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A PALACE FOR THE ARTS: THE CLAY CENTER OPENS Magazine Story

April 27, 2005

IN CERTAIN CIRCLES...

 

If the marketing gurus of the new Clay Center in Charleston were seeking the perfect metaphor for their new palace of arts and sciences, they would need look no further than Cavortech, the kinetic sculpture which sits at the nucleus of the facility.

 

Designed by artist George Rhoads, Cavortech is unique and exciting, drawing your attention the moment you enter.  Resembling a framework medieval tower, it has an interior that whirs away, as brightly painted ping-pong balls zoom, dance, spin and bounce through a daisy chain.  Some of the balls are devoured by a green dinosaur which spits them back out.  Others do a loop-the-loop in a design borrowed from Coney Island. Some make musical noises as they find their way through a machination resembling a giant game of Mousetrap. 

 

Yet each and every ball returns to the point where it began after taking its own unique journey through a dizzying array of possibilities. 

 

Like Cavortech, the Clay Center is filled with kinetic energy, delightfully strange turns, beautiful music and bold, splashy color. And like the colorful kinetic orbs, each visitor will take his or her own path in a deliberately circuitous route which allows for enjoyment of all the center's offerings.

 

The Clay Center opened in July 2003 to much fanfare, after years of planning and a final price tag of $140 million.  The center is more than even its stately name would suggest.  Part performance hall, part hands-on exhibits, part art museum, part...well, the list goes on.  The only comprehensive word which applies to the varied montage that is the Clay Center is fun and even that fails to explain the breadth of offerings found here.

 

THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA

 

The genesis of the Clay Center can be found in 1983, when lawyer and civic leader John McClaugherty was selected to head the Charleston Renaissance Corporation, an entity designed to revitalize downtown Charleston.  The group identified many ideas for the city, and among them was a concert hall.  McClaugherty was president of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, so he was perfectly suited to research and develop the idea.

 

Around the same time, Sunrise Museum was looking at the idea of moving downtown.  Officials asked a consultant to provide a schematic and cost approximation for the move, and along the way the idea of merging the arts and sciences developed. 

 

McClaugherty was the father of the as-yet-unnamed project, and he spearheaded a campaign drive which over the years yielded $105 million for the center.

 

"John McClaugherty was the true visionary behind this project," said Newton Thomas, chairman of the center's board.  "He managed to work with the various entities of different disciplines to make things happen."

 

At that time, the arts and sciences offerings were dispersed throughout the city. The Broadway series of traveling theatre companies and the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra were performing at the Municipal Auditorium downtown, the Sunrise Museum was in the storied MacCorkle mansion in South Hills, and the Charleston Light Opera Guild and other local theatre troupes were using venues all over the Charleston.

 

Sadly, McClaugherty did not live to see his vision come to fruition.  He died in March 2003, just three months before the center's opening.  The end result of the vision and hard work he shared with so many has now become Charleston's crown jewel. 

 

The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences is a stunning piece of architecture:  Classic red brick frames elegant black glass, all topped appropriately with not one, but two stately copper domes. From the Capitol to a cluster of stately churches, it is easy to see Charleston is a city at home under a dome.

 

The center's appeal to eclectic crowds is evident through the transportation seen just outside the facility's front door. School buses queue up around the cul-de-sac and unload students from far-flung school districts to explore hands-on science exhibits.  Arty patrons from disparate places arrive in Subarus and Tauruses to partake in the daring of provocative paintings and sculptures. Well-heeled patrons disembark from Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes to enjoy a performance from the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, while college-age students come by any means that can get them there to enjoy an avant garde performance in a separate theatre.

 

While each of these guests knows what he or she came to see, they often find themselves partaking of the facility's other offerings. This challenge to the visitors to explore the place is what Clay Center and WVSO executive director Paul Helfrich aptly calls cross-pollination, with which Newton Thomas agrees.

 

"The center perfectly accomplishes what it was designed and planned to do," said Thomas.  "It creates a great synergy between arts and sciences."

 

GETTING STARTED

 

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is told to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the Emerald City. In Charleston, the Clay Center already is the Emerald City and its floor is a yellow brick road...and red and purple and slate and blue, as multi-hued terrazzo swirls create lively patterns, turning the floor itself into a piece of art.    This is only the entrance to the center and already your eyes are dazzled. It won't matter which color you follow, as the entire building is filled to the brim with exciting options. 

 

The Clay Center houses three separate entities which work together symbiotically:  the Clay Center for the Arts; the Avampato  Discovery Museum; and the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

 

THE CLARK PERFORMANCE PLACE

 

The part of the center that offers live performances is housed in the the building north end, which is called The Clark Performance Place. Both its edifice front and roof are bowed, giving the illusion there is so much music and theatricality that the place is bursting at the seams.  That isn't far from the truth.

 

The centerpiece of these spaces is the Maier Foundation Performance Hall.  While there are 1,883 seats in the theatre, there isn't a bad view in the house. With elegant box seats lining the walls and a loge descending gently towards the orchestra seats, it reminds one of a modern take on a classic Viennese opera house. 

 

Quite ingeniously, the orchestra pit is modular. If no orchestra is required for a show, the pit can easily be covered with front-row seats. No space is wasted in the Maier, and the acoustics are so sharp that visiting performer Daniel Rodriguez remarked they were better than what is to be had at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. 

 

Many performers can be daunted by the task of trying to be audible to the back row, but the Maier's space manages to be intimate in spite of its palatial size. Stepping onto this welcoming stage can give even the greatest dilettante the sensation that he can sing an aria or take a partner for a spin in a pas de deux. 

