The History of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center
April, 2001: The City of Merced won the Grand Prize in the Arts and Quality of Life category from the League of California Cities. Five years after the opening of the Center, the League of California Cities showcased Merced in its magazine saying, “The Merced Multicultural Arts Center is a successful partnership that brings the arts to the people of Merced. Built by the City of Merced and its redevelopment agency in 1995 and operated by the Merced County Arts Council, the arts center has transformed a dilapidated downtown building into a vibrant center for the arts and served as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.”
The discussions started in late 1993 between the Redevelopment Agency and the Arts Council. Fortunately, many elements came together at that particular time in Merced’s history. The Redevelopment Agency was looking for a way to contribute to the revitalization of the crumbling downtown. The Arts Council was looking for a new home. Right behind the Civic Center was one of the largest and worst of the crumbling buildings. The 28,000-square-foot, former Montgomery Wards department store was home to large flocks of pigeons and rats and the cause of many neighbors’ complaints.
Then, there was the Goldman Fund, a bequest left to the City of Merced in 1978, and held in trust for construction of a cultural or community center. Since 1978, many groups of citizens had worked on plans for the use of the money, but without results. The Goldman Fund in 1993 had grown to $1.9million. That was enough for the remodeling of the Montgomery Wards building, but the city did not have to support operations.
In January of 1994, the Arts Center Task Force was appointed by the City Council. The task force included a broad cross section of the Merced Community, whose task was to work on the details of both the design and operating plan. The task force and Redevelopment Agency held public workshops and many other meetings to create a plan that would provide a place in Downtown Merced for experiencing and participating in art of all kinds: dance, drama, music, literary and visual arts. The task force first proposed the partnership between the arts council and the city which resulted in a 10-year lease under which the Arts Council pays no rent, but agrees to handle all management and operations costs and responsibilities.
10 years have passed and the Arts Center is still a place for experiencing and participating in arts of all kinds, just as the task force envisioned. The mission was, and still is, All of the Arts for All of the People.
The Center has three stories which contain five free art galleries featuring rotating exhibits; a studio theater with dressing rooms; classrooms; dance studios; offices; and conference rooms. The remodeling uncovered some gems of the original building, such as spectacular three story skylights and original wood floors from the 1920s. For more information about the Merced Multicultural Arts Center and the Merced County Arts Council today, come down to 645 W. Main for a visit or go to the website: www.artsmerced.org.
For more information, contact: Kathy Hansen, 722-6151 or cell 761-0139
Arts Center's 10th Anniversary Party Speech
by UC Merced Art Professor, Dunya Ramicova
I would like to say first that it is a great honor to be invited to be part of the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of this remarkable institution.
Let me begin by saying sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, how impressed I am with you, the artists and the art supporters of the Merced community. I have lived in many different places during my lifetime , in New York, Chicago, New Haven, in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, but I have never before come across people like you, a community of true lovers of art. Unlike people in cities like LA or New York, you embrace art without wondering whether something is avant-garde, or not, or whether it sells, or not. You don’t indulge in the kind of elitism so important to so many in cities such as Los Angeles or New York, elitism that tries to turn art into something that belongs to a chosen few.
We live in a culture where a large portion of the population equates art with entertainment, something you do to “veg out” to forget, a sort of benign drug. Too many people see art as a commodity, yet another thing to buy and sell, another way to worship ‘Profit’, on whose altar today we are willing to sacrifice almost everything.
But the amazing thing about real art is that it lives on no matter how it is used, abused or ignored. What does not find an audience today may illuminate someone’s life two hundred years from now. That’s because when creating a work of art the true artist communes with the infinite, the unifying principle of life that crosses cultures, time and space, and allows us to see our common humanity.
So art is not a commodity, art is a birthright. And it has power to do a lot more than just make us forget we had a bad day or to give us something to talk about at a cocktail party.
The great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov once wrote in a letter: “One fine feature of art is that it doesn’t let you lie. You can lie in love, politics, and medicine, you can fool people and even God, but you can’t lie in art”
This equation between truth and art is immensely powerful and is why we may never have to worry that art will one day disappear from our lives.
I would like to tell you a story about an artist I have greatly admired for many years and who sadly passed away last month at the age of 83.
In my career as a costume designer I have had the great fortune of working with some of the most celebrated and accomplished artists of the 20th century.
Among these remarkable artists I have admired no one as much as Lloyd Richards who I met in 1978 when he became the Dean of the Yale School of Drama where I was a professor of design before I moved to California.
