“For every $1.00 Michigan invests in arts and culture, $51 is pumped back into the state’s economy.” Governor Snyder responded by increasing his state’s arts support substantially.
In 2011, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback dismantled the Kansas Arts Commission, calling the arts a luxury Kansas couldn’t afford and suggesting arts funding come through private dollars. A year later, he reversed course and funding was restored.
Louisville’s Fund for the Arts states on its website that the arts add “$259 million in economic activity” to the economy.
“We hear a lot about how the arts are economic development,” says Ted Smith, chief of economic growth and innovation at Louisville Metro Government and an early supporter of Old Louisville’s Vault1031 and Armored Car Theatre.
“Vault1031 is one of the clearest examples of that,” he says. “It is a means of bringing people to a neighborhood and with a new energy.”
Sometimes if the need is great, they don’t even wait for you to build it. They just come.
“We had no idea,” says Jon Huffman, Co-Artistic Director of Vault 1031 and Armored Car Theatre.
“We knew the town needed another venue for the arts,” says Huffman. “We knew the city needed that. But we had no idea people would want to use the space we have for our theatre until we had it completed. But we have theatre companies, opera companies, operetta companies—all booked in this space into 2014.”
The space is actually the former home of The Armored Car Company warehouse and many of those charms still remain. The vaults are still intact, one being converted into a kind of speakeasy lounge, and Huffman, co-Artistic Director Barbara F. Cullen and I are chatting in an open meeting area that once housed the armored cars.
“This is where the banks kept their money on the way to and from the Federal Reserve,” says Huffman. “We’re repurposing one of the most unique buildings in town. From the outside it screams, ‘There’s nothing here…drive on…’ But people are always shocked when they come in and see how big it really is.
While the theatre is unfinished, the rehearsal space is already complete and ready to go. A successful Kickstarter campaign funded a new floor, ideal for dance and theatrical rehearsal.
“So much of it came from the arts community,” says Cullen. “We know how difficult it is for theatre people to make money. We’re all independent contractors. There are people who work all day and turn around and rehearse all night. And they trusted us. Once that happened, we said, ‘Okay. No matter what, we have to make this happen. We have to have this.’ And we can’t let our friends down. We have to make it work. ”
Ted Smith walks his talk. That Kickstarter campaign we mentioned earlier? As the deadline neared, he chose a day and offered to match whatever donations came in out of his own pocket. And he advised Cullen and Huffman on their business plan, which is extensive.
“He’s amazing,” Cullen says of Smith. “He’s been a great supporter and really helped us get that business plan to where he felt comfortable passing it out to people. He went over it with a fine-toothed comb.”
Huffman continues, “The city and Ted have been great champions for us. They’ve helped us design a façade that we now need to raise money to create. Our councilman David James has promised us extra lighting and sidewalks on our street. They’ve helped in whatever ways they can.”
Huffman knows that the theater is located in an area that the city has high aspirations for– that space between downtown and Old Louisville.
“We want to be that stimulus for business growth between Oak and Broadway that the city has been searching for over the last 20 years,” he says. “It’s something that will work down here. We have some theatre friends in Dexter, Michigan—they opened up a theatre in a little warehouse and revived a town suffering through the death of the auto industry. They opened a theatre, and it turned that town around. That’s what we’d like to do for this neighborhood, for this part of the city.”
And he anticipates great things for the neighborhood.
“Just in the first year we get the theater done, we estimate we’ll bring 50,000 people into the neighborhood,” Huffman says. “50,000 separate audience members, which not only will be a great way of advertising the neighborhood, but also give someone the idea that, “Oh here’s a great place for a restaurant. Here’s a great place for this. Maybe I’ll buy that house.’”
Some of that traffic is already happening. A dozen or so theatre companies are already using the theater or rehearsal space, including Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, of which I am a member. I can tell you that the space has changed dramatically the efficiency in which we work and what we are able to try in rehearsal.
Groups like Generation iSpeak, a creative program for youth in the area, used the rehearsal and theatre space to prepare for and hold a poetry slam.
Vault1031 hosts a New Play Slam, held the last Monday of every month, offering a chance for playwrights and actors to get together and test out new work.
The Kentucky Opera is eyeing the space for some of its smaller productions.
This is even more incentive for the two to keep building.
“It’s time to redouble our efforts in terms of fundraising. We’re sitting down with our board and figuring out how, in the first part of 2014, we can begin the push to raise a million dollars to turn this place into a state of the art performance area, in which we can have a rehearsal or a class or something going on and a performance going on at the same time.”
That fundraising push will kickoff on February 1, with an invitation-only, black tie affair hosted at the Vault. They’re going to sell gold bars. Donors get their names on the gold bar and it’s tucked away in the VIP Vault. That gets you access to the VIP room and special events.
“Like the airport concierge room,” says Cullen.
Vault1031’s mission is to create and provide a safe, affordable, user-friendly and eco-friendly space where performing and visual artists can practice, produce and present their work.
And if they do half of what they have planned, it could be game-changer for the arts community and the community at large.
The building has an acre of roof they plan to convert to make the building more green.
That roof also features the second-tallest radio tower in the city—the armored car people needed it to communicate back in the day—perfect for radio drama and neighborhood-specific talk radio.
Cullen wants to institute a program called Dessert Theatre, in which 15 or so at-risk youth from around Louisville get performance training, then use that training to perform for other under-served populations.
Education and community development is clearly a big component of what excites them. But they also want to help fill another void: ongoing adult training.
Cullen: “No one in town is really doing that”
“And we’re thinking both professional and amateur training,” she says. “For people who always wanted to do it and never had the chance, we’ll have beginner classes for them. And professionals can continue their training here as well. We want to bring people in, like Stephen West from University of Michigan who sang with the Met… To be able to bring in that kind of instruction—wow.”
Speaking of those classes, Amy Attaway, co-artistic director of Theatre 502 and formerly of Actors Theatre of Louisville, is holding an audition class in the rehearsal space while the three of us are talking.
“In bigger cities, where actors go to live and stay, those actors are constantly in class,” says Attaway. “There’s never a time when those actors are done with their training. And so with our larger vision for Louisville to become a viable city for theatre artists to stay and make a living, we not only need companies who can pay actors, but we also need more training.”
Cullen agrees. “Whenever I go to New York or LA, the first thing I do is hit the classes. And you can get a great class no matter what it is, any time of day.”
“That doesn’t really exist yet in Louisville and if we’re going to make that step, it needs to. What’s great about Jon and Barb is that they are such amazing performers themselves and such great people. They know how to make this work.”
Both Jon and Barbara are the rare artist who has managed to make a living doing just that, rarer still in Louisville. Jon is an actor, director playwright, and screenwriter; Barbara is an actor, singer, dancer, director, choreographer, and recording artist.Now they’d like to create a hub where other artists can do the same, not unlike the myriad of startup communities springing up in the tech sector.
Wait until they’re finished building it.