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Business of the Arts: Arts community is outgrowing The Creamery

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It’s Thursday night at The Creamery Arts Center, and the Springfield Ballet Inc. is holding classes – four of them involving 53 dancers.

Some of the dancers are getting a first taste of formal instruction. Some are more experienced, and they stand poised at portable barres that are set up through the classrooms and can be moved to accommodate rehearsals for performances.

Abigail Lind, executive director of the ballet, speaks to parents who stand in hallways. There is no lounge where they can wait out the hourlong sessions. One mom is holding a sleeping toddler, presumably a dancer’s sibling.

Dance is really about mastery of space, and it’s a good skill for a dance executive to have. When watching a show like “The Nutcracker” holiday classic, with some 200 dancers on The Landers Theatre’s stage, most audience members have no idea it was rehearsed across several unconnected small rooms to be unfolded like a roadmap in the larger venue.

The ballet is one of the 30-plus organizations that use The Creamery, and one of 11 with headquarters there. But in the two decades since the arts center opened, most of those organizations have grown. Some arts leaders say they have to be creative to meet their current needs in the space available.

Sean Spyres is business and operations director for the Ozarks Lyric Opera, which is headquartered at the 35,000-square-foot building. These days he is at work preparing for OLO’s spring opera, “Don Giovanni.”

OLO is a resident company of the Gillioz Theatre, which regularly hosts touring acts. Spyres said because of this, the opera can’t access the stage for rehearsals until the week of production.

“Like many other organizations, we have relied on space at The Creamery Arts Center for rehearsals and storage and office space,” Spyres said. “It has served us and all of the other arts organizations well for many years, but it’s clear we have all outgrown the space and need something more practical – especially a rehearsal space with an actual stage.”

Like the Springfield Symphony Orchestra – also housed at The Creamery – the opera has to squeeze into high school band rooms, board rooms or church dining halls for rehearsals, Spyres said.

“The stress of not knowing what a production is going to look like until we move in five days before production is very real,” he said. “All too often we have had to add last-minute production expenses due to this arrangement.”

With “Don Giovanni” easily soaring past $50,000 in production costs, Spyres said, the prospect of thousands of dollars in unknown expenses just adds to the pressure.

History of The Creamery
Before its opening two decades ago, The Creamery Arts Center was envisioned as a mixed-use cultural center that would serve as an economic driver for the community.

In the city’s Vision 20/20 comprehensive plan – the document introduced in 2004 that predated the current plan, Forward SGF – Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc. was charged with the task of communicating with city and arts agencies to develop The Creamery.

The plan called for “creation of space, office and educational, which could be used/shared by different arts groups,” with multipurpose rooms for rehearsals, classes and art projects.

In 1997, a cultural plan headed up by SRAC offered the first whisper of an idea of a space where arts organizations could collaborate. The plan, “Creative Springfield: A Blueprint for Action,” was ultimately folded into Vision 20/20.

The plan analyzed the potential use of the former tobacco warehouse and creamery at 411 N. Sherman Parkway – a building that would become O’Reilly Automotive’s first store.

According to its website, SRAC moved into the building in 2002, and other organizations followed. A 2005 photo feature in Springfield Business Journal shows members of the public touring the center in an Oct. 14 opening celebration and drawing on chalkboard walls, described as “one of the center’s interactive elements.”

Today, the building houses administrative offices for the ballet, opera, symphony and arts council, as well as the Springfield Community Center, Men’s Chorus of the Ozarks, Any Given Child, Film & Media Association of Springfield, First Friday Art Walk, Plotline and Sculpture Walk of Springfield.

It also has shared storage space in its basement, plus a costume shop and set fabrication studio managed by Springfield Little Theatre. Visual art shows are regularly mounted in its main hallway, and SRAC reports more than 30,000 people use The Creamery each year.

Elbow room
Leslie Forrester, executive director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council, said the establishment of The Creamery was an important advancement in the arts. Organizations that were once spread all over town are together.

A 2002 column in SBJ by former SRAC Executive Director Pamela Anderson expressed excitement about establishing The Creamery Arts Center. Tax credits approved the previous year would bring some $3 million to the project, Anderson wrote, and a feasibility study then underway would make the center a “truly dynamic home for the arts.” Today, Forrester sees a vision realized.

“Twenty-plus years later, here we are, and it’s been an absolute success,” she said.

She noted she can walk down the hall and talk to Lind about the ballet and pop upstairs to check in with Jennifer Cotner-Jones, executive director of the symphony.

“We’re living in the collaboration,” she said. “The community spaces that exist here have incubated all kinds of arts projects.”

But it’s time, Forrester said, to look to the future. Many of the organizations sharing the arts center have grown in capacity and in staffing.

“Are there ways that we can expand or retrofit The Creamery because it’s such a beloved space for us? There’s a lot of history here,” she said.

The Creamery is landlocked, Forrester said. Adding another story to the building might be an option. So might scouting out a new home.

In the future, the arts center could offer more rehearsal spaces, as well as studio space, musical practice rooms, high-tech creative facilities, meeting and classroom spaces, as well as more offices.

“What we’re talking about is not aiming to replicate what we have now, but to fill real gaps. Can we flex into something different? I think we can,” Forrester said.

Forrester said SRAC plans to take up a space study to get a clear picture of where to go. She estimates it will be completed within 18 months, with a project to be completed in three to five years.

“That’s before any actual research and study,” Forrester said. “A reader who’s a developer may be like, ‘That’s not possible.’ But we can dream, right? The sooner, the better, honestly.”

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