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How The ArtsCenter has changed is the saddest thing to happen to Carrboro

One night a while ago, a friend and I went to see a play at The ArtsCenter. Afterward, we strolled over to Milltown. The night was so alive, you felt like dancing.

When I was taking an acting class at the West End Theater, the hardwood floors and the space, not too big, not too intimidating, was perfect for beginning actors doing improv to loosen ourselves up. The instructor was artistic, lovely, and solid in her craft.

In a classroom on the side of the building, during winter, the instructor for oil painting, a not very nice (to me) and intimidating woman, with that Boomer generation caustic, heavy, mystic artistry, tells us how to mix oil paints. (Actually, I think she expected us to already know.)

Right now, The ArtsCenter wants to leave its longtime home on Main Street and move to a site on Jones Ferry Road. Not far in distance, less than a mile, but a world away from its identity, and the culture and community it has built over decades.

The $5.5 million project wants to turn a 1.3-acre wooded property into a sleek, designed campus. The new ArtsCenter will have a 20,000-square-foot metal building that’s two or three floors, a smaller theater, with 140 seats instead of the current location’s 320. There will be a second-floor balcony facing a stream on the site. The natural spaces on the site will be used for outdoor classes. The ArtsCenter’s leadership wants to have more industrial offerings like 3D printing, laser cutters, and augmented reality and virtual reality. It also wants to have CAD software, or computer-aided design, used for metalworking and in the automotive industry, and which The ArtsCenter wants to use for fabric design. More details are on the center’s website.

Jones Ferry project

The ArtsCenter’s plans for 303 Jones Ferry Rd. Source: The ArtsCenter

This sounds nothing like The ArtsCenter like I’ve experienced it, which is both eclectic and casually elegant, yet also traditional. It doesn’t sound like the way it’s been vibrant and alive. The nonprofit has been a place that flows with the times. Whatever is going on in the world, the center usually meets it with a class offering.

The Jones Ferry project sounds like the center will stop being this stream of creativity and imagination and community that flows.

In fact, everything about The ArtsCenter’s plans for that site, when you try to picture it, looks nauseating and neon hot, radioactive. It feels toxic. Even writing about it and thinking about it, trying to wrap my head around why this project is happening, feels like it’s destructive to everything I’ve liked about The ArtsCenter.

And since The ArtsCenter is so centrally located in Carrboro, and has been an important part of the town’s identity, when it leaves its home and this radioactive project on Jones Ferry Road is actually built, what will happen to Carrboro?

Diverse? Inclusive?

Throughout the center’s announcements and statements about the Jones Ferry project are talks of inclusivity.

In its official announcement in January, Barbara McFadyen, a trustee on The Nicholson Foundation, said, “The quality of teaching and management shines, and the spirit of the place is supportive, inclusive, and inspiring. All this is happening in an old grocery store with few windows! It is time for The ArtsCenter to have a home that can showcase the imagination within so that it can flourish, embrace, and inspire more members of our community.”

Newark-based Nicholson Foundation has been one of the ArtsCenter’s primary supporters and is giving the nonprofit a $1.6 million grant to go toward the $5.5 million cost. McFadyen is one of the two daughters on the board of Nicholson, a mostly health-focused foundation that was set up by her parents Marion and William Nicholson. She is also a jewelry artist who teaches and is on the board of The ArtsCenter.

Dan Mayer, executive director of The ArtsCenter, says on its web site: “This is the first step towards building a new home for the organization. The ArtsCenter needs a new space to provide more classes and programs for everyone in our community.”

Wait, who is “everyone”?

I have actually never felt more excluded or put off by The ArtsCenter in my life.

The classes offered there have declined in variety, openness and relevance. I think the last time I really wanted to take a class there was in 2011. And the programming of performances and even the catalogs feel like they never meet the needs of people who live here, or are off-putting in other ways.

For instance, oil painting classes there now use non-toxic materials. This is off-putting because I think it’s alright, and preferable, to learn oil painting in the traditional, foundational way. It’s also off-putting because there are artists and artist organizations in the Triangle that could be exploring non-toxic alternatives themselves, and the ArtsCenter is taking that opportunity away from them.

The ArtsCenter is also offering classes on making glass pendants — Millefiori necklaces — but it’s not called that in the title. It also has a class on Sashiko stitching, a Japanese cloth-making style that came out of practical need. There are Italian-Americans and Japanese-Americans who have been stressed beyond belief in our area in recent years. When I think about what they’ve been going through, how they’re piecing together bright experiences to keep things going and stitching together their finances and style of working, seeing classes like that make me cringe.

This is not the right way to serve the community. And this is not diversity. It’s the opposite.

