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Fort Wayne Ballet members perform at Freimann Square in 2011.

Donation foretells bright future for city’s arts scene

The stunning $1 million donation to the Fort Wayne Ballet announced last week is just the latest sign of the growth and vitality of Fort Wayne’s arts community.

Given by the Edward D. and Ione Auer Foundation, the money will free the ballet to plan for years ahead, according to the ballet’s executive and artistic director, Karen Gibbons-Brown. But in a larger sense, the foundation’s generous donation is one of many foretokens of an even brighter future for the city’s arts.

The downtown “arts campus,” originally conceived of by the famous architect Louis I. Kahn half a century ago, has taken shape over the decades.

The Arts United Center was built in 1973; the Fort Wayne Museum of Art moved in next door 11 years later; and the Auer Center for Arts and Culture emerged from the chrysalis of the old NIPSCO/Fourth Wave Building in 2011.

Now the arts corridor has become a living example of how collaboration among arts groups, civic organizations and local government can benefit the entire city.

The ballet, which had operated out of a former liquor warehouse on Penn Avenue, now is one of the Auer Center’s tenants. Suddenly, Brown said, the ballet had a home with the rest of the arts community – “the synergy and collaboration has been so exhilarating.” The ballet also shared in the visibility and excitement of being front-and-center downtown: The center’s studios were designed to take advantage of the building’s huge second-floor windows, which offer dancers arguably some of the most beautiful views in the city.

Though fundraising will always be a necessity, Gibbons-Brown says the ballet is financially healthy. And now, with the Auer Foundation’s lead gift for the troupe’s first endowment, the ballet can begin to act on long-term plans to increase scholarships, increase the number of productions and present modern repertory plays, a costly but important step forward.

Modern repertory plays make up works through most of the last century to the present. That means royalties and other costs. But “these are things that our dancers need and our community needs to see,” Gibbons-Brown said.

ArtsLab, the latest addition to the arts corridor, is taking shape on East Main Street as an addition to the Auer Center. The goal is to have it opened by year’s end.

ArtsLab will be what is known as a black box theater – a room without a fixed stage or fixed seating on the ground level.

The space can be used for small theater presentations, especially experimental plays that can’t be confined to a traditional stage space, as well as concerts and educational presentations.

For the ballet, ArtsLab may make the difference in attracting the brightest new choreographers. It’s not just the flexibility of the space, said Gibbons-Brown, but the feeling of safety that comes from performing new works in front of an audience in an intimate setting.

It’s ironic that Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne Director Jim Sparrow, who recently left to take a similar job in another market, Winston-Salem, N.C., won’t be at the helm for the opening of this next phase of the campus. Sparrow, who is married to Gibbons-Brown, deserves much of the credit for Arts- Lab and for reimagining Kahn’s vision of an arts corridor that becomes a major part of the city’s identity.

He argued, correctly, that the kind of distinctive arts identity that Fort Wayne is establishing can be an engine of economic growth as well as an improvement to the city’s overall quality of life.

Fort Wayne will miss Sparrow, who contributed so much to the city’s blossoming arts awareness. Fortunately, his vision is shared by many, including Gibbons-Brown, who plans to endure the hardships of a commuter marriage to stay here with the ballet.

To her, the arts are almost as essential as food and clothing.

“We’re feeding souls. What more can you offer someone?”

As you walk or drive past the arts campus, consider its beauty, look at the new theater emerging out of the construction dust and ponder what wonders the ballet will work now that a major endowment has freed it to think bigger.

The arts will probably touch your lives directly. They surely make our community a better place to live.