Almost from the moment it was launched nearly 50 years ago, the Lawrence Arts Center found itself scrambling for space.
When it opened in the old Carnegie Library Building in 1975, dance classes spilled out into borrowed space on the second floor of a nearby building. The construction of a dedicated Arts Center building on New Hampshire Street in 2002 provided a brief respite, but it soon outgrew that, too, and the Arts Center found itself renting space all over downtown Lawrence for classes, rehearsals and performances.
Now, however, the Arts Center may have solved its space problems. It’s opening a large new performance, rehearsal, gallery and storage annex at 1000 Massachusetts St., around the corner from its main building.
The new facility, dubbed 10th and Mass Studios, already is in operation and will debut for the public this weekend with a “an immersive, multi-dimensional, community art block party” open house put on by high school student art group Hang12. A full-scale grand opening is planned for later this summer.
“We’re already using the hell out of it,” Arts Center CEO Margaret Morris said Friday morning, standing in the new lobby gallery where Hang12 will be displaying artwork at the open house from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday.
A few feet away, an international film webinar was being set up in the large rehearsal/studio space, and Hanan Misko, director of the arts center’s dance program, had just stopped by to visit the new dance studio, whose rubberized floor already bears marks left by ballerinas’ pointe shoes. “We’re looking forward to basically packing it full,” Misko said.
Both the rehearsal studio and dance studio replicate the dimensions of the Arts Center’s main stage, a huge advantage in making sure that performers can practice in spaces the same size that they’ll do shows in. The new space also means that rehearsals don’t tie up the Arts Center’s two theaters, giving it much more flexibility in scheduling.
“It makes the main stage accessible more often,” Morris said.
The new facility also contains a large storage area for props and costumes, further relieving crowding in the main Arts Center building. “We were really crammed in there,” Morris said.
The COVID pandemic, by opening up real estate downtown, gave the Arts Center the opportunity to expand, but Morris believes the expansion also will help the center recover from the upheaval of the past two years.
“We knew that having this kind of additional space will be critical to our economic recovery from the pandemic,” she said. “So it was a no-brainer as an investment in our future.” Morris declined to discuss the cost of the new facility, which was covered by grants and donations from longtime Arts Center supporters.
The new 10th and Mass Studios occupies space that for several years was home to Laugh Out Loud Studios, a children’s play space that closed during the pandemic. “When this became available, we realized it was absolutely perfect,” Morris said.
Originally built as a bus garage, the building also has housed a small shopping mall, a head shop, a record store and who knows what else. “All those places had some remnant left behind, either on the floor or on the walls,” Morris said. “It was like an archeological dig.”
Working with architect Dan Sabatini and contractor B.A. Green Construction, the Arts Center gutted the building and updated it for its needs. The new dance studio, for instance, has a professional-quality Harlequin dance floor, a proprietary design built on sprung wood to reduce wear and tear on dancers’ feet. The other rehearsal space and studio will be outfitted with high-tech multimedia equipment and a movie screen to allow it to be used for film showings and other events.
Morris is still waiting for that equipment to be delivered — pandemic-related supply chain issues have wreaked havoc with the project’s timeline.
“The whole project has been an exercise in supply chain management,” she said, and that’s going to delay the official grand opening until sometime this summer. “When we have all that stuff, we’ll have a big party.”
In the meantime, though, the center is using the new space and already renting it out to other groups. And Morris is already planning another expansion of sorts — into the alley behind the building. When Morris and landlord Jeff Shmalberg, a longtime Arts Center supporter, first walked around the building and saw some attractive graffiti portraits in the alley, Morris hit on the idea of decorating the alley with a series of murals. While that idea is pending grants and permits, Morris envisions a “corridor of murals” and maybe even offering a class in mural painting.
The building’s history and long list of previous tenants give it a certain vibe, Morris said.
“One of the things I love about it is you can feel the joyful energy,” she said. “It’s sort of sunk into the walls.”
Note: Mark Potts is an Arts Center donor.