July 7, 2022
Sylvia Center closure clouds future for local theater
Matt Benoit

The nonprofit Sylvia Center for the Arts board’s decision to go dark when its current lease expires has left performers, producers and patrons wondering about the future of local theater. Some are encouraging the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County to find funding to help fill the gap left by the closing of the center, which has been used by multiple organizations since it opened in 2016. (Matt Benoit photo 2022)

July 7, 2022
Sylvia Center closure clouds future for local theater
Matt Benoit

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Many in Bellingham’s arts community were shocked and saddened by the June 22 announcement that Sylvia Center for the Arts will close its doors this fall. 

The announcement has generated a lot of questions — most yet to be answered — about the future of the Sylvia Center location, the artists who’ve made use of its spaces and what Bellingham itself can do to better support local arts organizations. 

The Bellingham Arts District nonprofit — which served as the home of iDiOM Theater and The Upfront Theatre — will bring its final season of performances and rentals to an end on Sept. 10, officially dissolving after its lease at 205 and 207 Prospect Street expires on Oct. 31. 

In a press release, the center’s board cited financial concerns, difficulty in renewing its lease and the recent departure of longtime artistic and executive director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao. 

First act: a new home for theater

Sylvia Center came to fruition in 2016, fulfilling a lengthy search for a versatile, affordable and accessible performing arts space in downtown Bellingham. 

The iDiOM Theater, which had operated for 14 years inside Cornwall Avenue’s Allied Arts Building, moved to the center — named after longtime iDiOM supporter Sylvia Scholtz —that same year as its resident theater company. 

As far back as 1992, a city planning report had identified the 1923 structure at 205 Prospect as an ideal location for such a facility, according to a 2016 WhatcomTalk.com article. For decades until the early 2000s, the building served as home to Cascade Laundry Incorporated. When Sylvia formed, it became home to two theater spaces: a 160-seat mainstage theater that came to be known as the Lucas Hicks Theater, and the smaller, roughly 50-seat Studio Theater.

The latter space became home to the Upfront in September 2021, following the improv venue’s loss of its original location at 1208 Bay Street. 

Sylvia’s formation was especially good news after the failure of the Commercial Street Theatre Project, a 2013 fundraising effort that sought to build a 200-seat community performance venue on Commercial Street. 

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic brought live entertainment to a halt in 2020, Sylvia Center eventually got back on its feet with federal financial aid and livestreaming of audience-less shows before returning to in-person audiences in mid-2021.

By October, however, their seats will be permanently empty. 

Ian Bivins, Sylvia’s board president since last October, said the decision to close came with consideration and heartache. Bivins said the departures of Hergenhahn-Zhao in May and of a few other board members forced them to think seriously about their future. 

Conversations occurred about how to fill the shoes of Hergenhahn-Zhao — who Bivins said was the driving creative force behind Sylvia — but attracting someone with the availability and experience to be even an interim executive director was to be a challenge. 

“Everyone on the board has a full-time job,” Bivins said. “Oftentimes, folks join boards and organizations going through transitions, but they’re able to do that successfully when you’ve got retired people doing it, who have different bandwidths (comparatively).” 

When an in-depth financial analysis was conducted this spring, it raised serious concerns over Sylvia’s viability. 

“We didn’t have confidence that the building owners would be interested in renewing our lease past when it expires,” Bivins said. “It was not a decision that we made lightly, but felt like a lot of the evidence snuck up on us.”

Bivins said Sylvia wouldn’t have been able to continue paying even their current rent amount, which was set to increase. 

Hergenhahn-Zhao said he and his wife, former Sylvia director of plays and teacher Shu-Ling Zhao, were somewhat blindsided by the board’s decision to close the nonprofit, pointing out that the center had not undertaken any significant fundraising in over a year. 

But Bivins said that even emergency fundraisers likely wouldn’t have been enough to save Sylvia. 

“I think we would have to hold one of those probably every month … to start to build the nest egg that would be necessary to continue operations,” he said. “We saw that we weren’t going to be able to fill the void.”

Second act: Goldilocks zone

The Sylvia Center is still operating, of course. While iDiOM Theater no longer produces plays on its stages, the Upfront is still holding regular shows every weekend and the Lucas Hicks Theater is still hosting plays put on by local theater companies who’ve rented the space. 

One of those companies is the recently formed Those Brazen Wenches Theatre Company, founded by former Sylvia Center playwright-in-residence Rosalind Reynolds and director-actress Dawn Hunter. 

