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Balancing act
the Fine Arts Center at 25

By Marietta Pritchard '73G

Prokofiev's Cinderella

CINDERELLA SKATES WITH THE KITCHEN UTENSILS in Prokofiev’s ballet at the Fine Arts Center. (Ben Barnhart photo)

On the night the Russian Ice Ballet came to the Fine Arts Center, the brightly lit new lobby of the building was bustling with patrons getting free milk and cookies.

 


A broadly smiling Sandy Parent, board member of the Friends of the Fine Arts Center, stood beside a table spread with enticements to membership. At another table were children and parents trying out finger-puppets. “Would you rather have a boy ballerina?” asked a volunteer from Family Fun magazine, an event co-sponsor, as one little boy considered whether to have the puppet’s dancing shoes – his fingernails – painted blue, pink, or green.

     By the time the curtain rose in the concert hall, revealing a 36-by-42-foot ice rink that had been created for the occasion, an audience of people of all ages had filled nearly all of the 2,000 seats. For two hours, the skating dancers swooped, swirled, clowned and romanced through a brilliantly staged version of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. (Especially memorable were the dances for giant kitchen utensils, including an endearingly tubby teakettle.) People left the hall in high spirits, little girls in velvet dresses skipping their way up the center’s long outdoor passageway toward the parking lots.

     The evening had been a technical, as well as a theatrical, tour de force. Creating an ice rink in a concert hall had meant bringing in 10,000 pounds of ice the day before the performance; enclosing it in layers of plastic and allowing it to partially melt; inserting pipes and pumping them full of ethylene glycol to freeze it solid. After that it was melting, freezing, hosing, and scraping all night long, in a manual Zamboni process carried out by members of the center’s crew under the direction of the company’s Alexander Archinov.

     During the performance crew members stood by to rush onstage during intermission and clear off the accumulated slush. After the show they dismantled the rink, sledge-hammered the ice, carted out the frozen leftovers, and got home to bed about 5 a.m. – about the time the Russian troupe’s production truck headed out for California to set up for their next performance.

     Elaborate as it was, this two-day marathon was only the final act and curtain call in the project of bringing this ballet to Amherst. It began at least a year earlier, when programming director Joyce Smar first contacted the troupe’s agent. “We’d never done an ice show before, but this one had appeared in major places and been given high marks,” says Smar, who heads a regional organization called New England Presenters and who sits “through many nights of bad performances in other places so we won’t have to sit through them here.” The next step was signing on to the troupe’s technical requirements. Once the contract was finalized, Smar and marketing director Shawn Farley began generating publicity. A month before the performance, Smar began looking into housing and hospitality needs. (In the event, the Russian troupe arranged for a total of 44 people at local hostelries.) The center fed the crew breakfast the day of the performance, and provided snacks and beverages through the day. “If artists feel cared for,” says Smar, “they’ll like being here and their performances will be better.”


Built in 1975, the Fine Arts Center – the building itself – was described by its architects, the prestigious firm of Kevin Roche-John Dinkeloo Associates, as forming both a “gateway” to the campus and a “bridge” between its residential portions and its working core. A glowing report in an architecture magazine of the time used the terms “sacred grove” and “temple to the performing arts” to describe the building.

     Observers then and now have praised the building’s sculptural geometry, its way of framing views seen through its varied openings. The center is clearly an imposing and dominating presence on the campus. It also offered wonderful opportunities for staging large events, for the display of contemporary works of art, and for housing the departments of art, theater, and music and dance. Yet for those who worked and performed in it for the next 25 years, the building felt anything but sanctified. Many speak eloquently of its flaws. The building had leaks; it was poorly ventilated; it was hard to find your way in and out of. The reflecting pools at the Haigis Mall entrance had to be drained because their watery contents wound up inside the building. The concert hall lacked a lobby until last year. The storage and dressing-room spaces were woefully inadequate. And so on.

     But if the building had its limitations – some corrected through repairs and renovations, others irreparable – there’s been little doubt of the effectiveness of the institution known as the Fine Arts Center, which bridges the many arts and the many lively communities that it serves. Ironically – some might say, happily – the Fine Arts Center as an organization is scattered all across the campus and beyond, existing almost entirely outside the building of the same name.

     Look in the old auditorium known as Bowker; look in the Herter and Hampden and Augusta Savage art galleries; look for offices in nine different buildings; look in schools and performance spaces throughout the Pioneer Valley. Check out Bright Moments, a three-day summer festival of jazz and Pan-African music, as well as Jazz in July, an intensive two-week jazz education program held every spring. Listen to kids in workshops and productions in the Springfield and Holyoke schools. The building itself is earthbound – bridge or gateway or giant sculpture. But Fine Arts Center programs occupy a parallel universe, a much less mundane sphere.

