In the coming year, when the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts finishes the long-awaited renovation project at Newport’s Performing Arts Center, performers will enjoy 3,000 square feet of “new” space – and it will come without adding one square foot to the building.
“We’re shifting from storage to functionality,” said Jason Holland, executive director of the arts council. Holland signed on as director in 2021 and, taking a look around, noticed a lot of poorly used space. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a big room, and it has lots of stuff in it, but it’s not being used real often.’”
You might say it’s the silver lining in a project nearly derailed. Part of a capital campaign started in 2012 with a goal of ensuring the now-35-year-old cultural hub is around long into the future, this seventh and final phase was halted in 2020 by COVID. When the world opened up again, the cost of the phase designed to add back-of-the-house space had soared by $1.5 million, more than half the original estimate of $2.2 million.
It might have killed the project right there. Instead, Holland met with architects for a second look, and came away with a plan that adds a second green room, doubles the number of dressing rooms, and will turn a former prop shop into an 850-square-foot rehearsal room and laboratory arts space.
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“That’s one of the pieces I’m really excited about,” Holland said, noting that the building doesn’t have a dedicated rehearsal room. “With that space, I’d really like to see more community use, more community experiences” at the center, he added.
City officials cut the ribbon on the $3 million, 23,000-square-foot performing arts center on Sept. 17, 1988, helping transform a neighborhood once known as “poverty gulch” into what has become the arts centerpiece in the oceanfront Nye Beach neighborhood.
Over those 35 years, the center has earned a statewide reputation as the premier theater space on the Oregon Coast and as a magnet for artists from well beyond, said former Newport Mayor Mark McConnell.
“It is rare when you find such a vibrant arts community in such a small town,” McConnell said. “The connections made on stage, and in the galleries, strengthen and bond a community while embracing diversity and inclusiveness.” As evidence of the impact, he cited youth who have grown up at the performing and visual arts centers and are now working as professional artists around the world.
More than just a theater, the Performing Arts Center, or PAC, was the catalyst that saw the arts scene grow from two theater and three dance companies to nine resident companies known as the “PAC Rats.”
Holland offered a contrast: His previous venue, California’s Orange County, had the same population as the state of Oregon. “For context, we had four resident companies; this organization has nine,” he said. “That’s incredible for a town this size.”
The center’s reach goes well beyond the resident companies. It hosts performing arts camps for youth and classes for all ages. It shares symbiotic relationships with the neighboring Newport Public Library, which offers culture passes for free admission to local attractions and hosts performances both inside and outside in Literacy Park, and the Visual Arts Center, which curates the Olive Street Gallery inside the PAC.
“The gallery naturally provides a physical connection” between the two spaces, said Chasse Davidson, director of the Visual Arts Center. “It really is a great way for people who are enjoying a performance at the PAC to be exposed to the visual arts in our community. When you are at the VAC, you get people who are intentionally going to see those arts. By having something at the PAC, it’s an entirely different audience. Their intention for being in that space is different, and yet they are exposed to these visual arts and get to enjoy it.”
While the PAC is primarily home to arts and entertainment, it’s been known to host fundraisers, memorial services — including for Judge Charles Littlehales and artist Rick Bartow — and weirdly enough, as Holland found himself observing, court proceedings.
During the pandemic, he said, courts couldn’t perform jury selection and interviews for bigger trials because of the courthouse’s limited size and distancing requirements. “So, they did it here. When I first walked into this building, the lobby had rolling desk chairs placed 6 feet apart for jury interviews, and the theater was being used as a makeshift courthouse.”
Holland and Lincoln County District Attorney Lanee Danforth shared a grin recently when they encountered each other in vastly different circumstances: a sold-out performance of The Wizard of Oz. But coming out of COVID hasn’t been easy.
Holland has had to figure out not only how to operate the building safely, but also protocols for artists from vastly different disciplines.
“The VAC had one set of protocols,” Holland said. “Then within the PAC – Is it dance? Is it music? If it’s music, is it string players vs. wind players — who blow air through their horns to make sound. Is it a play? Is it a musical where they are singing? Is it a choir concert? Is it a piano concert? Every one of them different from the other.”
The other factor was the audience and varying comfort levels.
“What we saw was a very slow but steadily rebuilding audience,” Holland said. “Even this month, I still heard someone say, ‘You know this is my first time back since COVID hit?’”
Fingers crossed, performers and audiences seem ready to move forward. There was the sold-out Wizard of Oz and a wildly successful evening with the Newport Symphony Orchestra in the season-closing performance by Newport-born Hunter Noack playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2. “It was breathtaking,” Holland said. “The community is hungry for these experiences again and we’re so happy to see that.”
In coming months, the PAC has on tap a gypsy jazz swing band, a comedy show, live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, and a Cinco de Mayo celebration by Arcoíris Cultural, a program by the nonprofit Olalla Center “focused on supporting and celebrating the Latina/o/x and indigenous Mesoamerican people in Lincoln County.”
The coming fest is modeled on last year’s Culture Fest put on by Arcoíris Cultural. “It was about bringing different cultures together,” said Alex Llumiquinga Pérez, Arcoíris Cultural program manager. “We had Mexican dancers, Latino music. It was a little bit of everything and also a resource fair.”
Arcoíris plans STEM events for middle and high school students, including Dance to Code, which combines traditional dance with programmed lights. “We want to bring the community together,” Llumiquinga Pérez said. “We are definitely going to partner in many ways this year.”
Nurturing partnerships is part of the goal for recent talks concerning a newly proposed cultural district. The first meeting drew a large turnout, including guests from other cities curious to see what the district might entail, Holland said.
He explained that a cultural district is an area – typically walkable — with a high concentration of arts and culture spaces and events. “It’s an attraction for visitors, but also a catalyst for investment in the community.”
Besides being community-driven, he said, a cultural center’s other benefits include “economic growth, community development, preservation of cultural heritage, education, tourism, and improved quality of life.
“How does it help artists to thrive, and thrive in place and not have to look elsewhere or move elsewhere?” he added. “Artists are an important part of what makes Newport so unique. They are part of this city’s heartbeat. When the arts thrive, communities thrive.”