"A Forum, not a Temple"
From its inception, the proposed new Cultural Arts Center for the City of Savannah has been badly misunderstood. As local architects, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay won this commission because we correctly identified the mission in our interview with the selection committee. This will be a place where working artists—many local and others from throughout the world—can interact and share with each other. Early on the project received a great motto: “A Forum, not a Temple.” The new cultural arts center will not just be a place where local people can see good art, hear good music and enjoy good performances, it will be a place where they can be engaged in creating art too. Many times that creative process will also engage national and international artists to share their ideas and learn from our rich cultural history. We think of this as “pollination”.
Savannah is fortunate to have some great temples already, where the privilege of seeing, hearing and experiencing art is a one-way thing—making us locals spectators only. The Telfair Museums, SCAD Museum, Owens-Thomas House, and Savannah Music Festival are magnificent at showing us what art can be. In contrast, the Savannah Cultural Arts Center will be a place where the spectators can also be the producers of art, and our children can learn—firsthand—that they too can be artists and have a creative career. The working studios for fine art, sculpture, ceramics, metal and glass-working, jewelry-making, and computer editing will be open and welcome to all citizens (and visitors), not just the privileged ones than can afford entry. The theatres will be places where local artists and young people can learn how to stage and produce performances, not just watch them. The art gallery will be a showcase for diverse local talent as well as visiting exhibits. Mostly, it will be a place for our people to learn that their own creativity is valuable!
For sure, it will also be a place where The Savannah Music Festival can program concerts for three weeks each year. The seating, acoustics and lighting will be excellent, worthy of Branford Marsalis and Be’la Fleck. The space will be an excellent auditorium for truly great presentations, so that the inferior spaces in the nearby “temples” can be used less often. It will also be a place of carefully preserved history, for interpretation of the reasons why we should never again demolish significant historic structures like the magnificent Wetter House that was once on the arts center’s site, then demolished in 1960 for a used car lot. The missions of these institutions and causes will be greatly enhanced. But it will also be a place for dance recitals, weddings, art fairs, receptions, and summer art camps for children. It will be for everyone.
Given the very public process that has been used to create the Savannah Cultural Arts Center, it is hard to understand why some of our arts leaders don’t understand this project. Its mission as a place for arts education has been clear to the City’s Cultural Affairs Commission, City Council, and the people who run the current SPACE center. While some of our community’s leading private arts institutions solicit and accept public funding for their programs, the most vocal critics were not seen at the earlier definitive public meetings. Now they want the City to build another temple for their needs.
The Savannah Cultural Arts Center is not well understood, in part because local artists don’t have as loud a voice as these leaders of our arts community. By comparison, the young people that will benefit from the Cultural Arts Center don’t have a voice at all. The City of Savannah has consistently asked for a contemporary and iconic design that has been carefully conceived as a forum for our future artists. Perhaps some of these local artists will one day be able to see their art in some of our local temples! If so, it may be because they were allowed to share this forum for their arts, and the pollination inside.