Twenty-five years ago, a city official and a school-board member decided to join forces and create a unique facility that would cater to the artistic needs of the public. Chandler Center for the Arts opened its doors August 25, 1989, as a different kind of arts center that would offer a broad range of art education to the public. Today, the facility has expanded and developed into a first-rate arts center known to have some of the best acoustics in the world. We had the opportunity to ask assistant general manager Michelle Mac Lennan a few questions about what the center offers the public, and we asked the architect behind the innovative design, Dr. Wendell Rossman, what makes the center so acoustically famous.
Q: What’s the story behind Chandler Center for the Arts?
Michelle Mac Lennan: The center was built in 1989, so our actual anniversary is August 25, 2014, and it was a collaboration between the city of Chandler and the Chandler Unified School District. They also have a nonprofit organization called the Chandler Cultural Foundation that is an arm of the city, that does all the programming and fundraising for the center. It started with a conversation between a city official and a school-board member, the story is told. Jerry Brooks, our former mayor, who is a board member for the Cultural Foundation, he was one of the original people who charted the territory. He was a big art supporter and led that charge. But it took a village. It was very innovative to have a center of this acoustic and structural design in 1989. It was a very successful model, as it is still solvent and operating 25 years later.
Q: The acoustics in the center are said to be some of the best in the world. Explain the design of the center and why it is unique.
Dr. Wendell Rossman: The whole world of performing-arts centers has been steadily moving forward for improvements and betterments over the last three or four hundred years. And I am in that stream. I was fully aware of this at the time. The interesting thing about Chandler Center for the Arts was that originally I was engaged to design a high-school auditorium. High-school auditoriums are something very primitive, and they could be much better. In the process of designing, I made a number of suggestions that somewhat lifted it away from the standards of the high-school auditoriums in our country. The school wanted it to be a turntable-divisible auditorium — in other words, not just one hall. They wanted a main hall that could be subdivided. That was no problem.
But one morning, I was having a technical discussion with the project director, and in walked in the superintendent and the mayor. The mayor said, “Stop everything! We have decided to work together on this, between the schools and the city of Chandler.” I asked, “Are you serious? We’re talking about a complete change of design.” They said, “Oh, yeah, we are serious. The city will run it and maintain it, and the school will be the beneficiary of the facility.” I knew instantly what I had to do. The program we had written, even though it was already an elevated kind of facility, was still far short from a full-fledged civic and professional performing-arts center. So it had to be reprogrammed.
First, I reprogrammed it to meet the expectations of the city. How often can you sell the full amount of tickets, in this case 1,600 seats? What do you have to offer to make this a first-rate performing center? Now, we were enlisted to build a civic structure that would also be of use to the school, rather than the other way around. The very minute you have someone on the stage, that person will not come unless they have an auditorium in which the audience can hear and see the performance. So this makes it a very different kind of facility. There was going to be an enhancement of the acoustics, because this was not just music and drama, this was possibly recordings, possibly voice meetings. There had to be a variable for possible acoustics built into this.
I introduced into the calculations a new entity known as diffusion, which was, up until that time, never used in performing-arts centers. The two things that make the hall as acoustically famous as it has become are not only the reverberation time, but, even more so, the diffusion of sound. This allows for a concert where you need a long reverberation, but also allows for a stage play where you have a crisp, short reverberation time, where voices could be heard clearly. That can only be accomplished by the reverberation time and the diffusion. This has created a multipurpose facility. This technology had been done before, but it was a question of how to further refine it.
Q: Did you know that what you were designing would create some of the best acoustics in the world?
WR: Yes, I did. I knew very well what I was doing. When you have a dream, it has to become a precise target. My background is a Ph.D. in architecture and engineering, and I am also an amateur musician, so I know my way around sound. I was practically cut out for the job. And this combination of mathematics in the end produced an absolute superb environment.
Q: What programs are offered at the center?
MML: We have over 2,000 students annually in our Vision Kids program, which is our visual-arts program. And we reach over 3,000 annually total through our programs. We have four main emphases in our programs. We have our Vision Kids program, which is a free program offered to students to work with professional visual artists. This is offered through our satellite gallery called the Vision Gallery. Then we have Camp Kids, which is our fee-based program for ages 7 and up, where we do musical theater, improvisation and film. We offer six weeks of camp during the summer, and then we offer camp programs during the school breaks. We have a theater department for ages K-12, where we bring in professional national touring artists for school-day performances. And finally, we have our Youth Advisory Council, which is a smaller program. We have fifteen students, teenagers ages 13 to 18, who are selected each year through an application process, and they are on our youth council, so they learn all about arts administration, fundraising, marketing, public relations, budgeting, etiquette — they learn just about everything. They actually get to sit down with our board and make recommendations for programs and how to better serve their age group.
Q: What is the goal of creating arts programs for the public?
MML: It is really a part of our artistic mission. We are not just making performance arts available, but we want to be a creative force. When I started here 15 years ago, we just had the Vision Kids program, which is wonderful, but we didn’t have anything to offer for the theatrical students. It was to bridge the gap. Art education has been on a steady decline for several years, so we are here to serve the needs that are there. The Camp Kids program has been at 100 percent capacity for the past four years. The demand is there. We are all arts people that somehow got touched, or we wouldn’t be here, so it is all a part of giving back.
Q: How can the public learn about the programs and events held at the Chandler Center for the Arts?
MML: Our website is the best place to get all the information. We also have an email distribution list that you can opt into on our website, and that will give you a weekly update on what is going on at the center. You can also get information on specific shows. Our members get a two-week advance notice on what is coming up.
Q: How will the center celebrate its 25th anniversary?
MML: We are planning a weekend of free activities for the public August 22-24. On Friday, we will have a youth concert called Plugged In, which is going to feature nine local youth bands. This came out of an initiative from our Youth Advisory Council, so we now host and present these bands. On Saturday, we are going to have a free community event where we will have kids art, face-painting, “balloonatics” and performing arts on all three stages. On Saturday night, we are doing a free Motown concert, and then on Sunday, we are doing a free flamenco concert. This anniversary is important to us. When we look back at the last 25 years, we think about the future and what is going to take us into the next 25 years. We have identified that our next initiatives are going to be to get connected with the community and do more work with community engagement.
— Alexandra Winter