Realizing the Impossible Dream: Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center

The project combines condos and a home for Eugene Ballet, plus office space for seven other arts groups.

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Evening at the Midtown Arts Center and multi-family residence. Photo: Eugene Ballet

Curious neighbors watched as bulldozers quickly leveled two aging buildings and a paved parking lot following the groundbreaking ceremony on May 10, 2018 for a multi-million dollar, seven story,128,000 square foot mixed use building designed to house Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center and a 40-unit luxury condo complex known as The Midtown. Finished this past February, the Center opened its doors to welcome home the Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene Ballet Academy, and the administrative office spaces for seven other non-profit arts organizations: Chamber Music Amici, Lane Arts Council, Orchestra NEXT, Eugene Opera, Eugene Concert Choir, #instaballet, and Pacific International Choral Festivals.

Building better together

For Eugene Ballet, founded by Riley Grannan and Toni Pimble in 1978, moving into the new building was the fulfilment of a long envisioned goal to have a facility designed from the ground up to support the preparation of dancers and their creative efforts. “Whether they are a student in the Academy or a principal dancer with the Eugene Ballet, these artists now have a facility that can support taking their skills and passion to a level previously unimaginable,” Josh Neckels, EBC Executive Director, told ArtsWatch.

Center construction began each day at dawn. Photo: Gary Ferrington

The construction of an arts venue in the middle of any city isn’t easily financed, given land prices and other costs. Eugene Ballet, formerly housed in a remodeled store on busy Willamette Street, opted for a novel approach by joining with Eugene developer Alex Haugland in constructing its much needed facilities within the context of a privately managed multi-family residential project.

Funding for the building, designed by Dustrud Architecture and built by Essex General Construction, was made possible in part from private funding, philanthropic contributions, community fundraising, and grants. “I couldn’t imagine a more dedicated team of people collaborating to make the Midtown Arts Center a possibility.” said Neckels. He added that the Center serves as a prime example “… of what is possible when you have the right commercial and non-profit collaborators working towards a mutually beneficial goal.” 

Expanding Educational Opportunities 

For years the Eugene Ballet Academy has held classes in what was a less than adequate facility. It worked, but space was limited, lighting was not the best, and there was no room for growth. The Academy is now able to dedicate four of the center’s seven performance spaces to its many programs and will no longer have to share space with company dancers 24/7 if needed. 

Academy Director Sara Lombardi  told ArtsWatch that students are finding the new second floor studios to be large, bright, and with plenty of room to safely spread out and practice during the pandemic. 

Amenities include much needed storage space for props, costumes and personal lockers, a quiet study area with library, a student break-out lounge with microwave, refrigerator and sink, and dressing and make-up areas. There is also a long, glassed-in lobby area from which parents can watch their kids in class. 

The academy offers an array of  programs for children and adults. Photo: Eugene Ballet

Lombardi pointed out that student safety has been a priority. The facility is equipped with the newest HVAC technology, which, for her, has been absolutely one of the greatest benefits and blessings during these challenging times, given the pandemic and poor air quality from the increase in area wildfires.  And, unlike in the former facility, “public access is controlled with electronic doors that are internally programmed. We have cameras installed throughout the facility which allows additional security.” 

Aside from the many amenities that allow for increased safety, security, instruction, and capacity, are the environmental aesthetics. Lombardi noted that the Academy spaces are especially inspirational with quotes on the walls about courage, perseverance, inspiration, and hope. A large mural and lobby banner share messages of equity, inclusion, and diversity. In addition, fallen trees from the original lot were used to create beautiful handcrafted art pieces that line the ceilings of the lobby entrances and art work throughout the building enhances one’s visual experience.  “I didn’t realize the impact the new space would have emotionally. What I see and feel as I work and breathe in our new home is a revitalized energy, with inspiration and hope.” Lombardi said. 

The arts center’s student study and reading lounge. Photo: Eugene Ballet 

Asked to envision the future, Lombardi suggests the Academy will be able to expand programming for the youngest aged children, offer adult fitness classes, increase offerings in other dance styles, engage in collaborative work with other dance and art groups and most especially target groups and individuals that have less access to the arts.  

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No more ducking under wood beams

For Eugene Ballet Principal Dancer Reed Souther, rehearsing, filming, and performing in the company’s third floor studios is nothing short of a dream come true. “Gone are the days of accidentally stabbing the ceiling when rehearsing sword work. Overhead lifts no longer run the risk of banging someone’s head on a beam.” There was just very little margin for error in the former Willamette street studios.

