Building a Masterpiece
Arts for Lawrence Executive Director Talks Five Phases of the $5.8M Cultural Campus Coming to Lawrence
Photographer: Brian Brosmer
A concept more than 10 years in the making is quickly becoming a reality for the City of Lawrence.
In December, it was officially announced that the city had received a $5,851,969 grant as part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Strengthening Indianapolis Through Arts and Cultural Innovation initiative. Lawrence was one of just 18 organizations to receive the competitive grant.
For the grant, the City of Lawrence proposed a Fort Harrison Cultural Campus concept to bolster the arts scene in the city and offer a unique downtown destination spot. The grant is a dream come true for Arts for Lawrence Executive Director Judy Byron, who created the proposal and delivered the pitch to Lilly Endowment.
“We’d been thinking about this idea for more than 10 years now,” Byron says. “We gathered a planning committee to help tell the story of what we would like this arts area to look like. I’ve been on a soapbox for years talking about the arts as an economic development tool, and that is exactly what this will be. We’ve seen it in other places all around Indianapolis. Not only does it develop a place where people want to go see a show or get involved with an art class, but then restaurants start popping up around that and, the next thing you know, you have a really vibrant downtown. That is what this is going to do for the City of Lawrence’s new downtown.”
So, what all does the Cultural Campus entail and what will it look like? The plan is broken down into five phases, according to Byron, and the recent Lilly Endowment grant will fund all five phases.
Currently, Arts for Lawrence and the City of Lawrence is in the beginnings of its planning and public input stage as they develop a master plan for the Cultural Campus at Fort Harrison. There will be community engagement and public input opportunities come spring. There will also be upcoming information sessions held for the public at the Theater at the Fort and the Sterrett Center so the master plan can reflect the interests of the Lawrence community.
Phase 1 of the Cultural Campus plan involves Theater at the Fort and Sterrett Center improvements, accounting for roughly $440,636 of the grant. The historic Theater at the Fort has long needed upgrades to the facility and will see cosmetic updates and repairs to the interior and exterior through Phase 1. During Phase 1, a niche will also be installed in the front lobby wall of the theater with new art installation of fused glass. The fused glass artwork will be an interactive community project.
Phase 2 is the Theater Addition to the rear of the theater, a projected $1,031,847 of the grant. This, Byron says, will facilitate ADA access to rehearsal and classroom spaces above the backstage dressing rooms. The addition will also provide public restrooms for those utilizing the Cultural Plaza (Phase 4 of the project). This will also alleviate the need for port-o-potties during outdoor events. An exciting feature of the addition will be a customized BEAM game by EyeClick in the lobby. BEAM is a virtual playground that uses a projection system to transform floors, walls and more into fun, interactive displays.
“The renovation to the theater will include a lot of paint and flooring,” Byron adds. “We are also missing a ceiling in our front lobby, and we have doors that don’t close properly. It is a really old building that has a lot of little things we would like fixed. There will be a new stage floor and tech improvements as well. A big part of this Phase 1 renovation is the addition of movie theater capabilities for us, too. We hope to be offering free movies for the community later this year. That will be a great way for us to offer free programming while the construction is going on. Even with the stage closed during that construction, we could still show free movies.
“The Sterrett Center will get technical improvements so it can host arts programming as well. It will have stage lighting, a sound system and more upgrades to be able to have high-level programming in there.”
Phase 3 of the project involves the creation of a Visual Arts Center, about $777,107 of the grant. According to Byron, the old Communications building has been donated by the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority and will be relocated onto the Cultural Campus and repurposed into the Visual Arts Center. In the past, Arts for Lawrence has used movable gallery walls on the theater stage for art exhibits. This has limited art exhibitions at the Theater at the Fort to a week or even just a day or two because the exhibits need to be moved when it is showtime on the stage.
The new Visual Arts Center will provide a permanent gallery space for the community that will showcase local artists’ works. The center will also offer art classes and workshops for the public.
“We did a lot of research before sending our proposal to Lilly and found that moving that historic communications building and renovating it is actually less expensive than building something new from scratch,” Byron says. “We have desperately needed gallery space for a while now. Our resident artist, Gary Schmitt, will be our first curated artist in the new building. It is a win-win for everybody.”
Phase 4 is the creation of the Cultural Plaza — the biggest part of the Cultural Campus project. About $2.8M of the Lilly Endowment grant has been allocated for Phase 4 of the project, which Byron calls the “glue” of the Cultural Campus.
The Cultural Plaza is still in the early concept stages. Byron says that Arts for Lawrence has proposed a small amphitheater as part of the plaza, though. The amphitheater would be used for Arts for Lawrence’s Fridays at the Fort outdoor concert series and the festivals held in Lawrence throughout the year. Ideally, Byron adds, hardscape for seating areas and a lawn for audiences would be added as well.
Daily Tous Les Jours, an art and design studio, will also be designing an all-age playground for the Cultural Plaza. More details will come in the future on the playground, but it will be open to the public and offer many interactive activities.
Wrapping up the Cultural Campus project, Phase 5 will involve incorporating placemaking artwork on the campus — about $465,751 of the grant. The placemaking artwork on the Cultural Campus will include hand-carved limestone benches, virtual historical information markers through an augmented reality app, a repurposed historic bus stop as an information kiosk, sculptural bicycle racks and much more. The augmented reality app is being developed by the Schneider Corporation and will tell the history of Fort Harrison in an interactive way for the community.
Lawrence Mayor Steve Collier is among those excited for the Cultural Campus. Mayor Collier backed Byron early on with the proposal and knew it would be a boon for the City of Lawrence.
“The vision for creating a cultural campus in the city has been there for a while,” Collier says. “We would always brainstorm ideas of what we could do but nothing to the extent of what Judy has with this Cultural Campus. For Lilly Endowment to recognize the City of Lawrence with this grant is a game-changer. To see Judy’s efforts be rewarded in this way is very gratifying for me and I’m sure for her, too. I’m excited. We’ve seen as much positive feedback from this announcement as anything we’ve done. This certainly puts us in a position to take our place as one of the up-and-coming cities in Central Indiana.”
“This Cultural Campus will be a place where everyone can feel welcome and can come for camaraderie, to celebrate, to be entertained and have a good time,” Byron adds. “It will also bring visitors into our city and boost our economy. What excites me the most is public art that engages the community, and we will have a lot of that in this project. I would tell the community too, that even though it sounds like we have this all set in stone, we still want to hear from you. This is for you.”