When the Lexington Department of Parks and Recreation took over management of the Downtown Arts Center in July, new director Celeste Lewis was prepared for a getting-to-know-you period before arts groups and presenters bought into the new era.
But quite the opposite happened.
"I think there's kind of a hunger for this to be inclusive," Lewis says. "People are coming to us with great ideas and great hopes and dreams for what this space can be. And we're listening"
Amber Luallen, cultural arts director for the Department of Parks and Recreation says, "It was like, the doors were opened and people came flooding in. They are meeting with people daily, booking daily, booking into 2016. People seem really supportive and enthusiastic about a new direction."
The center opened early in 2002 under the management of LexArts, which was then named the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council.
For much of its almost 13-year history, the center had a reputation for costly rentals and uncooperative management. In recent years, it had floundered after the departure of Actors Guild of Lexington, the center's onetime resident theater company. Early last year, amid complaints that the DAC was underused, LexArts publicly expressed a desire to relinquish management of the city-owned building, saying it was a drag on the arts council's core mission of fundraising. Since then, former LexArts President and CEO Jim Clark has retired, and his successor, Ellen A. (Nan) Plummer began work in late November.
And Luallen and Lewis were interested in taking it over, seeing an opportunity to reinvigorate an underperforming venue. In addition to booking the black-box theater and opening the first floor City Gallery, Lewis and technical director Tom Willis are thinking about ways to use the center's third floor, which has never been finished, and its fourth floor, which held the offices of Actors Guild until the company moved out in 2009.
And no, none of those plans involve Frisbee golf or other things normally associated with Parks and Rec.
When news came out that her office would take over management of the center, Luallen said, she anticipated dissenting voices asking what her department knew about running an arts center.
"What we know, and what a lot of people don't know, and we spent time talking to council about, was when this building was built as the Downtown Arts Center and the city entered into the agreement with LexArts, we didn't have anyone in the government to do that," Luallen says. "In the years since, we have developed a pretty strong arts department, and the infrastructure and professionals to take it on. That's what we felt when said, 'Give us a shot.' Our whole job is working with the community and working with arts groups."
In addition to the DAC, the Cultural Arts Department manages the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater, which Lewis also oversees, and the Artworks Cultural Center on Patterson Drive, which offers performing and visual arts classes and workshops for children and adults. The department also presents or co-presents Ballet Under the Stars, the Woodland Art Fair, and Jazz at Ecton Park, to name a few.
But in the DAC, city employees are aware that they are taking on a high-profile project, which is partly why they think it should work.
Despite some issues, arts leaders lauded the flexibility of the black-box theater and the high-profile location in a busy section of Main Street.
One advantage to city management of the center is a much more seamless interaction with other departments, notably maintenance. A knock on the center had been that it was hard to get in touch with someone when things went wrong, particularly on the weekends, when arts venues are often in use.
"We know how to navigate the bureaucracy of the city," Luallen says. "We know how to work with council, we know how to work with maintenance, we have these relationships."
Lewis says, "The collaboration with the different divisions of the city has been amazing. General services, parks and rec, council — there has been a real march forward together on this that has been so delicious."
The most important collaborations are with arts groups. From them, through last fall, Lewis and her team generally received rave reviews.
Asked what was most improved, Bo List, whose AthensWest Theatre will present its debut production at the DAC next month, said, "Reliability and predictability. And service with a smile. The rates are reasonable, the personalities involved are friendly and trustworthy, and there's a genuine interest in programming and community service — fulfilling the promise of the facility."
With calendars that line her office walls filling up with bookings by AthensWest and Message Theatre, the dance groups Movement Continuum and Blackbird, concerts by WRFL-FM and other events, reactivating the center is happening.
Lewis says she can start to consider goals such as raising the profile of the building's exterior and finding the best uses for the fourth floor offices and the wide-open third floor, which has been considered for a performance space and artists' studios.
"We have to carefully consider how the third floor would best serve the Lexington arts community as a whole," Lewis says.
Says Luallen: "That's the thing we have to consider being a city-owned building, managed by the city: We have no other agenda but to assess the needs of the city and serve them."