Building an art center that works

Building an art center that works

Not an arts center—an art center. We need both in our community.

An economically viable visual art center that fulfills the need for exhibition space, studios, and classrooms has been a topic of conversation in Vancouver for decades. Past attempts and plans often patched a visual art component on to a performing arts facility. This can diminish both purposes, and it is ultimately unrealistic to expect that one use should financially support the other. In Vancouver’s experience, the costs and limitations of repurposing older buildings have been a significant challenge in these efforts.

A ton of community assets, meetings, and presentations have taken place over the last decade, and we seem no closer to a professional exhibition space, a place to take classes, and a workspace for disciplines that require the specialized tools of a well-appointed art center. Yet we know that an art center can be a valuable addition to the community as well as an important public amenity that attracts employees and new residents to Vancouver.

What’s gone wrong?
Consider the demise of Vancouver’s Columbia Arts Center and later the failed idea of an arts transformation for the Post Hospital on the West Barracks of the Fort Vancouver National Trust property.

New Heights West Church at West Evergreen and Daniels, site of the former Columbia Arts Center

New Heights West Church at West Evergreen and Daniels, site of the former Columbia Arts Center. Photo: Cam Suttles

Columbia Arts Center, operated by the now defunct nonprofit Arts Council of Clark County, was housed in the city-owned old brick church at 400 West Evergreen in downtown Vancouver. For over 20 years, through the ’80s and ’90s, the center provided a venue for local community musical and theatrical performances, classes, and visual art exhibits. But despite City subsidies and fundraising efforts to save Columbia Arts Center, it abruptly closed in 1999, and the City sold the building to the animation software company, Hash, Inc.

In 2000, Columbia Arts Center found a second life, as the new owners needed only a small portion of the building for their business. They kept the Columbia Arts Center name as part of the sale agreement with the City and directly managed the arts center for another seven years until New Heights Church ultimately bought the building, returning it to a church. While there are many stories around Columbia Arts Center’s troubled history, especially its first incarnation, one thing everyone agreed on is that the arts center needed considerable financial support for both renovation and maintenance in order for the building to operate as an art and performing arts center.

Post Hospital in the West Barracks of the Fort Vancouver National Trust property

Post Hospital in the West Barracks of the Fort Vancouver National Trust property. Photo: Cam Suttles

The next big push for an art center was in 2012 when the Post Hospital was envisioned for that purpose. Public tours, presentations, and a day-long design symposium were held. Money was raised and donated for initial engineering and design. Arts of Clark County participated in these planning efforts. We held the first Clark County Arts and Culture Summit in March of that year. It included a tour and breakout sessions discussing opportunities the Post Hospital offered.

But there were challenges with a very old building in need of major restructuring, and there were limitations on how it could be reconfigured due to its historic status. Most economically sustainable art centers that we’ve seen work either because they involve new construction designed for the intended use or substantial upfront investment in renovation and/or subsidies for the kind of maintenance that old buildings require.

The Schack
In 2013, a few of us with Arts of Clark County went to Everett to participate in our Creative Vitality Index grant recipient workshop held by the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) and the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). We were amazed to discover the Schack Art Center, a new 25,000 square foot “state-of-the-art” art center. It has a wonderful exhibition gallery, a small but lucrative gift shop, studios, classrooms, and an impressive glass hot shop. On the upper floors are 45 affordable live/work lofts for artists.

Wow! What a perfect solution to a community’s need for an art center.

The Schack was one of the first projects Artspace, the leading developer of arts facilities in the US, undertook that included an art center with live/work artist studios. The City of Everett and the Arts Council of Snohomish County along with the expertise of Artspace capitalized on each party’s needs and assets to create a building that is now tremendously successful primarily because of this strategic partnership. The art center occupies the first two floors with ground floor access to the sidewalk and city life. Above that are the one- and two-bedroom affordable live/work artist lofts managed by Artspace. The concentration of artists with the facilities to make art has been key to making this art center thrive.

It is important that our art community look to models that work. The Schack works in Everett because the arts community was brought on board early to plan the space. Artists were asked what sort of facilities and spaces they need to learn a new craft or to further their practice. The broader community was asked what kind of spaces they would visit, take a class at and, most important, support. The Schack’s Executive Director Judy Tuohy knew that being community focused and open seven days a week with unique programming would lead to the kind of economic sustainability every arts center needs and envies.

It is not uncommon for an art center to be added on to a performing arts center as a shop, a gallery, or a few studios. A gallery and a performing arts center can work in partnership. The Rose Center in Longview and Artists Repertory Theater in Portland are good examples. But to create a center that can pay for itself, that responds to the needs of our community, and offers the kind of flexibility that a new facility can offer, we need to think like Everett did — build a new building for that purpose and add the affordable live/work space our community needs and can support.

—Karen Madsen


  1. John and Joan Turley May 31, 2017 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    Great article hy Karen Madsen. The Schack sounds a great deal like an art center in Burlingame, CA that we visited a few years ago. Our local artists as well as our community would benefit by such a center.

    • Linda Kliewer June 1, 2017 at 5:08 pm - Reply

      I grew up in Burlingame. I was wondering where this arts center is located? There used to be a community center on Burlingame Ave in a park next to the high school. Was this repurposed or is some where else?

  2. Lynne Bowden June 1, 2017 at 2:22 am - Reply

    Informative article, Karen. Thank you for the history behind the arts here in Vancouver.
    The Schack, sounds like a wonderful model and similar to one that is being built in New York.
    As an artist, I would love to see all forms of art, become the heartbeat of our city.
    We have a ground floor opportunity to do it right and I hope the momentum continues.

  3. Eileen Robblee August 5, 2017 at 6:08 am - Reply

    I was on the board of directors for an art center in Mendocino, Ca.. It sounds like it was very similar to the Schack center. The buildings and property had been donated to the community by the former founder who owned the property. It has become very successful through the years. They also have an artist in residence program with apartments for the artists to live in. I would be glad to share info with you on how they finance the center.

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