Lexington does not see many multimillion-dollar capital campaigns for arts groups, and when the Living Arts & Science Center started its effort to expand its facilities, there were skeptics.
"Some people were like, 'Really, you're starting a capital campaign now?' because it was the middle of the recession," center director Heather Lyons says.
Campaign chair Harriet Dupree Bradley recalled, "We went to one person who was very down on it. He said, 'There's no money in this town for that sort of thing. It's a great project, but you'll never get the money.'"
Those naysayers were apparently wrong.
Since those first fund-raising pitches, Bradley, Lyons and the LASC team have found enough people who agreed that it was a great project — and, yes, they would love to contribute money.
As the year comes to a close, the "Imagine This! Campaign" has raised $4.2 million, less than $1 million short of its $5 million goal, and the center is set to break ground on its expansion in March.
The center will continue to operate during construction, and Lyons expects the new facilities will be ready to open to the public in the spring of 2015.
Lyons says a couple of recent gifts, including $500,000 from high-profile University of Kentucky athletics booster Joe Craft and $128,000 from Tom and Susie Bell of Midway, gave the LASC board confidence to go ahead with the project.
"That's more than enough to build," Bradley said. "We also want to build the endowment to continue to support the center."
Other major donors to the project include Will Farish, who has given $1 million, and the Paul and Lucille C. Little Foundation, which launched the campaign in 2011 with a $1 million matching grant.
The expansion responds to a need that became apparent several years ago, as LASC classes filled up, packed out classrooms and encroached on other spaces in the 166-year-old Kinkead house on North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Lyons says visitors to exhibits would have to be turned away, and the center would run out of space to book school groups that wanted to participate in the center's offerings that pair artistic and scientific disciplines.
"A lack of space has dictated so much of our programming, because it has grown so much," Lyons says. "There's been a constant trade-off of one program being able to operate, but the others can't. So we're constantly trying to balance.
"Our bottom line is we are an educational facility, and we want to make that accessible to all."
At the urging of the allocations board of LexArts, the city's umbrella arts organization, and other supporters, the center's board started exploring options for expansion.
Lyons emphasizes that one of the goals was to preserve the historic integrity of the current venue, which she describes as a "sturdy, solid building."
But the new facility, designed by de Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop of Louisville, includes Lexington's first permanent planetarium and a "Glo gallery." Named for project visionary Gloria Singletary, who died in 2012, the gallery will feature a projection wall visible outside the facility where anything from images to films to interactive video can be shown.
The planetarium builds on a portable, inflatable planetarium Lyons says is currently part of the center's outreach program in 38 counties in Kentucky, plus some in West Virginia. The permanent facility has already drawn interest from nearby schools, including Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky, Lyons says. The Glo wall, she says, will be particularly pertinent to the center's outreach to its surrounding East End neighborhood.
"It will be a really dynamic visual space in downtown Lexington," Lyons says. "We have a lot of pedestrian traffic in our neighborhood, and it will be the sort of thing people can come on to the grounds anytime and see artwork, films, videos, and in working with the gaming community here, there are several groups that are working on very large-scale, interactive experiences."
She emphasizes this will not be Grand Theft Auto or other violent video games projected for the masses, but rather games with interactive, educational aims, like the center.
"I really see it as a new-media showcase," says Lyons, who is a filmmaker.
Bradley and Lyons say a key to raising the money has been the fact that so many Lexington-area residents have interacted with the center and seen its value. In addition to being a field trip destination, the center is known for the classes it offers when schools are closed. The center also offers programs for adults, which Lyons says the center aims to grow with its physical expansion.
Bradley experienced the center as a child, parent and adult participant, and says that shared history as well as the LASC's financial standing has actually made the campaign a relatively easy sell.
"They have a balanced budget, no debt, and they own their building," she says. "That is important to the people we are approaching asking for major support. They want to know you are going to be responsible with their money."
She says the center can be seen as an investment in the future.
"The most successful companies in America combine technology and art," Bradley says. "So what we are doing here has resonated with people that want to give money."
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.