FARMINGTON — It took more than a decade to plan and build the Emery Community Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maine-Farmington.
It took about a year for the center to transform the arts scene in western Maine.
The Emery, which opened in fall 2011, has become a magnet for cultural events in the region. It draws visual artists to its gallery space with its installation-friendly high ceiling and whitewashed walls. Musicians, writers and performers of all ilk come for its ultra-modern and forever-malleable performing arts space.
And seekers of peace and solitude are attracted by its lanky, light-splashed walkways that link the campus and community, inviting people in and encouraging them to sit and stay awhile.
“When we designed this space, we had to say ‘no’ to a lot,” said Jayne Decker, the arts center director. “This vision mattered. If we tried to be everything, we wouldn’t be anything.”
Instead, because of bold decisions made during the design process, the center stands as a unique building in all of Maine: A true space for all the arts, where theater, music and dance mix easily and naturally with the visual arts. The art gallery might host music, and the performance hall can double as exhibition space for large-scale installations.
The boundaries between the arts blur here, bringing a free flow of ideas not only to the final outcome, but to the creative process itself, said Steven Pane, a UMF music professor who participated in the design process for the building.
“It did exactly what we hoped. It has brought together a lot of people who night not normally work together because there would not be space that encouraged it,” he said.
In that sense, the building itself has become an incubator for the arts. It has the added bonus of having the look and feel of a modern building while being wedged among some of the oldest and most revered buildings on campus.
But the cherry on top, says university president Kathryn A. Foster, is that the Emery truly was built as much for the campus as the community as a whole. The university has always been a strong partner with the community, she said, but the Emery extends that relationship in formal, tangible ways.
“It is a community arts center that sits on our campus,” said Foster, who inherited the building when she arrived as president last summer.
BUILT ON A PARKING LOT
Foster calls the Emery a “courageous building” because of its design and mission. The university did the unthinkable in this day and age. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, it paved a parking lot to put up paradise.
The Emery site used to be a parking lot for campus and community events. The building is shoe-horned between the oldest building on campus — the historic Merrill Hall, built around the time of the Civil War — and Farmington’s public library. It’s named after community art boosters Ted Emery and his late wife, Marguerite, and funded with an anonymous $5 million gift.
Emery’s exterior shell is made mostly from natural wood siding, which will turn with the weather. It has a glass entryway and a large glass wall on the opposite side, creating a tunnel of light.
One exterior wall doesn’t exist at all. The Emery was built to incorporate the existing and long-beloved Alumni Theater. When one enters Emery, the brick exterior of Alumni is among the first architectural features that presents itself.
With white cedar walls on the interior doubling as exhibition surfaces, the building boasts a variety of visually alluring architectural elements, including wood, brick and glass. It is a perfect example of blending the old with the new, without disrupting the old or compromising the new, Decker said.
“We have the tradition of the existing building with the contemporary feel of the new,” she said.
The building has won accolades. In August, it received a National Merit Award for Excellence in Architecture for a New Building by the Society for College and University Planning. The building was designed by the Boston architectural firm designLab.
It has been widely used since it opened late in 2011.
The visual arts gallery, which is named Flex Space because of its many potential uses, has hosted exhibitions featuring the work of local, regional and statewide artists. Students from Mt. Blue High School have shown here, along with established artists such as Robert Shetterly, who showed portraits from his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series.
Farmington painter Mardy Bogar has shown there twice, and calls the center a haven for artists from across the region.
“There are many artists living and working in western Maine — some known and some not yet discovered — and the Emery center has provided a venue for such people,” Bogar said.
Flex Space is a 1,600-square foot, cube-like gallery with enormous walls. Many artists have taken advantage of the space and used the ceiling to suspend their work.
“We designed it for big installations, and it’s been nice to see that artists have responded,” Decker said, calling attention to a recently closed “Spirals” exhibition that featured community artists who created mixed-media installations that riffed on the spiral theme.
They filled not just the walls, floor and ceiling of the Flex Space, but much of the entire building.
“I don’t think there is a another place in the whole state of Maine where I could go and say, ‘I want to do this show,’ and they would be open to it,” said guest curator Mary McFarland, who pitched the idea to Decker more than a year ago. “It’s just such a great space, and it was such an opportunity for us — for the community — to have a space where we can actually do that, where we can do what we want.”
McFarland recruited artists to create work that made the best use of the space. The space itself dictated the shape and feel of the work that was created, she said.
“We designed our show for that space,” McFarland said. “We did it so the space would push our creative edge.”
Another community member who appreciates Emery is Mt. Blue art teacher Roger Bisaillon. Last spring, his students filled the building with their work in an exhibition titled “Celebrate Our Youth.” The opening was an affirming moment for the students and teacher alike, he said.
“It was nice that this place was put up, but even nicer that they invited us to participate,” he said. “The fact that they let a bunch of high school students participate in something like this is pretty cool. It made a big impression on the students. This was a chance for them to show their work in a professional gallery, and it forced them to rise to the occasion.”
Which they did. Many of them got dressed up, “made sure they spoke proper English,” and invited their friends and family. The opening represented a moment of pride in their lives and their careers as student-artists, Bisaillon said.
It also provided a tangible college experience. Many students do not go to college, or even think it’s possible. Having their work exhibited at Emery showed them that college is attainable.
“I think a lot of them left here thinking, ‘Maybe I can go to college. Maybe I do have what it takes,’ ” Bisaillon said.
Emery will repeat the show this spring, Decker said.
SUITABLE FOR ‘GATSBY’
Among the events that garnered the most attention in 2012 was a summer presentation of “Gatsby!”, a lawn-and-jazz party that also featured an introductory scene from Decker’s stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Emery staged the event in the Performance Space (the formal name of the black-box, 160-seat performance hall), and allowed it to spill out on to the back lawn for dancing, food and drink. The theater was built with vertical foldaway doors, giving it adaptability as an indoor-outdoor venue.
The Performance Space has hosted a myriad of musical and performance events, and serves as a complementary space to the Alumni Theater, which is a more traditional stage setting.
The Alumni remains active — Decker is directing “Keely and Du” there this weekend. The new space offers more adaptability, flexibility and modern sound and lights, which is something that assistant tech director Kelly Ellerbrook especially appreciates.
“I’m enjoying that everything’s brand new and everything works,” she said, fiddling with the sound board during a recent visit.
Alison Hagerstrom, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Corp., said Emery has become a talking point in town. She attended a social gathering recently, and someone asked, “Did you see the ‘Spiral’ display?”
That’s not something that likely would have come up in conversation previously, she said. But the Emery has succeeded in bringing more people from the community into the art center.
“The university has always been close with the community,” she said. “But the Emery rounds out the whole experience here. This strengthens the cultural opportunities for people here in Farmington and across the county.”
To illustrate that point, Decker told a story about an elderly gentleman from Avon who called several weeks ago when he learned that musician Sumner McKane was presenting his live performance piece “In the Blood,” which documents the story of Maine lumbermen in song, video, photography and oral history.
The man was a retired logger, and he wanted to see the show. He needed to know how to get tickets and how to get to campus.
Though he has lived regionally his entire life, he had never been to UMF.
“How do I find my way to campus?” he asked.
Decker simply smiled as she related the story. Turns out, the original date for “In the Blood” was postponed because of a snowstorm. Decker called the man back and told him it had been rescheduled for early March.
She arranged her schedule so she could be there when he arrived, to make sure he got his tickets and that his experience was a good one.
“To me,” she said, “that’s what this building is all about.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: