Susan Mendenhall says one word keeps popping up when conversations turn to the cultural revitalization of Fort Wayne: swagger.
“Fort Wayne – we’re getting our swagger back,” says Mendenhall, Arts United director of resource development.
“People are proud to live in this community in a way that’s new, exciting and engaging,” she says. “That is going to be really important in attracting and retaining talent, businesses and investments.”
From the completion of ArtsLab to the beginning renovations for Embassy Theatre, Dan Ross, Arts United director of community development, says plans to revitalize the community are being activated.
“I lived in Fort Wayne for 30 years, and for me, the past five years have been the most exciting time to be here,” Ross says.
“I look around, and people are really proud to be from Fort Wayne.
“It’s not just, ‘Well, that’s pretty good for Fort Wayne.’ It’s just really pretty good,” he says. “I don’t care if you’re from New York City, I don’t care where you are.”
Here’s what to expect in 2014:
The ArtsLab dedication Jan. 17 will celebrate the $1.6 million addition to the Arts United Auer Center for Arts & Culture, 300 E. Main St.
The new black box theater encourages events such as theater productions, ballet and dance performances and art displays.
The area is equipped with 4-by-4 pipe grid overhead, allowing multiple configurations of lighting and sound equipment; a full-length curtain that wraps around three-quarters of the room; and a balcony lounge and seating.
The area also can be outfitted with portable risers for seating and staging.
Ross says that between the main area and balcony seating, the new facility will accommodate almost 200 people.
The dedication will include vignettes from Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, Fort Wayne Youtheatre and Fort Wayne Ballet to show the community and other arts organizations how the space can be used.
“We’ve been planning on it for three years and watching the construction for the past six months. So to actually see it come to fruition has been very exciting,” Ross says.
“Now the exciting part will be seeing what our partners can do in here,” he says.
Ross and Mendenhall expect the ArtsLab to be busy in its first year.
Mendenhall says the Youtheatre will present the African-American folktale “The People Could Fly” on Jan. 25 for downtown’s Winterval event, and the ArtsLab will also host performances for the Civic Theatre’s fifth annual Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival in May.
“Our goal is to help create the vibrant downtown community that we all want to be a part of,” Ross says.
“We would love to see this space create an opportunity for more vibrant activities in this community, and we believe that it will do that.”
Along with the ArtsLab construction, the Arts United board of directors hopes to finalize an administrative change.
The board has been searching for an executive director since longtime leader Jim Sparrow left that position in September.
Andrew Boxberger, board chairman, says the board has narrowed its search to five or six applicants and hopes to reach a decision by the end of January.
“It’s been tough with the holidays, but we are trying to schedule everything as quickly as we can,” he says.
Sparrow, who had worked within Arts United for 15 years, left to accept the position of president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in North Carolina.
Sparrow’s departure has opened an opportunity for local and out-of-state applicants in search of a budding community.
Boxberger says it would be preferable to retain someone from the area, but the decision will come down to who is more apt to execute the expectations for the position.
“We want someone who is going to be a leader in arts, but also in our community,” he says.
“We want someone who is going to support our partners and make an impact overall.”
Since IPFW invited the public to preview model sculptures last fall, Irene Walters, executive director of university relations and communications, says people are beginning to see the vision behind Sculpture with Purpose – to create artistic, yet functional, bike racks.
“There was a lot of ‘ahas’ that night. I think a lot of people were thinking more of a bike rack than art. They will be even more wowed when they are 20, 25 feet high,” she says.
“It’s going to really transform downtown. It will encourage people to ride bikes and walk from one sculpture to another.”
In celebration of IPFW’s 50th anniversary, the university selected 23 artists from seven states to create 50 sculptural bike racks that will be placed on campus, at corporate buildings and downtown.
Unlike the artistic mastodons IPFW sponsored for its 40th anniversary, all installations will be permanent pieces of public art.
“IPFW is a community partner. We take initiative to improve the quality of life with lectures, music and all the arts,” Walters says.
