Story written by Jennaye Derge | Photos provided by Jake Polster-Sadlon & Doug Gonzales

Art, by virtue, is a communal experience. While it can be deeply personal and intimate, eventually art demands to be shared. Art is what connects us to one another without having to say or know why.

In downtown Durango, there is a space where people can come and experience art together. The Durango Arts Center, or DAC as it’s known, is a shared space among art lovers in the community. Artists and visitors alike are encouraged to feel safe, connected, and vulnerable to see art, share it and learn it.

For almost 50 years, the art center has been the hub of Durango’s art scene and offers almost every art medium you can imagine. The employees and volunteers have curious minds and open ears to hear new ideas; which ring true to their mission of incorporating community involvement in visual, performing, and education in the arts.

Community involvement is key for Peter Hay, the Arts Center’s Exhibits Director and gallery curator. Hay, who joined DAC in 2016, has made it his mission to weave together both local and outside artists with resident participation, making up the tapestry of Durango’s arts community.

He curates The Barbara Conrad Gallery, named after a former DAC director. The gallery sits in front of the house on the first floor, and displays local, national and internationally recognized artists from a plethora of backgrounds. Though Hay tends to favor the contemporary side, the installations he picks are never exclusive and generally include interaction with the artists and visitors.

art center photos“The many programs we have in the gallery expand further than art on the wall. What we do is community-based so that all the artists really feel like they’re welcome, and through the multiple programs we try to make everyone feel welcome in the space,” Hay said.

The programs the gallery has hosted in the past 2 ½ years under Peter’s creative eye have featured a lot of contemporary and mixed media shows, including a local favorite “The Wall”. This show included dance performances by a local dance group, 20 Moons, to help demonstrate the exhibit’s message through different art media.

Hay chooses his art installations through an open-proposal system. In this way, anyone from anywhere can submit a proposal that is reviewed by local judges who vote based on what would most benefit local artists. Hay’s objective is to weave art with practicality and education.

“It’s not just about hanging art on the walls but asking how to engage our local artists and help them have new tools or sharpen their skills. I think that’s what I’m looking forward to this year.” Hay said.

The Durango Arts Center is seen locally as a downtown hub offering a variety of opportunities including classes, theater, and the ever-growing and popular youth programs. The Durango Arts Center Youth Theater, formerly known as Applause, has been a big part of DAC for about 17 years. It has been a significant focus in programming within the last few years since it’s director, Emily Simpson Grandt, took the reins in 2015.

art displayWorking side-by-side, Emily and the Arts Center’s former Theater Director, Theresa Carson, started to speculate on how kids could really benefit from having arts in their lives.

“Kids can do with it what they want. They can take it and have fun with it as an integrated part of their everyday lives … or they can really latch onto it and develop and hone in on their personal art skills and take it to a higher level and find out if it’s something that is their passion and what they want to do in life. It’s nice to be able to offer that range, too,” Emily said.

The after school and summer programs take kids ages 3-17 and integrates singing, dancing, acting and visual arts with a lot of life’s basic lessons. Most importantly though, the program offers a safe space to have fun with their peers while getting a dose of the arts that they might not otherwise be exposed to.

“It’s a creative outlet, and a safe place for them to be loved, nurtured and guided in a caring environment but it’s also a great program – we have some really talented kids,” Emily said.

abstract art piece“These programs are so important especially in this town with these kiddos who face some pretty serious issues day-to-day – it’s important to have a place to come and just be loved and be yourself, and in the meantime hone skills and essential things like self-discipline, communication skills and public speaking.”

The kids put on plays throughout the year such as Seussical Jr., and Annie Jr., adaptations of Dr. Seuss and Annie. Grandt says tickets to all of the kid’s performance theater sells out pretty much every time and everyone always has a great time.

“It’s serious fun; we’re going to have a good time, but we’re going to get some work done, too,” Grandt said.

The programs are geared toward both having fun and gaining real-world experiences. Whether the kids go on to pursue theater in the future or not, Grandt just wants to provide a space for kids to grow.

The theater at DAC holds a long-running place in the heart of the Durango community. It is a space where a multitude of high-quality performances have taken place over the past five decades – and not just for kids.

The theater has been home to plays, events, movies and a lot of laughs, tears, and popcorn. It has become known for bringing award-winning productions to the stage including a popular local favorite, the annual 10 Minute Play Festival. Most recently, the DAC has also hosted Next to Normal, a rock musical that digs into the lives of a fragmented family grappling with crisis and loss. The original show in New York was Nominated for 11 Tony Awards and winner of three, including Best Musical Score, as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

youth campsFive Women in the Same Dress also appeared on the DAC stage. The play was chosen as “one of the year’s ten best shows” by critics around the country, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.

Not only does the Arts Center host award winning shows, the DAC’s theater department, led by an impressive and highly qualified series of directors, has itself been regionally recognized and awarded over the years.

art photoFor current Director, Mandy Gardner, it’s all because of the people. “DAC is home to the arts community as a whole. I love how we not only co-exist but support each other, both inside and outside the building. We couldn’t do this without the support of the community, with their time, talents, and donations,” Gardner said.

The Durango Arts Center may seem small to visitors from bigger cities, but the impact it has on this community that is filled with creativity is huge. The space features so many different opportunities and if there isn’t something available, the group is happy to hear ideas or suggestions. The space is offered to the public for rental and has been rented out for festivals, movies, and private parties. The list is long for what the Arts Center has to offer and there is no lack of demand for more.

With so much life over so many years, the building’s old bones are naturally weakening, and the people who spend their hearts and souls working in the building are starting to feel its effects.

“We’re so proud of all the programming that goes on here, but the fact of the matter is that the theater needs a lot of attention…we can keep programs running and we can keep people happy with shows, but we can’t afford to spend a certain amount of money on some key things, like the roof that leaks all the time,” Marketing Director, Jake Polster-Sadlon said.

She explained that they have a vision for the Center becoming a bigger and better version of its current self, but she also acknowledges the hurdles they will have to overcome to achieve that vision.

art museumIn the meantime, the show must go on. Even if some patchwork needs to be done to continue providing a safe space for kids to learn, a theater to entertain, classes to enrich and an art exhibit to share profound experiences. “Having an art center this size with the kinds of things we are able to do is really rare for a town the size of Durango. So thank you to our community and our members for valuing that and making Durango an artistic community through their actions and investments,” Peter Hay said.

The team at DAC are all very grateful to the community for all their help and support over the years, proving that it takes a community to create such a special and vibrant hub for the vivacity of Durango.