     Think of them as planets in a solar system, separate, distinct, different in character, color and intensity, but orbiting around a single, strongly gravitational sun: the irresistible impulse to perpetuate the arts through education and performance. The center’s range extends from traditional to avant garde, engaging all the senses while also engaging audiences from all backgrounds and walks of life. The building is just the shell, the outward and visible manifestation of a performance history that’s seen some of the enduringly great names in the arts, along with many who have just begun to shine and some who could be described as brilliant passing meteors.

     That’s the vision, at any rate, and the evidence of many hundreds of thousands of attendees at many thousands of events suggests substantial success in achieving it.


Before the Center and its concert hall were built, putting on performances – especially anything needing a larger space than the 700-seat Bowker Auditorium – was a matter of improvisation.

     Barbara Aldrich, recently retired as director of programming at the Fine Arts Center, remembers getting Curry Hicks Cage ready for a concert by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1972. “I never worked so hard in my life,” says Aldrich. “Among other things, we had to turn off the buzzing arc lights, put a crew together, and re-rig all the lights.”

     The Fine Arts Council, the group then responsible for programming, was headed by the late Terry Schwartz – an administrator who “knew a lot about music and dance, but tended to forget the details,” according to Aldrich. Because he “knew I could pull things off,” Aldrich was hired as Schwartz’s right-hand person, and stayed on through the building of the Fine Arts Center to take charge of the “front of the house.”

     Aldrich is full of war stories, affectionate memories of the great performers who passed through the campus venues: Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin (“both of them gracious and nice”), Duke Ellington (“a wonderful gentleman”). She was responsible for seeing that everything went smoothly for the audience: “I learned never to argue with an irate patron,” she says.

     Then she remembers an exception. In 1986, the last time the Red Sox made it to the World Series, a couple arrived at a Ray Charles concert and plugged in a TV set at the back of the concert hall. They were insistent that playing a TV was not on the posted list of forbidden activities (no food, no bare feet). But Aldrich was adamant, and they left the hall.


When Willie L. Hill Jr., now in his second year as director of the center, was being interviewed for the job, he was especially impressed with the Fine Arts Center’s programs compared to those of other universities across the country. “I hadn’t seen anything like it,” says Hill. Other centers look good from afar, he says, and they may have better physical facilities as well. But the extent, breadth, and vitality of programming here, he asserts, is extraordinary.

Willie L. Hill, Jr.

O BUSY MAN: Fine Arts Center director Willie Hill in Bowker Auditorium, one of numerous “off-center” venues. (Ben Barnhart photo)

     Now Hill sees his job as organizing that vitality to create a mature institution that will continue to thrive. During its first 25 years, the organization grew exponentially, and often in unpredictable directions. “When the first merit evaluations were sent to me,” says Hill, “names came up that shouldn’t even have been on there.” He hopes to improve “lines of reporting” and to build a more rational, efficient organizational structure. Most importantly, he wants to ask tough questions about what that structure produces. Are we on the mark? Are we serving the community, giving them what they deserve? Where do we go next? A strategic planning process was well under way by last fall, to be completed this year.

     One aspect of the center that bodes well for Hill’s hopes is the extraordinary loyalty of its staff. A large percentage of key people have been with the organization for most of its existence. One of these is Jim MacRostie, the center’s unstoppable director of operations, who describes not only the job, but the building, as a “great challenge and joy for 25 years.” When the center opened, says MacRostie, there was virtually no budget, no established salary line for anyone except him. Lew Louraine, current associate director of operations, arrived after the first two weeks and worked for a time as an unpaid intern. The initial challenges were those of staging a variety of kinds of performance in a facility rather rigidly designed as a concert hall.

     “We had a grid in place over the stage, but no rigging to hang lights and scenery on,” says MacRostie. “There was no stage lighting, and no way to get power to the stage. When I said ‘I’m going to run cables down the hallway,’ that upset a lot of people.” The temporary solution was installing a transformer, and renting lights, as well as drapes for the back of the stage, for the first two years.

     The concert hall’s biggest problem, says MacRostie, has been its audio system. “Live acoustics can be quite effective in a concrete room, but amplified sound makes echoes, overlaps. We’re beginning to install equipment to overcome some of those flaws. It’s taken this long and over $500,000 to get it right.”

     The funding kinks began to be ironed out in the late ’70s, as the Fine Arts Center evolved into an administrative entity reporting to the provost, as opposed to a function of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. “Before that we were competing with academic departments,” says MacRostie. “That situation put both the center and the dean at a disadvantage.” Today the largest part of the center’s funding is from university allocations, including the student art fee, which in this fiscal year totalled $3.15 million.