“This is just another way to give back in honor of our 50 years. We want to encourage fitness, and it also enhances the beauty of our environment.”
Walters says all participating artists have had their designs approved for safety precautions and should be working on their sculptures. Some of the artists have multiple sculptures to create by the spring.
The installed sculptures will be presented during a celebration May 17 that will include performances, walking tours and a treasure hunt.
IPFW has partnered with local school groups to create artistic bikes to attach to the sculptures. The bikes, which will match the theme of their respective sculptures, will show visitors how to use the bike racks.
Walters says the university hopes this project will be a catalyst that brings more public art projects into the community.
“I want people to have appreciation of art, I want them to experience being up close and personal to it and seeing how it enhances the environment,” she says.
Last June, the Goldstine Foundation gave the Embassy Theatre’s board of directors a $2 million grant to help with a $10 million renovation planned for the theater and the adjoining Indiana Hotel.
The grant brought the fundraising total at the time to $3.7 million, the halfway mark to the $6 million goal the board expected to bring in by December.
In the past six months, the theater surpassed the goal by nearly a million dollars, according to Executive Director Kelly Updike.
The Fort Wayne City Council voted in December to give the theater $750,000 from its Legacy Fund to put toward renovations. With that, Updike says, the theater closed the year with nearly $7 million to begin construction this summer or early fall.
“We’re real excited. It was very much a key benchmark for us,” she says.
“We are continuing with fundraising; we still have a strong list of potential donors that we are talking to.”
Updike says the theater and hotel have reached their capacities in terms of space, which means the venue has had to limit its operations.
The renovations will create public space by converting the top two floors of the seven-floor building into a two-story ballroom with balconies and a grand staircase.
The fourth floor will become administrative offices, and the second floor will become an open lounge area for the public.
The fifth floor will become a rehearsal studio and classrooms. Additional dressing rooms for the backstage area are also included in the plans.
The board has directed Updike to select an architect and contractor from the pool of proposals pulled together by the board’s renovation task force.
The board is expected to give final approval by February.
Updike estimates the renovations will take a little more than a year and says construction should not interfere with programming.
“We operate on self-sustaining profit. We can’t close, we can’t drop back in our scheduling,” she says.
“We’ve been able to have some experience with the third-floor corridor construction, so we know how to schedule with contractors and work around construction. We think we can do it, and the architect and contractor will have to understand that our schedule comes first.”
Updike says the process overall is going much faster than anticipated, and she credits the surge of energy to revitalize downtown for the theater’s success in accomplishing its goals so far.
“For us, we knew that this was a window of opportunity. The upper floors have been empty for 40 years, and board members since the early ’70s have looked for a way to provide activities in these areas and just never found a good idea,” she says.
“From our feedback, we know that this is a great plan, and the timing has been great.”
The Fort Wayne Cultural District, a collaboration among the city of Fort Wayne, Arts United, Visit Fort Wayne and the Downtown Improvement District, is an arts-centric, eclectic neighborhood in the works.
Taking into account public opinion received at focus groups last year, the organizations have drafted a plan, which includes initiatives for a public market, a creative business incubator, a culinary incubator, public art and creative storefront development.
It also lists connectivity, activity and telling stories of residents.
Arts United’s Ross says that this year, the next steps include finalizing the initiatives and putting words into action.
“Too often, you used to hear people say that there’s nothing to do in Fort Wayne. My feelings were always, ‘Are you kidding me, I can’t possibly get to everything that I would like to see and do,’ ” he says.
“Part of what we want to do, part of telling our story, is just getting the word out, so people will be aware of them and come experience them.”
Ross says several organizations have already taken the initiative, noting IPFW’s Sculpture with Purpose partnership with Arts United.
Artlink is partnering with a national program – called CO.STARTERS – to host business seminars this spring to foster more creative businesses in the city.
Ross says the collaborating organizations hold a quarterly summit to encourage arts and cultural organizations and people to work together and help build the foundation for the cultural district.
“Our role is trying to facilitate those activities and look at how we can generate public and private support for them,” Ross says.