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Staging a comeback

By Jeff Roedel
With every step clacking across the cool concrete quicker than the last, it is easy to see Renee Chatelain is elated. She should be. She’s walking through walls.

“I’m so excited, I haven’t seen this yet,” says the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, half whispery confession, half full-on belly laugh voice as she moves through the metal bones of her future office on the second floor of what will become the Cary Saurage Community Arts Center.

“It’s real—it’s real,” she repeats to herself.

Looking through an unfinished floor, past where stained-glass pieces by Paul Dufor and Steve Wilson will soon hang and up to the planned terrace space framed by a cut mosaic piece of big blue and grey autumn sky, Jonathan Grimes is just as impressed with the updates.

The Cary Saurage Community Arts Center will open in downtown in summer 2021.
The Cary Saurage Community Arts Center will open in downtown in summer 2021.

“I need to get the drone back out here,” he tells Chatelain.

As the council’s director of facilities, Grimes has been right beside Chatelain in overseeing the $2.5 million construction surrounding them. Ritter Maher Architects is handling the design that will relocate the Arts Council from the Old Bogan Fire Station it has called home since the 1970s.

The renovation is turning this closed-in, mid-century modern district attorney’s office—known as The Triangle—into a new 12,000-square-foot, three-story epicenter for cross-disciplinary artist workspaces and galleries, community meetings, public performances and social gatherings.

“This is a complementary building to the downtown theaters, as an affordable, accessible space where you can come in and actually create work—whether that’s pottery or painting or dance or recording music,” Chatelain explains. “And because it’s open as a community arts center, the public can learn and experience art they wouldn’t normally have this kind of easy access to.”

Before the arts center opens its doors, the Raising Cane’s River Center’s 1970s-built, 2,000-seat theater venue will complete its own extravagant makeover for a late March grand reopening.

“If you provide places to seed new groups and creativity, there can be nothing better for a city to flourish,” says Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District.

Together, these two dramatic projects represent nearly $20 million in direct cultural investment, and along with the new library branch on North Boulevard, it’s a culture rush unlike any downtown has seen since the Shaw Center for the Arts arrived with its galleries, Manship Theatre, Tsunami and LSU Museum of Art almost 16 years ago.

“First and foremost, this theater renovation means the return of Broadway to Baton Rouge,” says Les Crooks, regional general manager for ASM Global, the managing body for the River Center. “Broadway is imminent in Baton Rouge, and we’ll be announcing details of that as soon as we can.”

In addition to overdue electrical, air, sprinkler and lighting system updates, the new River Center Performing Arts Theatre will feature two elevators and a stunning 2,000-square-foot addition that includes new lobby space, restrooms, concessions and open-air spaces designed for hosting large pre-concert and privately held events.

The approach was to bend the rigid, Brutalist lines of the original structure with the nature-inspired flow and glass-gleaned light of modern design.

River Center Theatre improvements will let the venue host Broadway Plays. It reopens in spring 2021.
River Center Theatre improvements will let the venue host Broadway Plays. It reopens in spring 2021.

“The entire functionality of the space, from the aisles and concessions to the restrooms and elevators, is much improved,” says architect Lisa Nice of Post Architects. “Our hope is that the community will embrace it and have an experience they will be proud of and take ownership of as a Baton Rouge experience. It’ll help that they won’t have to drive out of Baton Rouge for Broadway and other world-class performances.”

Venue improvements include a new wood stage suitable for ballet performances, dance and cheer competitions; glass and railing renovations to the balcony; added VIP and box seating; larger, more comfortable seats; and restructured aisles for easier entry and exit.

“I don’t think this building has been significantly updated since it was built,” Crooks says. “If you wanted to get up and use the restroom during a performance you really had to hustle before. Everything now will be much better tailored for the patron experience.”

It’s this kind of quality creative entertainment that venue owners know arts lovers are craving now more than ever.