Lloyd Richards was the first African American director to direct on Broadway where in 1959 he opened Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play: A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by an African American playwright to be performed there. By the time Lloyd came to Yale, he had behind him a very distinguished career. Among his accomplishments was the founding of the National Playwright’s Conference, where he worked to develop the work of young playwrights, many of whom became important voices of the late 20th century theatre. At the Yale School of Drama he set about literally changing the face of the American theatre and film by working hard to attract young African American actors into the Drama School’s Acting Program. At that time the Yale School of Drama was considered to be the premiere theatre school in the country, but had sadly graduated only a handful of African American students. Lloyd saw a wrong and he did something about it, quietly but persistently. Many of the accomplished African American actors of today are Yale alumni from those years. Even more importantly, Lloyd Richards was the first person to recognize the brilliant talent of August Wilson, a playwright who at Yale created a powerful cycle of plays depicting the life of African Americans. His play Fences won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as many other awards. Sadly, August Wilson, who I had the privilege to work with in New Haven, died prematurely this past spring. At the same time that Lloyd worked with August Wilson, he also became instrumental in helping another important playwright, Athol Fugard, create his best work. Athol Fugard, is a white Afrikaaner, who before coming to the US wrote and presented plays in South Africa courageously depicting the horror of apartheid at a time when doing so almost cost him his life.
It was a tradition at the Yale School of Drama for the Dean to give a speech at the beginning of each year, not just any speech, but something that was to inspire us to do our best. I will never forget Lloyd’s first speech as a Dean. He started by telling us a story about the time when he brought his production of A Raisin in the Sun to New Haven, which had been where plays destined for Broadway had their first try-out. He told us that he was very nervous on the day of the first pre-view, hanging around the ticket booth in the lobby wondering if anyone at all would come to see a play by an unknown 29 year old African American playwright about an ordinary African American family whose simple attempt at having a better life tragically collides with the ugliness of racism. And remember, this was 1959, before the country even started to wake up to the reality of racism. There was Lloyd, hoping for some audience, when an elderly African American lady came in, still in her maid’s uniform carrying an old beaten up purse and a shopping bag. Lloyd went up to her and asked if she was there to buy a ticket for the play. The lady looked at him and said: ‘I don’t know. All I know is that I heard in the neighborhood that there is something very important going on here and I want to be a part of it.”
Yes, at its best, art is something important going on and we should want to be part of it.
I have never forgotten Lloyd’s story and I repeat it to myself whenever I am low and I think that being an artist and an art professor is too hard in a culture where everything else is more important than art. Yet, there have been people like Lloyd Richards, who did not hesitate to face every kind of obstacle and every kind risk to give a people, who so many tried to silence, a voice, a voice through which they could be heard, loud and clear, the voice of Lorraine Hansberry and of August Wilson and of Athol Fugard, artists all, serious artists, ones who knew that you cannot lie in art.
C.L. Max Nikias, provost of the University of Southern California, wrote:
….to ignore the arts and humanities is to commit cultural suicide. The arts help us discern what it is to be fully human, and to live in the society of other humans…. “
I would like to add that we should remind those who do not take art seriously and see it as something not essential, something ornamental, that as humans we started doing art long before we invented money, politics and weapons… and if one day we finally manage to blow each others societies up, the only thing we may be left with, if we are lucky, will be our ability to make art out of the rubble.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about UC Merced and how I see our future collaboration.
First of all, please, never forget that the university is yours, not ours. We merely hold it in trust for you.
When I came to Merced for my interview at the university, almost the first thing I saw was the Multicultural Art Center and the first person I met from the community was Joan Sortini. I can honestly tell you that meeting Joan and seeing the Center had a lot to do with the fact that I accepted the job at UC Merced.
From the first, I felt I was among people who love art and care about it in an unselfish way. Seeing what resources this community has, I proposed to strengthen them instead of drawing away from them. The UC Merced Plan for the Arts, which was approved by the faculty of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts by a unanimous vote, specifies that a partnership be developed between the university and existing community cultural organizations, a partnership that I rather clumsily named UC Merced Art Center without Walls. This partnership is envisioned as supporting community effort instead of competing with it. It lacks funding at the present, but steps have been taken to make it a reality and I believe in its ultimate success.
I am not going to lie to you and pretend that we have not had a rough two years at UC Merced but I do believe that the worst is behind us.
As many of you know, for two years I was the only professor of art at UC Merced, a fact that I had to try hard not to take as a sign of an impending cultural suicide of our fledgling institution. Clearly for two years there were many more scientists and engineers on the faculty than there were artists. But I finally have two young colleagues and things are looking up. I am confident that we have been through the worst, and that we can look forward to a bright future. We have had our growing pains and we have learned a lot. We need your continual trust in the seriousness of our purpose and we need your patience and your support.
Finally, I would like to end with another quote, one that should stir us to action at a time when the arts are under attack of the most insidious kind, when our leaders are making pretty speeches and saying nice things about the arts while continuing to cut art budgets in our schools and our communities.
Let’s end with the wise words of Frederick Douglas who said:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand”.