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Stage is set for arts venue at new high school

Curtain-up may be a way off for a community arts center, but fundraisers' hopes are high that their long-held dream of a theater and gallery in South Washington County may yet come to pass.

Slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars has already been raised towards the South Washington County Center for the Arts, which supporters plan to build on to East Ridge, the new high school under construction in Woodbury.

That's in addition to a $1.6 million endowment which has been bestowed on the fundraising group, known as Arts Connection, for operating costs for the new venue, which is expected to serve Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park and Woodbury.

Finalized floor plans for the arts center, including its centerpiece black box theater, have just been revealed by the architect Rego + Youngquist, the company which has also masterminded the design of East Ridge.

"When you come in, there will be a visual art gallery," explained Michelle Witte, the fundraising chairperson for Arts Connection.

"There really isn't an art gallery in this community at all; there are galleries which sell art, but there really is not a non-profit art gallery...

"Then, at the center, is the black box theater. It's very much a multi-purpose space."

The center for the arts will sit alongside East Ridge's own arts area and main stage located within a 948-seat auditorium. The vision for the 150-seat black box theater, said Witte, is that it offers an alternative, smaller space, for more intimate performances of plays, so groups are not always forced to put on big blockbuster productions.

Another hope is that it will provide a venue for rehearsals for East Ridge students, freeing up the main stage area for actual performances as the school and arts venue work cooperatively to share the spaces available.

"My motivation is to bring this to the community," said Paula Davis, the president of Arts Connection.

"I enjoy arts, but I don't want to be on stage and you wouldn't want to see any of my drawings; I really think this is a contribution to the community.

"It's not only about the theater group and it's not only about the artists.

"For anybody on this side of town or even in Minneapolis who wants to come, we are going to have an awesome venue."

The center will also offer a "scene shop," where sets can be made and props and costumes stored; a "flex space," which will double as a kitchen and dance studio; and office, storage and coats areas.

The South Washington County Center for the Arts is planned to cover 10,000 square feet and, at a cost of $200 per square foot, bringing the total to $2 million.

Fundraisers say they're taking the "value-added solution" by building on to a structure which will already be in place, rather than constructing a stand-alone venue from scratch.

For Davis, who works for Medtronic when she's not volunteering her time at Arts Connection, it makes sense to build now.

"People have said this is a school project, but it's not -- it's a community project," she explained. "It just happens to be at the school and this is a very efficient way to bring this to the community.

"As a business person, I really liked that. This is a very wise business decision to work with the school...

"The time is now. What is going to be at the school is amazing; what we are going to be adding [through the arts center] is going to make it exceptional."

Land for the arts center has been donated by the school District 833, while the city of Woodbury has said it will offer ticketing support once the venue is up and running.

If you would like to donate to the center for the arts fund, visit the website for more information, or send a check, payable to Arts Connection, to 8301 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury, MN 55125.