The company’s temporary cast of 21 people just finished a five-show run of “Thrice to Wind the Charm,” a trilogy of short plays that evolved out of winning iDiOM’s most recent version of its popular serialized play contest, known as “Serial Killers.”

Reynolds said that while other performing arts venues that predate Sylvia are still options for future productions her company puts on — including Fairhaven’s Firehouse Arts and Events Center and Mount Baker Theatre’s Walton Theatre — none feel quite as perfect as Sylvia’s Lucas Hicks space. 

Bivins said he understands that Sylvia has been a sweet spot — a Goldilocks zone, if you will — for theater groups in terms of size and seating. 

Performances by groups including The Unsubdued Theatre Collective are scheduled at the Sylvia Center until the facility’s lease expires later this year. (Matt Benoit photo © 2022)

Despite the impending demise of Sylvia as a nonprofit, building co-owner Sonja Max said the space may continue being offered for arts-related purposes, contingent on community need and demand. 

Meetings with artists and arts organizations have begun happening, she said in an email, and Opus Performing Arts is working on second-floor improvements to host a dance school. Bellingham Cider Company still occupies the back of the building, and its annex at 203 Prospect holds the art gallery of oil painter Sharon Kingston.

“The goal with the building originally was to restore it so the community could enjoy it,” Max said. “Whatever ultimately goes in the Sylvia Center’s spaces will complement these businesses as well as contribute in some way to the downtown arts district.”

The next act: meeting the need?

Bivins said he’s not sure what will happen to Sylvia’s assets, which include lighting, sound equipment and seating systems. But he does hope they might be used in whatever’s next for the local theater community. 

“We believe that there is still a need for affordable, community-centric space in this town,” he said. 

Reynolds agrees, adding that municipal investment in that goal would be wonderful. 

“I would love a public performing arts venue,” she said. “We have a public library. We have public schools. Let’s have a public theater that community groups can rent out at affordable prices, that is accessible to the public. That would be my best-case scenario.”

Two people closely involved with Bellingham’s arts scene also have ideas about what can be done to help it be more sustainable. 

Cheryl Crooks, former Mount Baker Theatre board member and current executive director of the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, and Valerie Dalena, a Sylvia Center board member from December 2017 to April 2019, think the founding of the Whatcom Arts Project was a major step in the right direction. [Read more: “Whatcom Arts Project brings local groups together — at a crucial time,” Salish Current, Nov. 20, 2020]

Recently recognized by Mayor Seth Fleetwood at the annual Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony at MBT on June 29, the consortium of 30 original member arts organizations formed amid COVID-19, meeting virtually on a weekly basis to plan and provide content via social media and the Bellingham-Whatcom County Tourism website. 

Crooks and Dalena also point out what other cities, in Washington and beyond, have done to help their arts scenes.

In Tacoma, the city’s CREATE program allocates a portion of tax dollars for arts scene funding and promotion. In Colorado, the city of Telluride’s Council for the Arts and Humanities has implemented strategies to advance local arts and activities. 

Although the City of Bellingham provides marketing grants that can be used by arts organizations towards venue rentals, organizations must prove they can bring in enough tourists to qualify. Those grants are currently being offered for 2023. 

Bellingham city council member Michael Lilliquist said that while arts funding in any city is traditionally multifaceted, city government is traditionally a small player in that funding. Aforementioned tourism tax dollars are restricted by state law in usage, he said in an email. 

Bellingham has a 1% for the Arts program tied to its major public works projects, he added, but that isn’t a general support program. 

“Basically, it ensures that some kind of public art is included in our major projects,” he said, such as adding sculptures to a bridge project or mosaics to a bus stop. 

Crooks and Dalena said the city or county could help subsidize arts by allocating a small percentage of home sales taxes. 

“Subsidization would go a long way to help sustain local struggling arts organizations that attract tourism and make Bellingham an attractive place to live,” they said in a statement to Salish Current. “We can do more. We owe it to our arts organizations, the community and to the countless visitors from across the country and around the world.”

Regardless of what happens to the Sylvia Center space or the emergence of a new performing arts venue, Reynolds and other members of Bellingham’s theater group say they are still optimistic about the future of performing arts in town. 

The reason, Reynolds said, is simple. 

“What’s important, ultimately, is the people,” she said. “We have a lot of amazing performers, and artists of all kinds. And they’re not going to stop creating. And I think there’s also a lot of people who see the need for more performing arts venues. However it happens, I think in the long-term, there’s definitely a future for community theater here.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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