussions as well as the other institutions in the Winston-Salem area like UNCSA and [the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art].”

The fact that Winston-Salem is unveiling a new arts center at this point in time is a testament to its citizens’ commitment to the arts, said Olson.

“In the worst economic times, there are very few cities that would be able to raise $26 million as quickly as Winston-Salem has raised [it],” said Olson. “The city has always been known as a very philanthropic place and this was by far the best demonstration of that.”

Olson then exited the main building and walked around the construction activity heading south toward the Hanesbrands Theatre. Olson explained that the Arts Council began raising money three years ago as part of the comprehensive campaign for the arts, which included money to renovate the complex. She explained that Rhodes deserved much of the credit for raising nearly $26 million for the new arts center. It was Rhodes’ wisdom and guidance that made that marvelous achievement possible, so when it came time to name the venue, there was no debate.

Rhodes served as president of the Arts Council from 1971-1985 and returned to the post in 2004. Rhodes was formerly the president and CEO of the American Council for the Arts, now known as Americans for the Arts — the nation’s leading nonprofit organization advancing the arts. During his tenure at the organization, Rhodes put forth the idea of Arts Advocacy Day, an annual event where more than 600 arts organizations and individuals meet with congressional leaders to raise issues related to the arts. Rhodes also created the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, a leading national forum for arts policy. Rhodes also served as president and CEO of Outward Bound.

Of all the arts education advocates in the nation, Rhodes is clearly in the Top 5, Olson said.

Two blue, solid metal doors opened into the black-box theater space. As the doors swung shut, the ear-splitting construction sounds were silenced.

The Hanesbrands Theatre was once the old Delco garage and auto parts store, Olson explained. It’s a black-box theater, which means it can be configured for any shape staging and seating arrangement. It contains state-of-the-art retractable seats with additional riser seating on the sides and state-of-the-art light and sound. During Community Weekend, the theatre will host more than 25 performances, everything from choral groups to jazz to opera to ballet.

A brief tour of the black-box theater, complete with Broadway-style green rooms and dressing rooms, an eye-catching public art installation by a North Carolina artist and murals that incorporate the old Delco garage into the building’s design, revealed the versatility of the space.

“Whatever you can dream up, we can probably figure out how to do in this building,” said Olson. “I think there are other buildings that have multiple theater complexes built into it, but you’re not going to find anything that is the combination of corporate meeting space, galleries, educational space and theatre all put together.”

The opening gala for the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts will be a time of celebration for Winston-Salem, an opportunity for local artists to shine, and a fitting tribute to a man who has helped the city live up to its self-proclaimed status as the City of the Arts and Innovation.

“Milton Rhodes has the vision for everything,” Olson said. “He was the catalyst to get people thinking in the right direction.”

But Rhodes did not work so tirelessly to bring personal acclaim or recognition. He did it for the people of Winston-Salem, so the participation of the entire community during the opening night gala and Community Weekend is vital to fulfill one man’s vision of a city that is truly an arts center, said Olson.

She pointed out that Winston-Salem has always been a leader in the arts because of citizen participation. Now, the community has the opportunity to take the next step together.

“If this is part of our history, let’s grow it and change it and be on the forefront of things that can happen in the future,” she said.

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