May 21, 2018
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A new Center of attention

By Alicia Anstead Senior contributor, Special to the BDN

The angular brick arts center sitting snugly at the confluence of the student union and two windswept parking lots at the University of Maine in Orono has been hailed through the years as a jewel of both the campus and the region. The structure — imposing and cold to some eyes — also has been called a mausoleum, a fortress, a brick bunker and an elitist arts enclave.

But when the Collins Center for the Arts — formerly the Maine Center for the Arts — opens this weekend after being closed for an 18-month renovation, longtime patrons and even passers-by are likely to be excited by the promise reflected in the new vaulted glass entry pavilion.

“We have a whole new idea about how to bring the building alive,” said Richard McDonald, president of the CCA advisory board. “We are going to make it a shining example of what a 21st century performing arts center can be. We are committed to making the building a lively, welcoming, multifaceted community center.”

Built entirely through private funds and the passion of a few tenacious visionaries, the place ushered a new era of culture into the area when it opened in 1986. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony, violinist Isaac Stern and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra christened the building that year. The center has slowly positioned central Maine in a more active conversation with world and national arts and solidified the expectation locally that culture is an integral part of a thriving community.

Back then, the center was a state-of-the-art facility, designed by Bangor architect Eaton Tarbell in the urbane tradition of “high” art: red carpets, continental seating, mahogany woodwork. The structure served its grand purpose better than any previous venues in central Maine.

But once expectations become ingrained, they often rise. As the years passed, technology outpaced the center, and the sophistication for which it had once been known took on a stuffiness and obsolescence. One CCA board member went so far as to say the building began slipping toward “seediness.”

“It was clear 10 years ago that we had to ask the question: What did the Maine Center for the Arts need in order to go forward to the 21st century?” said John Patches, the organization’s executive director.

The Collins Center for the Arts is the answer.

While the sleek facade is the most visually stunning alteration to the building, the $11 million renovation also includes a new lobby, dedicated space for the Hudson Museum on the second floor, an expanded Bodwell Lounge on the third floor, more restrooms on every floor, an additional elevator, video capability including foyer monitors and a 65-inch-screen TV in a cafe area, professional meeting rooms, handicapped-accessible seating and two central aisles in the Hutchins Concert Hall, as well as updated sound, lighting and computer technology throughout the center.

Much of the red and dark-wood color scheme has been replaced by muted shades of sea green and charcoal, and the replacement woodwork is light maple. The cathedral ceiling of the grand foyer has been lowered to make more space on the floors above, and Clark Fitz-Gerald’s “Flame of Inspiration” sculpture, which hung like a fiery chandelier in the foyer since the center’s opening, has been put into storage. Plans are under way to fill the expansive white wall spaces with artwork from the university and museum collections, as well as work by students and other artists.

A more comprehensive plan for a major renovation originally was submitted in 2005 by the New York architectural firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners, but fundraising challenges, inflated costs for building supplies and the general economic downturn stalled the project. Eventually, the Biddeford-based firm Oak Point Associ-ates took over the engineering, design and construction and divided it into two more manageable phases.

The first phase, headed for completion this month, primarily involved changing the entrance of the building, updating building codes for accessibility and safety, including earthquake bracing and sprinkler systems, reorganizing the Hudson Museum’s collection from several dispersed galleries into one, and creating additional spaces for a variety of uses, such as film presentations, food service, business meetings and private events.

A second phase, which includes creating fly space to accommodate larger touring shows, additional technological upgrades and renovating the dressing rooms, is neither funded nor scheduled at this time. Members of the board and administrative staff are hopeful, however, that the future plans for the building will be realized.

“People are reluctant to give during these tough economic times,” said advisory board member Anne A. Collins, a native of Belfast. She and her husband, Richard R. Collins, both of whom graduated from the university, donated $5 million to the project last fall, and the building now bears their names. “I think the building repre-sents what the creative ingenuity of the Maine dollar can make happen, that we are alive and vital and will continue under any circumstances,” she added.

Richard Collins, originally from St. Agatha in Aroostook County, went on to become president and chief executive officer of American Life Insurance Co., a subsidiary of American International Group. He retired in 1992 after helping the company increase its annual revenue from $200 million to $2.4 billion.

Phase one of the project was funded by a combination of public and private money, and more than $1 million still is needed to complete this segment of the project. Patches said fundraising efforts are continuing even in the face of a hobbled economy. He and others are also assiduously focused on new forms of revenue the cen-ter might generate from additional programs, a cafe, rentable spaces and a 9,200-square-foot interactive museum that features a world-class pre-Colombian collection, as well as Maine Indian exhibitions.

Performing arts ticket prices, which account for about a third of the building’s income, are not expected to go up — except for the most expensive seats, which are slated to increase slightly, according to Adele Adkins, CCA associate director. The changes to the hall — 32 additional handicapped and companion seats, a platform for technical staff and two audience aisles on the floor level — required the removal of 195 seats. But Adkins and others pledged to try to keep prices affordable and programming exceptional, hoping that the center can play a more interactive role with its users. “To the public, whatever is here is us, and we want to embrace that and be much more of a community member,” Adkins said.

Evelyn Silver, senior adviser to UM President Robert Kennedy, said the arts center was a “high priority” for the university administration in part because of its potential to fortify bridges between the campus and the community and, like athletics, to be a gateway to a richer quality of life for students and residents.

“I hope we will have many more people take part in these performances, especially people from southern Maine, because the new building has the potential to offer a more exciting evening from start to finish.” said Silver.

Ludlow Hallman, a professor of music and campus figure since 1970, echoed Silver’s comments after taking an impromptu tour of the facility last week.

“It’s a nice commitment to the arts,” he said. “It’s very encouraging that in this economically depressed time, we haven’t forgotten about the arts. It’s wonderful that the university is honoring the arts in this new way.”

Hallman also looks forward to performing in the hall in April, when the Oratorio Society, which he directs, and the University Singers will join the BSO for Jules Massenet’s “Marie-Magdeleine.”

Although the hall has always been acoustically rich for un-miked performances such as the Massenet oratorio and orchestral concerts, an overhauled sound system carries the promise of improved sound quality for electronically driven shows such as musicals and rock concerts. “We’re a lot more compatible with what we do,” said CCA technical director Jeff Richards. “We basically caught up with today’s technology.”

John Patches called the renovation the beginning of a new era for the arts to play a leadership role by engaging students, developing collaborations with area arts organizations and expanding the arts offered on-site. For the CCA, that initially means a stronger relationship with the BSO, which will perform on Feb. 1, a film series that will kick off in the fall and smaller arts presentations — such as open mikes, poetry readings and jazz jams — in the cafe, which will be run by the university food services department.

Patches also said showcasing the museum’s collections with scholarly and educational potential will be important to establishing the center as a home for more than touring shows and university functions, about 100 of which take place annually in the hall. The museum will open in the fall when the center will also celebrate a second opening with a star-driven gala. (The CCA has not yet released next year’s season lineup.)

“The most exciting part for me is that we have the potential to realize an important goal to make the center a destination point,” said Patches. “Think of that glass pavilion opening as a hand opening to the people. It will be more welcoming. It will shed more light.”

Or, as Jennifer Meyers, a marine biology graduate student, said as she walked by the center last week: “Artsy stuff is always trying to bring in the modern.” She said she hopes to see the inside of the building soon and then offered her evaluation of the facade: “I’d say they hit the mark.”

Alicia Anstead was the chief arts reporter for the BDN from 1990 to 2007. She now teaches arts journalism at Harvard Extension School and edits Inside Arts magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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