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John Waldron Arts Center offers civic lessons

May 1, 2011


There are several civic lessons in the story of the John Waldron Arts Center and its transformation finally into the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center. That name and ownership change happened last year — a move that everyone involved is convinced saved the center for the community.

The Waldron has a long history in Bloomington. Built in 1915, it had served first as City Hall and then as the police station until it was all but abandoned in 1985, with a city fire station tucked in at the back but the remainder virtually deserted.

Then the Bloomington Area Arts Council, looking for a permanent home, launched a community fund drive to renovate the old city hall and turn it into the organization’s new permanent home. The council, never flush with cash, nonetheless managed to raise enough money to fund the renovation, with the renamed John Waldron Arts Center opening its doors in the fall of 1992.

The building had all the quirks, aches and pains of most old buildings, and money had to be spent to nurse it along, money that became increasingly hard to come by for an organization that had also taken a lead role in the resurrection of the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a huge financial burden.

Finally, after years of struggle, fiscal problems overwhelmed the council in 2009, resulting in the loss of its partnership with the Indiana Arts Commission, a significant connection between the local arts community and the state and one that had long lent credibility and legitimacy to the council.

As the council faded, people cried out to save the building and its dual focus on the arts and on community. The city stepped back in, retaking possession for a sum that allowed the council to pay off its debts. Then, in a deal that clearly had been thought through in advance, quickly announced it would pass it on to Ivy Tech — an institution committed to Bloomington, wanting to grow and with an already strong education outreach program focusing on the arts.

As our stories Friday and today point out, the plan has worked very well all around. It has preserved the building as an arts center. It has raised Ivy Tech’s profile in Bloomington and has provided much needed space for its burgeoning programs. One lesson that is apparent is how cooperation among institutions with shared goals can really make things happen. Another is the vital need for the community to voice its concerns. Had no one said they cared, there might be just another nice condo building on that corner — not a necessarily bad use but not one that keeps the building a vital public center.

But the biggest lesson is the unfortunate lesson of the arts council. The best of intentions and the best heart can’t maintain a vision without solid financial footing. Ivy Tech provides that.

The arts council, much as it wanted to, couldn’t.

Copyright: HeraldTimesOnline.com 2011