CULLOWHEE – With the snipping of a ribbon, the clinking of champagne glasses and the knee-slapping laughter of 1,000 audience members attired in tuxedoes and formal gowns for an evening with late-night talk-show host Jay Leno, Western Carolina University’s long-awaited Fine and Performing Arts Center officially sprang to life Saturday, Oct. 22.
As the highlight of an opening night gala in the sparkling new performance hall, Leno delivered a crowd-pleasing performance of comedy material ranging from Michael Jackson jokes to stories about his techno-phobe parents. He also directed some good-natured ribbing at Western students sitting in the first several rows.
Prior to Leno’s performance, Chancellor John W. Bardo dedicated the facility, a building more than 10 years in the planning, to the people of North Carolina. State voters approved funding for the $30 million, 122,000 square-foot showcase for the arts as part of the November 2000 N.C. higher education bond referendum.
“I would like to thank first and foremost the people of North Carolina for providing us with this wonderful facility and for showing such faith in their university,” Bardo said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The arts are at the core of the quality of life. This building is an effort to enhance the quality of life in Western North Carolina and to assure that the people of this region have access to the finest in art performance available anywhere.”
Steve Warren, chairman of Western’s board of trustees, said that the center, designed by award-winning architectural firm Gund Partnership and inspired by mountain peaks and soaring trees of the Great Smoky Mountains, is “a home to the arts that is itself a work of art.”
“It is a building that will provide a home to the creative class of Western Carolina students who not only are engaged in the community in which they live, but engaged in the expression of ideas that have made and continue to make our community great,” Warren said. “This building represents that this university stands behind the arts, for this university is and shall always be committed to the arts and the expression of ideas that represent the best of this region and this country.”
Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, called the facility an awe-inspiring tribute to the Cherokee people. The facility includes signage in Cherokee and English, and a lobby featuring ceramic tiles in the form of a seven-point star representing the seven Cherokee tribal clans.
“This building is a tremendous honor that you have given our people,” Hicks, a 1987 graduate of Western, said, speaking both in Cherokee and in English. “From my heart, I thank you so much.”
Cullowhee resident A.J. Rowell, a 2004 graduate of Western, spoke about his experiences as a student working to help drum up support for the bond referendum that paid for construction of the building, including a grassroots effort in which he and other students pounded the pavement to rally support.
“We boarded a bus and blitzed the main streets of Western North Carolina . In two days, we went to Waynesville, Canton, Sylva, Franklin, Bryson City, Murphy, Hayesville and Robbinsville. We went door-to-door, person-to-person,” Rowell said. “Every county in Western North Carolina voted in favor of this building, and all the other projects in the bond referendum. I can tell you why. They voted for the students. Indeed, it is the students who will benefit the most from this great hall we open tonight.”
Saturday’s gala events – which, in addition to Leno’s monologue, featured a performance by Asheville blues singer Kat Williams and her band – were just part of a busy opening weekend for the Fine and Performing Arts Center. The center’s Fine Art Museum held a grand opening ceremony Sunday, Oct. 23, and unveiled five concurrent exhibitions that will remain on display through Dec. 16.
“Art in all its shapes, sizes and sounds gives a community a sense of who they are,” Robert Kehrberg, interim dean of Western’s College of Arts and Sciences, said at Sunday’s ceremony, attended by several hundred people. “This facility, both with the gallery and performance hall, provides the backdrop and stage for the showcase of who we are and what we can be. While it may be impossible to predict the impact this facility will have on our social fabric, there is no doubt the activities within will change us. As I walk through this warm and inviting space, I know it has changed me already.”
Matt Liddle, chairman of the art department, said the opening of the Fine Art Museum is “a momentous time in our history,” and he called the facility “a great legacy for the arts in this region.” Liddle said he believes the two most important buildings on a university campus are its library and its art museum. “Those are the places where people get involved with the life of the mind. Those are the places where we are putting people together with ideas.”
Martin DeWitt, founding director of the museum, invited the campus and surrounding community to tour the nearly 10,000 square feet of gallery and atrium exhibition space, and to return again and again as the exhibits change. The current exhibition features nearly 100 works from the permanent collection, new acquisitions and recent gifts to Western’s growing university art collection. It is highlighted by “ Worldviews: Selections from the Collection and New Acquisitions,” featuring emerging and noted local, regional, national and international artists.
Immediately following the museum’s grand opening celebration was a performance of “In the Mood,” the inaugural show in the 2005-06 Subscription Series at the Fine and Performing Arts Center. Nearly 900 people attended the musical revue featuring the Big Band sounds of the 1940s.
There’s no rest for the weary, as the staff members of the Fine and Performing Arts Center are now preparing for a Thursday, Oct. 27, production of “An Evening with Hitchcock and Herrmann.” The multi-media performance featuring clips from classic Hitchcock films set to Herrmann’s music as performed live by the 80-piece Asheville Symphony will begin at 8 p.m. Bruce Frazier, a two-time Emmy Award-winner who holds Western’s Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music, will conduct.
For more information about performances, call the box office at (828) 227-2479. For more information about the galleries, call (828) 227-3591, or visit the Web site at http://fapac.wcu.edu/.