With the new seamless dance floors, 20-foot high ceilings, and performance spaces the equivalent to the depth and width of the Hult Center’s Silva and Soreng theaters where Eugene Ballet performs, dancers sense that they can shed spatial constraints. Reed said that with the physical limitations removed, he is feeling a shift in his mindset. “Knowing you have space can make foundational changes in a dancer’s approach to movement.”

Studios 6 and 7 duplicate the Hult Center’s performance space, where the ballet company performs. Photo: Eugene Ballet

The ceiling beams in the old space were a nuisance not only for the dancers but also for choreographers. Eugene Ballet’s Residential choreographer Suzanne Hagg recalled having to make conscious choreographic choices to avoid large jumps or lifts where beams were located. 

The ability to create new works in an obstacle free studio has already been of benefit to Haag as she begins to choreograph “bigger, bolder group sections.”  She now steps back allowing her “to see shapes and patterns closer to how the audience will see them.” She recalled that when choreographing in the older venue, “it was always a bit of a surprise when you got to the theatre and viewed your work from a distance.”  That awkward spatial transition between studio and stage has now been resolved. 

Choreographer Suzanne Hagg with dancers Joshua Downard and Sarah Kosterman. Photo: Eugene Ballet

In addition to having more space in which to work, the installation of the latest audio and video technology in both the Eugene Ballet and Academy suites is enhancing rehearsal and choreographic work.

The studio sound systems use rows of ceiling hung speakers that fill the acoustic space with a sound quality that Reed said is much more like what dancers would experience in performance. The studios are also acoustically designed for live music and can accommodate the ballet’s resident Orchestra Next if needed.

Each studio is equipped with a computer and a large flat screen monitor. For dancers like Reed, who always loved huddling around Artistic Director Toni Pimbal’s iPad when learning archived choreography, the wall mounted video display is much more efficient.

Haag added that the technology has helped her to choreograph remotely. This winter, due to the pandemic, she was unable to attend a Choreographic Residency at Texas Christian University’s School of Classical and Contemporary Dance. But, given the availability of Zoom video capabilities, she was able to safely work with students and teach master classes live from Eugene. 

Both Reed and Haag noted that the much needed and appreciated auxiliary features supporting dancers and choreographers have made the venue a much more attractive place in which to spend long hours each day. These include personal lockers, a much needed laundry, bathrooms and changing areas, a dancer’s lounge with kitchen facilities, and an ice machine (in the event of injury or as a preventative measure). 

There is also an in-house costume shop that enables dancers to do fittings between rehearsals without their having to leave the rehearsal space. This saves time and increases efficiency. There are also prop and musical instrument storage rooms.

Dancer Sarah Kosterman enjoys freedom from spatial constraints. Photo: Eugene Ballet

A Center For Inspiration 

The Midtown Arts Center, a world class venue for dance, awaits those who can envision its potential, such as this summer’s Midtown Matinee series or #instaballet audience-choreographed dance performances.

It also provides the opportunity for building collaboration among arts organizations and artists, including visiting choreographers and dancers from the west coast and beyond who see it as a place to be creatively inspired. Principal Dancer Danielle Tolmie observed that being in the Center, surrounded by talented people seeking excellence in their own artistic pursuits, is intoxicating and inspiring for all. 

Sarah Lombardi summed it up nicely when she sees the Center as a gift for the community and an economic, cultural and educational boost for the entire city.  “We are blessed!”

The Eugene Ballet begins rehearsal at the Midtown Arts Center on October 11 for Cinderella, its first production of the 2021-22 season. The staged production, with music by Prokofiev performed live by Orchestra Next, will take place November 5-7 in the Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts

A Midtown Arts Center Open House will be held on a date yet to be scheduled in February 2022.

About the author

Gary Ferrington is a University of Oregon Sr. Instructor Emeritus whose career spanned over 30 years as the College of Education’s Instructional Systems Technology program director. He has been, since retiring in 1998, actively involved in the Eugene arts community serving for nine years on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts Center where he also coordinated its online and print public relations efforts. Since the closing of the center during the Great Recession he has committed himself to advocating for the performance of contemporary music and dance. He is a volunteer with the Eugene Ballet Company and is an advocate for the UO School of Music and Dance programs in music composition, Intermedia Technology, and jazz studies. His articles for Oregon ArtsWatch, focusing primarily on music, dance and occasionally theatre in Eugene, can be found online at artswatcharticles.blogspot.com.

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One Response

  1. When we spend money to preserve a building we call it “restoring that magnificent old building”. When we decide to raze one it is “removing that aging building”. As much as I support the arts,spending that much for a new building when our streets are full of homeless people in need of our help is disgusting.

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