Under the New Umbrella

October 11, 2019 by Anonymous

By Rebecca Cook

In Concord Center, on what might have passed for an ordinary Saturday in mid-September, occasional showers brought out the umbrellas as people waited in line for free ice cream outside the front entrance of The Umbrella Arts Center. Chatting amiably and taking in the façade of the beloved former high school, which was first repurposed four decades ago as a haven for studio artists, these sweet-toothed folks might be excused for thinking the recent changes to the building were attractive but subtle. The new landscaping was lush, the freshly poured walkways curved enticingly to the doors. And didn’t those doors used to be a different color?

But anyone who stepped through those doors to join in The Umbrella’s Grand Reopening Open House Celebration on September 14 th would find themselves surrounded by something very grand, indeed. Gone was the steep old flight of stairs that used to lead up to the main level. In its place, a spacious entry hall with wall-mounted digital screens providing the first glimpses of the wondrous new world now housed in The Umbrella. And straight ahead, the new Main Gallery, modern, beautifully lit, generously sized, with enough space to exhibit a substantial number of works.

Moving through the gallery, the eye is drawn not only to the art on the walls, but to the soaring, sky-lit lobby beyond, a splendid space at the heart of the new Umbrella. It’s here a visitor begins to grasp the enormity of the change that took place during the two years of construction and renovation.

‘From the dungeon to the big, beautiful world,’ said Ted Johnson, a resident of Concord who was touring the transformed building with his wife, Della Johnson. It’s a reasonable reaction to seeing the Gallery lobby stretching across the full width of the new addition, with walls of glass at either end, and a skylight high above bathing the flowing space in natural light. There’s an energy in the design, from the accessibility ramp wending through it with a sculptural grace, and the double staircase leading the eye up, in a kind of visual promise that something exciting must be happening up there.

A few feet beyond the top of the stairs, a visitor to the open house could enter a mirrored dance studio, three large and flexible classrooms with rolling tables, sinks, and storage, and a brand new, 344-seat mainstage theatre, where rehearsals for the inaugural production of the musical 42nd Street were underway, with ten dancers tapping impressively in unison on stage.

‘It’s a much bigger project than I thought it was,’ said Ted Johnson, standing in the middle of a new room called the Makerspace, a fully-equipped workshop that’s designed to serve The Umbrella’s wide variety of users. ‘We have a set of tools for kids only. A set of tools for professional woodworkers. A set of tools for glass cutting,’ explained Jason Springer, Director of Education at The Umbrella. ‘They’re hidden,’ he adds with a smile, hinting at the attention to detail that went into planning these new facilities.

During the open house, Springer was leading tours of the classrooms and specialized equipment, including a computer lab and a laser cutter. ‘We’ve given it a lot of love,’ he said, in an understated description of the commitment and hard work that led, at last, to the Open House Celebration. A lot of love and no small amount of fundraising, having raised some $19 million with more to go, in pursuit of an ambitious vision of what The Umbrella might offer to Concord and the surrounding region.

The new facility expands The Umbrella’s ability to support its longstanding arts programs and to reach in new directions. All the arts are brought together here, including classes for all ages, theatre, concerts, ceramics, resident studio artists, dance, arts and the environment.

There’s a sense of possibility in the new Umbrella, fed by the clever way the facility seems to anticipate the yet-to-be-imagined. It’s there in those pristine new classrooms, with the movable tables and the chairs just waiting for students to come with their own ideas and the desire to express them. It’s there in the small black box theatre, a blank canvas for storytelling, and other kinds of gatherings. It’s in the inviting galleries and lobby, designed in recognition that the arts are to be shared, and offering to the wider community a place to enjoy an exhibit, a show, a class. One another.

‘It’s one thing to see it on paper, but then to actually experience it – it’s amazing!’ said Tete Cobblah, a board member manning the welcome desk at the Open House.

Befitting a town that values its past, the renovation preserves not only the exterior of the old high school building, but also many interior elements. Original floorboards still creak underfoot in places, and some woodwork has been left untouched, in deference to the building’s history. The artists are back in their light-filled studios, ranging up and down the long hallways. But the whole place smells new, and fresh paint brightens most surfaces. Even the bathrooms are new and greatly improved, ready for the crowds that will soon be coming through the three entrances for a full season of theater and a concert series with national performers such as Lyle Lovett, who appears on October 25th.

Standing in the artist lounge on the second floor, directly above the main entrance, you can see straight through windows and walls of glass, from the front of the building, across the hallway, through the Makerspace, to the second floor gallery outside the new black box theater. From this perspective, it’s not hard to imagine those high school students who once enlivened this building with their laughter and their friendships. It’s equally easy to imagine the people of all ages, now and in the future, who will fill the theaters and classrooms and galleries with the laughter and friendships of their own lives. The Umbrella will be home to it all.

Photo credit to Marian Stanton