“We’ve all realized there are things out of our control this year,” Chatelain says. “A tangible, palpable thing for us has been this building, so the new arts center is a hopeful thing, and we want it to continue to be that for the community.”

While 2020 was a difficult year for live performance venues globally, Crooks sees plenty of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

“There’s an excitement to gather again in Baton Rouge, just as we’ve seen it with people across the country,” Crooks says. “People miss live entertainment right now. And soon, the River Center Theatre will be ready to deliver that.”

As venues plan for both pandemic and post-pandemic programming the question becomes how will downtown Baton Rouge attract patrons back with two new significant cultural pieces in place alongside the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, the Louisiana State Museum, the USS Kidd, and other arts attractions. A Downtown Arts & Entertainment District is on the books for Baton Rouge to receive grants, fellowships, tax breaks and education resources, but can this group of venues leverage that into a branded, experiential and widely publicized arts district?

“Absolutely that’s something we need to revisit and to make sure the Arts Council’s new space is included [it sits just outside of the Downtown Arts & Entertainment District as currently drawn],” Rhorer says. “Because that new arts center is a bold step. It’s important for everyone to get behind it.”

For the Louisiana Art & Science Museum on River Road, the pandemic has meant a shift to a virtual gallery experience in record-time, including a new 360-degree video virtual tour of every exhibit, artifact and description housed in the museum expected to roll out in January.

“This is the perfect time now to prime the pump for 2021, and these new venues will continue to show downtown as this golden sweet spot of culture that can be used for economic development and tourism,” says Serena Pandos, president and executive director for LASM.

Pandos says LASM’s board, corporate and private sponsors, have remained supportive through the tough road of 2020, but hopes for more energy on the promotional side to bloom next year.

“Figuring out ways for people to find us and enjoy us even more will be essential,” she says. Pandos envisions a shared online presence for downtown arts venues, as well as branded marketing penetration into local hotels, educational entities and wayfinding.

“All the downtown partners have been great, and it’s been very collaborative,” Chatelain says. “But it would be better to have banners and signage to make a strong statement about our creative community.”

The Arts Council and the River Center share a vision with venues like LASM and Manship Theatre: that downtown becomes the city’s premier place for quality live entertainment and homegrown creativity.

“This has always been a ‘mission-driven’ endeavor,” says Scott Ritter of Ritter Maher Architects. “The Capital Region embraces its cultural diversity, and the Arts Council supports that mission, but without a ‘home base,’ a place where artists and creative consultants can collaborate and brainstorm and feel inspired, we really felt like opportunities for cultural elevation were being missed. By establishing the Cary Saurage Community Center for the Arts, we now have a tangible, physical center for the cultural advancement.”

Geographically, the Saurage Center is well positioned to impact multiple entities. It sits adjacent to an artistically rich, historically black neighborhood as well as Baton Rouge’s oldest suburb, a stone’s throw from Government Street—Baton Rouge’s once and perhaps future cultural artery—near City Hall and the district courthouse a block away, and a short, tree-lined stroll from iconic structures like the Old State Capitol and the Old Governor’s Mansion. From the arts center, one can be on the bridge looking down at the Mighty Mississippi in 30 seconds. And the Triangle’s most acute north-facing point? It aims right at the State Capitol.

If this were a Hollywood movie, we’d do well to search for hidden treasure.

But for Chatelain there is already a bounty here, a potential. And just like the walls going up for her new office, that treasure to her is real, and it’s going to be tangible soon.

“The new arts center allows us to pursue even more IDEAS—inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, sustainability,” Chatelain says. “That’s the core of our team and organization but also the core of what we want this building to be.”

This potential the new arts center provides for connecting with disparate communities, students and artists within arm’s reach of the Triangle and beyond.

“It’s important to me that the Arts Council be seen as a community builder, and this new space will help people better understand the role we play in doing that,” Chatelain says. “When the Arts Council began more than 40 years ago in the old fire station, it was very grassroots. Where we are standing now and what we can accomplish together for all people as a city is a real important next chapter.”