 

Fortunately, show schedulers keep the space busy with the likes of the creative Pilobolus Dance Company, the bold Aquila Theatre of London and the dynamic Doc Severinsen and his Big Band.  The offering is so eclectic that ticket buyers have been attracted from 30 different states so far.

 

On the east side of the Maier, sitting in a self-contained soundproof space of its own, is the Walker Theatre.  The Walker is what's known as a black box theatre, which is basically a large, black empty space with no fixed seats or stage.  It affords performers the opportunity to shape the space in which they will work. Because of its soundproof qualities, it can house a show simultaneously with one in the Maier, and suffer no sound bleed. 

 

The Maier's magnificent lobby is available for rent to host parties, soirees, or even business meetings.  In fact, the Maier Hall is also available for rent to any business in need of lecturing space.  Business people in Brooks Brothers suits and Donna Karan power designs can give presentations during the day, in the same spaces where maestros and maestras conduct proceedings of an artistic kind at night.

 

Other great opportunities are afforded by the new space with afternoon performances and master classes offered by visiting artists. Students now have the luxury of seeing artistic offerings mixed with lectures and symposiums, which detail the work.  West Virginia's young minds are being exposed to art, hence breeding the state's next generation of great artists. 

 

THE AVAMPATO DISCOVERY MUSEUM

 

If the north end of the Clay Center is designed for live performances to delight the eye and stir the heart, then the south end is designed to challenge the mind. The Avampato Discovery Museum is a complex of four spaces devoted to science, one space devoted to art, and the Electric Sky Theater devoted to the stars and beyond. The Avampato takes over where Charleston's Sunrise Museum left off.

 

The central concept of the Avampato was to take the learning center of the Sunrise Museum, which was housed in the former MacCorkle mansion overlooking the city, and expand on it.  The result is an exciting mélange of exhibits which no one can overlook.

 

Designed by the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio, the Science Galleries comprise the bulk of the new museum, and there are four of them, each with something to offer kids of all ages. 

 

The Gizmo Factory is designed to resemble one of West Virginia's busy factories, except that what is produced here is the special magic of fun by way of learning.  Thirty exhibits give kids the opportunity to understand how things work.  From making giant bubbles five feet wide to making music with a stringless laser harp, the exhibits delight while they entertain.

 

Milton Gardner's Earth City is fashioned after a traditional roadside attraction, and the emphasis is on earth science and the forces of nature that helped shape West Virginia and the rest of the earth.  Students of geology can gain a better understanding of how the four elements (most notably water) helped to shape the world in which we live. 

 

Health Royale is a lively and unique hybrid of health science exhibits and--are you ready for this?--TV game shows!  What sounds like an unusual marriage on paper is a wonderful execution in exhibition.  For example, one exhibit features an audio-animatronic panel of characters replacing the celebrities of "The Hollywood Squares," and kids test their knowledge of the human body with the likes of a giant brain or stomach. Good hygiene and smart health decisions are behind each of the exhibits.

 

Kidspace is an imaginative area set aside for kids five and under.  With tunnels, a ball crawl, games and even a giant tree house, the smaller set is challenged physically and mentally.

 

The Avampato is also a learning center.  While student tours of the museum are booked months in advance, distance learning is achieved through computer-based programs, and students throughout the state can partake of the offerings without making the trip to Charleston. The center is earning its nickname as "the largest classroom in the state."

 

While kids explore the boundaries of science, their parents can enjoy the rarefied experience of an art exhibit in the Juliet Museum of Art. With 9,000 square feet of contiguous space, the Juliet is climate-controlled and offers rotating shows as well as some permanent displays. Paintings or sculptures occupy the space with equal ease.

 

On the lower level of the Avampato, patrons can grab a bite to eat at the Douglas V. Reynolds Intermezzo Café.  Open until 4:30 every day, the restaurant is a place where guests can enjoy a delicious lunch, and it is open even later on days of performances to offer the option of dinner.

 

Finally, a trip to the Clay Center is completed under one of its signature domes in the planetarium which doubles as the Electric Sky Theatre. If there is one space which shows the exponential growth of Charleston's science center from Sunrise to Avampato, it is the planetarium. While the planetarium at Sunrise featured a star ball (projection unit) of 900 stars, the Avampato planetarium star ball features 10,000 stars! 

 

When guests aren't pondering the heavens in the theatre, they can enjoy large-format films which explore everything from Mt. Everest to the icy caves of Greenland. The domed screen also dazzles at night with laser shows devoted to the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

 

THE WEST VIRGINIA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

 

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (WVSO) finally has the home it deserves.  While the Municipal Auditorium served the symphony well for performances, WVSO offices were located in a renovated house on Virginia Street and shared by a number of other arts organizations.  Symphony officials now have the luxury of office and performance space located under one roof.  Management and artists can make use of the Clay Center together.  

 

While WVSO has always attempted bold and audacious work, the new facility has opened the door for musicians to push the limits even farther. In May, the company will present Puccini's glorious and tragic opera "Tosca" in the Maier Hall.  Casting for the production will include both local and national talent and the show promises to be one of the states great showcases for what West Virginians can accomplish artistically.

 

And that brings us full circle--literally.  Like the colorful spheres of Cavortech, we have completed our journey through the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.  But of course no journey would be complete without taking home a souvenir. That task is easily accomplished in the BB&T Little Shop of Wonders gift shop in the center's main lobby, where West Virginia art glass can be purchased along with science toys designed to challenge young minds.  

 

Even the center's gift shop manages to mix art, entertainment and education into one experience.  Nothing could be more appropriate, since the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences is a gift to young developing minds as well as savvy patrons of the arts in West Virginia. 

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