     Ticket sales bring in $475,000, other revenue-based trust funds about $450,000. Gifts, grants, and so-called “allocable” trust funds account for about $375,000. The total budget is about $4.45 million, of which virtually all is spent. “We just make it overall, though the Center Series doesn’t quite make it,” says Marie Hess ’94G, deputy director for administration and finance. Hess has been with the organization since 1983, making her another long-timer. She says the center has been financially healthy for several years, that it hasn’t seen the large fluctuations in revenue that have occurred in the past. The biggest crunch, she says, is that – as elsewhere on campus – programming dollars are going to maintain facilities.


Since funding for the arts at a state institution is notoriously undependable, and government grants have dried up in recent years, the center is looking more than ever for support from the communities it serves. Those communities have responded, mainly under the rubric of the Friends of the Fine Arts Center, an organization devoted to advising, advocating, and raising money for programs. Development director Linda Faulkingham says the 700-800 Friends “reflect our audience,” with 60-70 percent coming from within 15 miles of the campus, the remaining 30 percent from as far north as Brattleboro and as far south as Longmeadow.

     An annual gala – dinner, dancing, and auction – netted $26,000 for the Fine Arts Center endowment last year. The Friends also sponsor “C’mon a-My House” dinners at individuals’ homes, and bus trips to out-of-town destinations. All told they raise about $150,000 annually, plus $100,000 in donated goods and services. The sum goes a long way toward filling the gap between ticket sales and the cost of putting on performances. And with the support of the Friends, more attention is now being given to corporate and business donors: “In the beginning we had no corporate campaign,” says Faulkingham. “Now we’re fishing in bigger ponds.”

     Seymour Frankel ’51 is one the Friends’ mainstays. A Longmeadow resident now retired as the owner of several clothing stores, Frankel and his wife, Edna, joined the board as soon as the center opened in 1975. About a dozen years ago, he started organizing buses to bring people up from Longmeadow twice a season. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a bus filled with 55 people came to hear pop vocalist Michael Feinstein perform in Bowker.

     “Route 9 is always a pain,” says Frankel, who finds that a lot more people – especially retirees – will come to performances in Amherst if they’re provided with transportation. (And it’s not only transportation that’s provided on the bus, but an elegant box supper from Wild Apples caterers, a glass of wine, and congenial company.) “It’s bothersome to me when people come from the big cities and say they can’t find any entertainment here,” says Frankel. “In fact there’s plenty to do if you’re willing to get out of the house.”

     Frankel praises professor emeritus Fred Tillis, director of the center for two decades before his retirement in 1998, for creating a home for such lively, varied performances. “It wasn’t just the big, known things, but the little gems that you never heard of,” says Frankel. Lorna Peterson, director of Five Colleges Inc. and another founding subscriber and longtime Friends’ board member, likewise praises Tillis’s groundbreaking, institution-building work.

     “He really kept up the quality, but expanded the types of performance,” says Peterson, “He was appealing to as large a public as possible without diluting the standards of excellence. There were Broadway shows, chamber groups, big orchestras, world groups. It was diverse in all the right senses.”

     Tillis, says Peterson, could also make tough decisions – such as daring to cut back on the numbers of performances during the massive budget crunch of the late ’80s.


Tillis himself looks back on his 21 years as director with satisfaction. Like current director Willie Hill, he is a musician – coincidentally, both are saxophonists. Tillis came to UMass as a professor of music composition and theory in 1978. In 1975, he became associate provost, and one of his jobs was to move dance out of physical education and into the arts without making physical education “feel a loss,” as he puts it. “There’s lots of turf in academe,” he says with a knowing smile. His ability to negotiate that turf won him friends. The Fine Arts Center’s first director was Fred Steinway, who presided over the difficult period when the organization was part of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. When Tillis took over in the late ’70s, he instigated the move to a separate administrative structure. He also began to urge the center to look outward, not only from the building but from the campus.

     “I wanted to widen the concept,” says Tillis. “Our needs were those of a regional arts center” – such as the one at the University of Michigan, which he refers to as “the Harvard of its state” – yet “the role and the prestige of the university is entirely different here.” Given that difference and the location in Amherst, “We don’t have the pockets of money that even Springfield has,” says Tillis. “We could look for $150,000, but not $150 million.”

