RICHMOND — Eastern Kentucky University's dot on the state arts map got a lot bigger Friday night with the opening of the long-anticipated EKU Center for the Arts.
"Communities and regions and states have life-changing events," university president Doug Whitlock said on the stage of the new theater before a performance by the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra. "And if I'm not badly mistaken, tonight is one of those for Richmond, Madison County and the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
With 2,100 seats, the theater is the largest performing arts venue in Central Kentucky — larger than Lexington's Singletary Center for the Arts at the University of Kentucky and Danville's Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College.
The EKU center will open to the public in two weeks with a Sept. 24 performance by Kentucky native and onetime Richmond resident Wynonna Judd.
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On Friday night, an invited audience enjoyed Cirque de la Symphony, the Eastern Kentucky University Choir, the American Spiritual Ensemble and Nick Clooney, who narrated a performance of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait.
The crowd included many state and local arts and government officials, including Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, and Kentucky Arts Council executive director Lori Meadows.
Reflecting on the fact that the center, costing more than $30 million, was built during an economic recession, Meadows said, "It says that people want the arts in their community and that this is really important to them."
Chandler touted the arts center's role in creating jobs, both in construction and in operating the center now that it's opened.
"This is the sort of thing we need to be doing," Chandler said. "These are the sorts of things that cost a little money but turn around and generate revenue for the community."
Center director Deb Hoskins said 125 EKU students work at the center, and many of them were lined up at the entrance in black dresses or pressed shirts and EKU maroon ties as guests arrived for cocktails and dinner before the concert.
The evening had one noteworthy hitch: A long line for tickets at the will-call window delayed the performance by nearly an hour. Hoskins explained that the center's ticketing system was not set up yet, and organizers did not anticipate how much time it would take to manually distribute tickets.
Among the guests was George Foreman, Hoskins' boss when she was at the Norton Center.
"It's a wonderful facility," said Foreman, now director of the performing arts facilities at the University of Georgia. "It has more stage space, especially up top, than the Norton Center and the Opera House, which will give it a lot of options for what it can bring in here.
"What's really wonderful is to see the support from the community and the university. That's really important."
University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director and Spiritual Ensemble director Everett McCorvey gave the theater high marks for its appearance and acoustics.
"It's going to bring a lot more world-class artists to Central Kentucky who might have gone to Louisville or Cincinnati before," McCorvey said. "I hope that citizens in Lexington and the region will celebrate that we have a facility like this in our midst."
Hoskins said that it will be particularly special to people in Richmond, who have had to drive to Lexington, Danville or farther to see Judd, Willie Nelson, Disney's Beauty and the Beast and other acts that are now booked to play the center.
"Now," she said, "this is their back yard."