How to Fix the Church of the Arts


So, my partner and I took a stroll by and around the proposed new Church-of-the-Arts building in the illuminating light of day.  From what we could see, not even setting foot in the door, the proposed new home of the arts is in even worse shape than the 100-year-old current residence of the arts.  All of the concrete steps are crumbling dramatically, the much-ballyhooed handicap-accessible ramp appears to be deteriorating/rotting, the adobe/plaster over wood facade is cracking in a number of places, and all of the doors are peeling/chipping/warped/etc.

Also much ballyhooed is the building’s central air conditioning–but both units (not sure which is in use and which is just sitting there rusting) we saw on the back side of the building looked in sad, sad shape.  Though we could not climb up on the roof–it appears that the roof is flat or near-flat, which is this kind of climate is a serious no-no.  From the look of the outside, we’re guessing there is water damage inside the walls (can’t be sure, of course), and with a wood/plaster combo in a sometimes gruesomely cold environment, that is a recipe for total disaster.  Basically, my partner concluded–this building is a tear-down waiting to happen.  No wonder they want to sell it so cheap.

Now, the current Church of the Arts is not in fabulous shape.  The bell tower, they say, is crumbling, and the back entrance is letting in water and collapsing a bit.  Not a good sign.   However, the basic structure of this 100-year-old building is like a massive fortress.  It has thick brick walls and a 200-year slate roof that is in need of only minor repairs (yeah, and those minor repairs are a looong ways up there).  There is no handicapped accessibility (though I pointed out to my partner that we might be able to salvage the handicap ramp lumber when whoever buys that other craphole tears it down).  It is a huge place to heat, though it also has great thermal mass–during big events, the heat has to be turned up a few hours in advance, then turned way back down once the crowd gets swingin’.

The bathrooms (floors need covering because the old floor had asbestos in it) are in the basement, so there’s the impossibility of funding an $85,000 elevator to get to them.  But, we’ve also talked about putting a handicap accessible bathroom on the main floor, though that wouldn’t provide accessibility for the downstairs classrooms.  Here’s what you do: on the sign-up form for the classes, you ask if anyone signing up has an accessibility issue.  If they do, you move the class upstairs or to an alternate location.  Oh, and if you want to keep the downstairs bathrooms, you hit up a local flooring company or members for their remnants to cover the asbestos problem.

Another issue raised was how incredibly hot the building can get in the summer–making it infeasible for teaching classes.  Here’s what you do: you get a window air conditioning unit for the fancy new classroom in the basement.  I’ll bet if you hit up members for one you’d get 15 by the end of the day.  My partner says he has two just sitting in his shed.  You might not want to hold ceramics classes in there, but at least one of the ceramics teachers says she’s just happy to have a place to teach.  Besides, if you’re covered with clay, do you really need to worry about getting sweaty?   If there really is a heat issue, you can always hold classes that are too messy for the fancy classroom in the (fairly early) morning hours.

With cold issues–a little more difficult with clay, but for the fancy classroom, you get one of those fancy ceramic heaters–probably again from a member who has an extra lying around.  (I don’t mean to pick on the ceramics teachers–I’m just saying there are some ways to work around the problems.)

The feasibility study, partially paid for by the City of Vermillion (to the tune of $5000), and completed by a fancy firm, is a pretty document.  I know because I kept my copy, having been on the Board when it was completed.  Many of the repairs/improvements it describes are NOT mandatory and many are NOT nearly as expensive as the report indicates.  The current Arts Council membership includes all kind of handy people–people who want to make an investment of love/labor in the structure.   Much of the material for building projects can be salvaged and/or donated if the board would simply make a list of those materials and send them out to the membership/advertise on Freecycle/post on the website.

Two important points came out of last night’s meeting and subsequent art opening chatter.   The first is that the Board has never sent out a specific request for donations of materials/labor for specific building-related projects, and the second was a comment made by a guy who just wants to come in and putter–take out the garbage, help with labor on building/remodeling projects, shovel the walk.  He said, “the day they elect me to the board is the day I never set foot in this building again.”  There are a number of handy people who may not be interested in coming to all the events or doing the whole wine-and-cheese chatter, but they are interested in donating their skills for what they feel is a good cause.

Instead of exclaiming with horror that, “so-and-so had to do all the labor” on a certain project, the Board/membership ought to feel lucky that that skilled labor cost them absolutely nothing, and their payment ought to be good will and praise, not shock and horror.  I mean, this is how we’ve always gotten along at the Arts Center, and while some may believe it’s a bad thing, I don’t.  I think community involvement and investment, and not just cash money, is a good thing.  It is my experience that, if you constantly ask people for money, they get kind of grumpy and feel like they don’t know where all that money went (even if you tell them).  If you ask people if they have a window air unit lying around, or a nice, safe ceramic heater lying around, they have more of a sense of real investment–they can look at the air conditioner, the heater, and say, “I did that!”

My first real feelings of involvement with the Arts Center were not when I first paid my membership dues or even when I joined the Board.  My real feelings of belonging to the VAAC came when I made and served my first batch of chili for Chili Blues, when I scrubbed bat guano out of the balcony for a few hours one weekend, when I got all scratched up pruning and clearing trees and brush and trash from the grounds around the building, and when we broke ground on the garden project.  All of these things were hard work, and all of these things made me sweat.

There are some for whom simply paying membership dues will be enough, and that’s OK–we need those members, too.  For me, the way I feel like I truly belong is to invest myself, and to build sweat equity in the organization–to sense that my sore muscles have made it, and me stronger.

My intention is not to pick on the Board exclusively–I think we need a more proactive organization as a whole that can step up to the tasks that need doing–and many in that organization have already–including many on the Board.  I also think we need to have more of a sense of continuity of how things were made to work in the past–and there’s a lot of people in this community who know, and who would feel more involved, more invested if we would simply humble ourselves enough to ask.

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