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The Arts Campus at Willits takes shape

Arts campus eyes outdoor summer events, September grand opening

The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) plans to welcome outdoor concert audiences by early July, though due to the novel coronavirus pandemic its leaders don’t expect to stage indoor events in its new midvalley venue until September.

The nonprofit broke ground on the campus’s first building, the Contemporary Center for the Performing Arts, in June 2020, with a hopeful eye on the future as the live events were shuttered nationwide due to the pandemic.

This summer, they’re planning to host “Wednesday Night Live” concerts — which TACAW produced last summer — featuring buskers at Willits as well as downtown Basalt. Director of programming Kendall Smith said they also plan to host Saturday night concerts in a small outdoor amphitheater on the campus if public health restrictions allow.



The pandemic and Colorado’s COVID Dial will dictate much of the Contemporary’s first year of programming, Smith expects.

“We’re not sure when we’re going to be fully confident to go inside, especially at full capacity,” Smith said Thursday on a tour of the site, dodging wet concrete floors, ladders and the construction crew as the project speeds toward a June completion fuled by a $5.8 million fundraising campaign. “We’re going to start trying to do some programming out on the listening lawn.”



The Saturday night concerts are likely to require reservations or tickets, depending on COVID restriction levels come summer, and will be staged on a sunken lawn where the TACAW team is placing its old 16-by-18-foot steel stage previously installed at The Temporary. With aspen trees and hedges scheduled to go in surrounding the lawn, it will create a small amphitheater. The lawn is the future site for the campus’s second building, planned to house a 400-seat theater with permanent seating and infrastructure for full theatrical productions.

They have penciled in June 23 as the start of “Wednesday Night Live,” July 3 as the first Saturday night lawn concert and Sept. 24 and 25 as the grand opening for indoor events.

“It’s like standing on a pile of sand,” Smith said of the booking and planning process. “Optimism goes way up, then it can go down. If we end up suddenly getting an announcement that it is safe to go inside sooner, we will. … We just keep planning and then throwing the plans away and coming up with new plans and throwing the plans away. But that’s the game that everybody’s in.”

Nationally and regionally, the events business is eyeing a September return.

“That is looking really positive, in terms of our ability to open it, hopefully at full capacity or near capacity for that September weekend,” Smith said.

Smith started his tenure at TACAW in early January and has begun crafting a lineup of culture and entertainment for the venue in earnest. He came from Denver, where he had most recently produced events for Colorado Public Radio.

Among the reasons he wanted the TACAW job, Smith said, was the opportunity to be a part of something new, starting new traditions for the midvalley.

He’s been barnstorming the valley on Zoom, meeting people in the culture sector and everyone he can in the Basalt area, while also hosting walk-throughs of the construction site.

“I’m just trying to learn as much about the community as I can without the benefit of being able to go to other people’s events,” Smith said.

Smith, executive director Ryan Honey and the nonprofit’s board have made a “wheel” diagram to encompass the diverse mix of concerts and cultural happenings the Contemporary will host. The diagram identifies the core elements as film, culinary arts, performance, special events, education and music with 24 subcategories (from food festivals and Spanish-language programming to climate change events, weddings, theater and dance).

Smith has been crunching audience data from TACAW’s events at its pop-up, The Temporary, which ran in Willits from 2017 to 2019 and served as a laboratory taste-testing midvalley audiences. Based on that, Smith said, they can be pretty certain that concerts from regional acts, stand-up comedy and events for the Latin community will be popular at the new venue.

The rough percentages they’ve decided on for public-facing events is about 55% entertainment (music, comedy, film) with the rest split between issues-based programs (lectures, book talks) and Spanish-language events (building off the extraordinarily popular salsa nights at The Temporary).

Once it is going full-speed, TACAW is expected to host public-facing events an average of five nights per week with a staff of 11 (up from the current bare-bones team of three).

“You want to provide the familiar, but you also want to surprise people,” Smith said, “and we want to lead people a little bit as well, and expose folks to stuff that maybe they wouldn’t ordinarily see.”

In Denver, Smith for seven years was event director at the annual Underground Music Showcase and, later through his role at CPR, produced the Englewood Block Party. Both events have been praised for bringing new energy and economic vitality to their neighborhoods, much as Basalt leaders are hoping TACAW will for the rapidly expanding Willits.

In the mold of those events, Smith is eyeing festival ideas that could take over the streets surrounding TACAW.

Smith said he’s also exploring the concept of booking regional or national artists for net-zero emissions tours, that might take bands using electric vehicles to play at energy-efficient venues like The Contemporary.

Inside, The Contemporary’s large can convert for seated or standing audiences up to 400 people, and a lobby that can host smaller intimate events, an adaptable venue designed around the diverse programming expected to fill it with people.

“We do everything, so we want to be able to have the space reflect whatever it is that we’re doing that night,” said Honey.

The Contemporary also includes a small community room that will host events for nonprofit and education partners – a dedicated space for events like music and theater classes, film and poetry workshops.

“With this dedicated community room, we’re able to ensure that we have a space for educational activities on an ongoing basis,” Honey said. “Our hope is that this room is active all the time, building the next generation of artists and audiences.”

A chainmail sheath, designed by artist and TACAW board member Richard Carter, will cover the theater walls and will be uplit with LED lights to produce a sparkling effect. Aspen-based Alchemy Concert Systems is producing the lighting and sound for the space.

“We want to keep our resources local,” said Honey. “We’re committed to building an arts economy here. And that starts by spending your money locally.”

Breaking ground after the pandemic struck gave TACAW’s leaders the ability to tweak the building and its program for post-pandemic audiences with new public attention on spreading contagion indoors. It will include amenities like a touch-free kiosk entry that allows patrons to skip the box office and enter by scanning a smartphone.

“We have two jobs right now,” Honey said. “One is to offer great programming. And then the other is to make sure people stay safe as they enjoy that programming.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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