Saturday, September 19, 2015

Opening of Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts redefines downtown St. Catharines

There were several adjectives and phrases used to describe the new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, which opened to the pubic at a gala event yesterday afternoon and evening:  cool,  amazing, transformative, and my personal favourite, mind equals blown.

Yes the new facility, not to be confused with the still-to-open FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre next door, is impressive any way you look at it or choose to describe it.  So in this space this weekend, my own personal thoughts and impressions after attending the opening yesterday and taking the afternoon tour.

Although I have heard the odd student worry about being disconnected physically from the rest of the Brock campus up on the hill, the new purpose designed arts facility gives them so much more than they ever had up there, as will become more apparent the longer the new facility is in full use as it now is.

Here are the numbers that tell the tale:  95,000 square feet of education space; 500 students learning from 50 full-time faculty members, part-time instructors and staff;  $26.1 million investment from the Ontario government along with countless corporate and private donations; a $45.5 million facility that came in on time and on budget.

To say this is a modern miracle might be overstating things a bit, but there is no doubt a lot of hard work, dedication and devotion went in to seeing this dream become a reality.  The speeches delivered at the opening yesterday cite all these attributes and more brought to the table by so many individuals and groups connected to the project.

The vision of former Dean of Humanities Rosemary Drage-Hale and her colleagues was taken up by then-new Brock President Jack Lightstone in 2008, who also believed the vision should and would be part of a larger picture, the revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.  Brock in downtown St. Catharines was not a new concept; after all, the first offices for the fledgling university were in fact located in central St. Catharines back in 1964 when the dream for a university in Niagara became a reality.

But becoming part of the fabric of downtown St. Catharines took more than vision.  Investors were needed, both public and private, and St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, named by Jack Lightstone yesterday as the "Minister of Brock", took up the cause at Queen's Park culminating in securing the $26.1 million in government funding needed to get the ball rolling.

When Marilyn and Norris Walker, both long known for their philanthropy in St. Catharines and Marilyn's love and pursuit of excellence in art, stepped up and made the astounding $15 million donation to help fund the new facility, Jack Lightstone said yesterday everyone connected with the vision knew they simply had to succeed in this.  Failure was simply not an option.

The acquiring of the former Canada Hair Cloth building, an icon of local manufacturing lore dating back to the late 1800s, proved to be the perfect option for bringing the new arts school into the downtown core.  Former Mayor Brian McMullan and the council of the day worked to make the building and surrounding land available to Brock in order to move the project forward.

From there the vision grew, with the decision to hire renowned Toronto firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, also the designers of the neighbouring FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, signalling the project would not fail.

And indeed, it did not fail.

Early on, it was decided the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts would be closely aligned both physically and artistically with the new Performing Arts Centre.  The arts school would be able to take advantage of the performance spaces available next door during the day when they would be vacant.  Being located beside each other, students could travel between the two venues as needed during classes with little effort.  This cooperation with the city-owned facility was necessary for both, saving each venue millions of dollars and needless duplication.

So touring the new arts school yesterday, you cannot help but be excited by what you see.  The blending of old and new, traditional and contemporary is evident throughout the facility.  The bright white walls, wood or concrete floors and tall windows all combine to bring yesterday and today together in perfect harmony.

It is evident nothing was left out in the pursuit of the perfect space for learning in the 21st century, with the departments of Dramatic Arts, Visual Arts, Music and the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture all finding their home here in downtown St. Catharines.  Each floor has ample space devoted to each department, a far cry from the cramped quarters endured up the hill for so many years.

I particularly enjoyed touring the lower level with the myriad of soundproof music studios and labs available for students to learn in, and the compact but well-designed DART theatre, used last evening for the cabaret show running through to 11 pm.

On the 4th floor you find ample space for the Visual Arts department, each room bright and airy with a blend of the old and the new.

The spacious and bright lobby, located on the south side of the building facing McGuire Street houses the latest creation by Marilyn I. Walker herself, a mammoth nine-foot tall handmade quilt.  The Tree of Learning incorporates uncommon fabrics and techniques from textile and fibre art to depict a dream about learning that floats between reality and fantasy.  It is spectacular, and holds pride of place along the main corridor.

There are events planned all weekend long to celebrate the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts coming downtown, and if you have not already done so you should take advantage of the opportunity while you can.  It is a vision fulfilled, and another part of the revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.

Seems Marilyn is a downtown gal after all...welcome home!

September 19th, 2015.

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