ArtsCenter executive director Jenny Schultz-Thomas is ebullient as she ticks off a number of upgrades on a walk-through of the company’s new digs prior to its grand opening this weekend. The $4 million, 17,000-square-foot home, one block off the intersection of Main and Weaver Streets in downtown Carrboro, has accommodations for previously cramped ceramics classes, in rooms whose floor-to-ceiling windows bring in the green of neighboring forest space. 

Digital lab and maker spaces are adjacent to a youth center, with arts instruction now for middle and high school students as well as the younger grades the ArtsCenter has traditionally served. A group of gallery spaces, alongside a casual courtyard merch and coffee shop, will let neighbors pop in for a drink and check out the wares of the artists working here. 

But one of the things Schultz-Thomas is proudest of is the natural light that the center’s painting and visual art courses will have for the first time in decades.

“It’s a gift to those artists who’ve been painting in the dark up to now,” Schultz-Thomas says. 

As she reflects on a dedicated room where teachers and students won’t have to dismantle easels and workstations after each session, she says, “I want to tell them, you finally have the space that matches your abilities and your beauty.”

On August 26, Paperhand Puppet Intervention led a celebratory noontime parade up the two blocks from its present quarters to a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an afternoon of music, exhibitions, and demonstrations at the new facility at 400 Roberson Street. 

The new ArtsCenter location pictured on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Carrboro. Photo by Angelica Edwards.

But when Schulz-Thomas turned in the keys to the old place, the organization left something important behind: a hand-me-down theater space. 

It’s exactly what a neighboring theater company needs at this point in its growth.

Center Theater Company, an emerging and rapidly expanding children’s theater company, has already outgrown a series of venues since its humble start as a neighborhood summer project in 2020. With theaters shut down everywhere during the pandemic’s early months, Jenny Latimer, a professional actor and director who graduated from UNC’s Professional Actors Training Program in 2019, put together an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the kids in her pandemic pod. 

Soon, their friends wanted in. “People just kept calling, asking, ‘What’s the next thing you’re doing?’” Latimer recalls. 

Things got serious when 25 children showed up for the next outdoor production, Disney’s Descendants. After that, Latimer and colleagues found themselves staging a series of spring, fall, and summer shows out of classes for children ages six and up. When they outgrew a clubhouse at Southern Village, Latimer rented a storefront in an office complex on Garrett Road in Durham. In January, when she learned that the ArtsCenter’s old space, with its 300-seat Earl Wynn Theater, would be opening up, she jumped at the chance to lease it.

“Keeping that space alive is really important to me,” Latimer says. Local concert- and theatergoers are familiar with the eccentricities of the Wynn space. Its two audience banks lie far left and right of center stage; in their midst is an open-air tech booth and a pit-like center section that college-based companies who’ve produced there call “the moat.” 

“I actually love it,” Latimer says. “It’s so quirky. It always asks, ‘Hey, what are we going to do with this to make it work?’”

Starting in September, Center Theater will begin holding classes and staging family-friendly productions in the space. They’ll also continue hosting prominent itinerant regional companies. A full fall calendar includes Stone Soup’s Cabaret and Pauper Players’ Little Women in October, the North Carolina premiere in November of Alice by Heart by Company Carolina, and Center Theater’s own December production of A Christmas Carol starring Derrick Ivey.

Meanwhile, after a period of introspection, the ArtsCenter will be busy refocusing, refining, and expanding its longtime core mission. “We are community-based, focused mostly on education,” Schultz-Thomas says, and the numbers bear this out.

With over 260 camps and classes for children and 294 adult-oriented arts courses, the ArtsCenter is the largest employer of teaching artists of any arts nonprofit in Orange County. “We serve as an economic force for change and transformation,” Schultz-Thomas says, “and our number one goal is that arts are accessible to everyone.”

Visitors sit in a theater during the grand opening of the new ArtsCenter location on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. Photo by Angelica Edwards.

To help achieve that, the organization is emphasizing openness and community engagement. The new space’s opening exhibition by Dali Fellowship artists from the Diamante Arts and Cultural Center will foreground professional Latinx artists; later on, the organization will co-host this year’s West End Poetry Festival, sponsoring a children’s poetry workshop with state poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green.

Across its increasing public offerings, there’s a clear impulse to define the ArtsCenter as an open space for approaching and accessing art forms, techniques, and technologies—while reducing the social, educational, and economic impediments that often prevent that. “It’s all about access,” says community engagement director Heather Tatreau.

But to do that, the organization is shifting emphasis a bit away from the concerts and shows of its past.

 “They’ll still be a stalwart part of our identity, but it’s not going to be the name of the game anymore,” Schultz-Thomas says. A flexible, 150-seat theater, suitable for intimate dance, music, and staged readings, will serve as “an incubator space,” Tatreau says, for works in progress from independent artists to creators associated with arts programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and the American Dance Festival. 

“The diversity of our performances will diversify the performance base—what we’re presenting and who can present,” Schultz-Thomas says.  The sum of the current initiatives is “really just going back to our roots,” she adds “entrepreneurship, on a stage or in a lab.” 

Arts administrator Devra Thomas notes that the ArtsCenter has always been “a maker space of some kind, going back to its beginnings at Carr Mill Mall. That’s always been its ethos the entire time, but how close they’ve been to that has varied over the years.” The current center’s change in focus “feels like bringing that back to the forefront; engaging the broader community in conversation about how we make it more of a ‘DIY’ for everyone in the community.”

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