The miracle art center
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Not too many communities of less than 1,200 can boast a full-fledged art center, but Occidental pulled it off. On April Fool’s Day, the Occidental Center for the Arts will mark its third anniversary.
To celebrate, marching bands, clowns, the wild Lunapillar ride, stilt-walkers and a couple hundred wildly costumed people will march through town on April 1 and start partying at the center at 1 p.m. It’s a fitting tribute to a project that might have taken decades to complete.
Doris Murphy and Kit Neustader, both now deceased, set it all in motion in 1998, when they decided the town needed a performing arts center and formed a nonprofit to create it.
Developer Orrin Thiessen jumpstarted the process in 2003 by donating a building. He had just purchased the abandoned Harmony Elementary School with plans to develop the campus into a residential mixed-use community called Harmony Village.
He gave the fledgling OCA a large multi-purpose room and a former classroom space, and an architect and an acoustician were hired to develop a plan for turning the gymnasium/lunchroom into a world-class concert venue.
Harnessing the energy of volunteers and staging fundraisers in a variety of venues, boosters were able to complete the renovation in 2009.
The OCA now has a 200-seat auditorium with a green room as well as great acoustics, sound system and lighting. It also has an amphitheater for outdoor events and a well lit gallery that hosts at least six major shows a year. Efforts are underway to acquire classroom space.
It has produced at least 30 events a year while breaking even, rapidly turning the small town that used to be more famous for its Italian eateries into a West County art mecca.
The building also provides a permanent home for the Redwood Arts Council and Occidental Community Choir.
“It was done with over 10,000 hours of volunteer labor,” said Steve Fowler, a landscaper and current president of the center.
Fowler called on his old friend Patrick Fanning to help, and he became the project manager, mustering volunteers and organizing the daunting list of construction tasks.
“About 140 people worked on it at one time or another,” said Fanning. “The local restaurants and stores took turns supplying a lunch for the volunteers, our only perk. We worked hard and turned an acoustically horrible space into a great one.
“We will build the lobby next, so I invite everyone who wants to have some fun with their neighbors and get their hands dirty to join us on a Saturday.”
Fowler also called on his friend Andrea Van Dyke, an actress and former psychiatric technician.
“He asked me to take on the programs,” Van Dyke said. “I had been the costumer and head of concessions at Pegasus Theater. Last year I was responsible for 30 events.”
From Brazilian salsa dance and chamber music to puppet shows and bluegrass, the center has hosted an astounding variety of talent.
“This year we will add a film series and bring in more jazz events,” said Van Dyke.
Not content to rest on their considerable laurels, organizers have future plans and current needs. Thiessen went bankrupt when the economy turned south and a bank took over Harmony Village. Even so, he made sure OCA had the deed to its property before that happened.
“There are some complications,” laughed Fowler. “How many art centers do you know that belong to a homeowners’ association?”
In addition to future expansion plans that will enlarge the stage, develop the amphitheater and add a lobby, there is maintenance.
“Right now we are raising matching funds to pay $14,000 for a new roof,” said Fowler. “We also have an offer on the table for space that could serve as classrooms. We want to provide art education, especially for kids in the summer. We want to get kids back here.”
In 2000 OCA invested in a feasibility study that said an art center was feasible,” Fowler said. “It also said art centers would not be able to support themselves without a certain amount of donations.
“We are still figuring out what it takes to pay for the center. We have rentals, revenue from events, memberships, art sales.”
Ongoing challenges aside, many believe that Occidental pulled off a miracle. So on April Fool’s Day, organizers urge the county to come out, join the fun and say Happy Birthday.