     Tillis saw his role as creative, generative. He wanted to connect the arts and the community while partnering with the departments of art, theater, music, and dance; helping him do that would be a board of directors who were committed to the arts but were not academics. Establishing a community board was “one of the best things I ever did,” Tillis says. He was also charged with creating an administrative structure, but “my administrative style has always been to facilitate competent staff to do what they want to do,” says Tillis. “I’ve been in it for service – the lasting effect – not power.” Tillis maintained an extremely productive creative career as a musician and composer while running the center and taking on additional roles in the administration – for example, as associate chancellor for equal opportunity and diversity. And he always taught one class in the music department, to keep his hand in. His successor, Willie Hill, is doing the same.

     Tillis says he’s observed an increasing respect for the arts over the years, both in the academic community and in the larger one. The role of the Fine Arts Center, he says, is to give students an idea of what the arts are in every part of the world – over a student generation, he adds, not necessarily every year. “We’ve become much more multi-cultural,” he says, referring in particular to Ranjana Devi’s Asian dance performances. “We see more Asian people in our audiences, which also reflects the local population. It’s not the same Amherst that was here 25 years ago.”
Tillis says he’S proud to have presided over that expanding concept of the arts. But, he’s quick to add, “We still need to find ways to raise more money.”


One of the Center staff who’s been most successful at raising money is Roberta Uno ’94G, founding director of New WORLD Theater and a faculty member in the theater department. What began in 1979 as an experimental student organization has become a national force in the crucible of “intercultural” theater. The list of sponsors for New WORLD’s 2000-2001 season includes not only university-based sources, but such heavy hitters as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Focusing primarily on work by playwrights of color, the current season includes Indian and Peruvian troupes, as well as groups from Rhode Island and the South Bronx, a production of a Lorca play co-sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College theater department, a work by an Algerian woman, and “Project 2050,” a multi-year program examining the mid-century year when people of color are predicted to become a majority in the U.S.

     “We were brought in under the visionary leadership of Fred Tillis,” says Uno. “It was Fred’s belief that the arts should be woven into the fabric of the culture, not remain separate in academic departments.” Tillis’s skills as a mentor come in for particular praise from Uno. Talented people are often driven out of universities by their frustration with academic bureaucracy, she says. The Fine Arts Center benefited enormously by being led by an artist who understood how artists work. “Fred mentored through autonomy,” says Uno. “Meaning there was a lot of individuality throughout the organization, no cookie-cutter formulas.”

     The recent move by a community group to purchase the former Amherst Cinema for a community arts center (Around the Pond) has created the prospect of New WORLD Theater becoming artists-in-residence there. The fit would be excellent, says Uno, since New WORLD lost its on-campus performance space two years ago when the Hampden Theater was closed down for building code violations.

     “Of course,” says Uno, “not having a space never stopped us before. We’ve always gone places where we weren’t before and didn’t belong, and did what we weren’t supposed to be doing.”


Betsy Siersma ’85G is another independent spirit pushing the envelope of art within a severely limited space. As director of the University Gallery, which is fitted into the hillside under the concert hall and the new lobby, Siersma mounts exhibits of nationally and internationally significant contemporary art. Another long-timer, she joined the gallery staff as registrar in 1977, becoming curator in 1984 and director in 1991. Two shows from last fall illustrate the kinds of contrasts the gallery encourages. In one, Brazilian photographers Miguel Rio Branco and Mario Cravo Neto offered images both poetic and disturbing of the lives and rituals of their country. In another, Black (Red) by Rolf Julius, arrangements of rocks, small bowls of water, and recorded sound were distributed throughout several rooms of the gallery.

Betsy Siersma

WORKING BEAUTIFULLY: University Gallery director Betsy Siersma says she’s delighted with recent renovations. (Ben Barnhart photo)

     Siersma is one of the few people in the organization who is not hoping for lots more space. Of course she could use more room for storage of the permanent collection – some 2,600 works, mostly on paper. But for the most part, she says, the building now “works beautifully.” The leaks are fixed, the lighting has been replaced, the once-dyspeptic carpet is now a cool, soothing gray. And she is hopeful about the future.

     “We’re ripe for change,” says Siersma. “The timing is perfect, with a new director, the building 25 years old.” So far, she says, strategic planning has been an extremely positive experience. “Willie is behind it, and he’s good at listening, open and straightforward.” Like many others on the Fine Arts Center staff, Siersma says she’s exhilarated by being “surrounded by creativity.”

     Exhilaration can be contagious. “We so often walk out humming, smiling at people we don’t even know,” Lorna Peterson says of the post-performance experience. “That’s a great gift.” The Fine Arts Center, Peterson adds with a note of practicality, “has worked in spite of its defects, addressing them admirably to bring us some of the best entertainment in the Valley.” As for its complex mission – juggling education and outreach and excellence, bringing in both more money and younger people – “I hope it can continue its balancing act,” she says.

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