Just because an organization says it’s diverse doesn’t mean that it is. Diversity, inclusion – these things are felt. They have to make sense in context. They have to kind of pass a “smell” test. The way I’ve experienced diversity is it’s messy and uncomfortable. You try to be friendly with someone and blurt out the wrong thing. It’s awkward and funny. Diversity and inclusion are built from the ground up.

Mayer told the N&O the theater will be smaller because the current theater is rarely filled to capacity.

Is that true? Because I remember going to full, full theater productions at the ArtsCenter. If the theater hasn’t been filled in recent years, maybe it’s because of other reasons – like people just haven’t been drawn to the programming.

Maybe instead of developing a new facility, one of the things that should be asked about the ArtsCenter is why it hasn’t had better programming and been available to creative young people in the area. At the same time, there are great artists with experience in the Triangle and all throughout the South. They could be teaching at the ArtsCenter. Why have they not been?

And let’s take a look at some financial numbers. The ArtsCenter in 2012 reported $1,463,359 in revenue. It had $1,321,393 in expenses. By 2017, it was reporting revenue of $1,564,915 and expenses of $1,388,304.

So even though Millennials are very interested in the arts and in creativity, filling Tumblr, DeviantArt, Etsy, Society6, and many other websites with our artwork and crafts, from 2012 to 2017, The ArtsCenter barely grew. And now, it wants to build a $5.5 million new home? Where is the impetus for this project coming from?

The site on Jones Ferry Road and the neighborhood behind it

The woods at 303 Jones Ferry Road. The trail leads from the busy thoroughfare to the neighborhood tucked behind it. The barely noticeable parcel and the neighborhood both have become more exposed in recent years.

The neighborhood behind the 303 Jones Ferry Rd. parcel comes right up to those woods. From what you can find online, this looks like what used to be a chill, nondescript neighborhood, just one of many in Carrboro. Driving by the parcel on Jones Ferry Road, you mostly always miss it because the traffic flows straight from downtown to the highway to the apartments after that. When you do notice the woods, you imagine the neighborhood tucked behind them to be separate from the rest of Carrboro, having its own world. There’s a sense of mystery.

But walking on that street this weekend, it was apparent that this proposal already has made that neighborhood, and those woods, more exposed than they should be. The neighborhood feels overwhelmed, its attention focused – as if it has had to become a bigger version of itself to deal with the possibility of this project happening.

This is something I’ve noticed in other parts of the Triangle that are struggling with projects, changes they don’t want and really shouldn’t be happening. They become too “big.”

Why would people living there want those trees cut down? Why would they want to be exposed to Jones Ferry Road, not to mention all the traffic and activity that The ArtsCenter would bring? Why would those residents want construction right next to them?

“The new site provides the organization an opportunity to flourish as a community center for the arts. Our new location on Jones Ferry Road is close to a moderate-income neighborhood that is the heart of Carrboro’s Latino community. This location enables The ArtsCenter to create a stronger bond with the Latino community and practice the principles of diversity and inclusion that are essential to the work we do every day.”

Seeing how this neighborhood feels now, this description on The ArtsCenter’s website definitely does not pass the “smell” test.

What’s worse is this project has tainted this neighborhood. If I had not gone to this neighborhood and seen it for myself, from other news reports alone, I would have associated it with this project and thought it would have blended in with an industrial facility, that this kind of division and radioactive toxicity was also its character. It’s not. The feeling in this neighborhood is that it’s down to earth, cozy.

What The ArtsCenter could be

Seeing the news about the Jones Ferry site actually came as a shock to me. When I’m in Durham, Chapel Hill, even when I’m in Carrboro, the expectation when I think about The ArtsCenter is that it is still basically providing the same classes it used to. There is nothing going on in the world that says it should have changed — and there is everything to support what it used to do.

The last time I think The ArtsCenter provided classes the way I remember it used to, was probably in winter 2011-spring 2012.

Above is the catalog from that time. Look at the classes offered, the thoughtfulness and variety of them. Why couldn’t The ArtsCenter have kept offering the same for the rest of the decade? Where are those instructors?

After that time, the catalogs started falling more and more out of step with what people were feeling and what they wanted. Even the catalogs in 2012 looked sad and there is a hollowing out, stripped feeling to them when that year was abundant and vibrant for young people. The most recent catalog leaned into and amplified the spiritual coldness of this past winter when what people wanted was courage and strength.

There is the real culture and the real creative growth in the world right now, and The ArtsCenter is not supporting it at this point.

Maybe the neighborhood behind the woods on Jones Ferry Road, I’m going to guess, is the place that’s still keeping alive the possibility of The ArtsCenter getting back to what it was.

The ArtsCenter’s Jones Ferry project is horrible for Carrboro, for artists and for real diversity in so many ways. When are people in Carrboro going to start saying something?

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