Projects will be reconsidered in new conceptual plan

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FARMINGTON — A proposal to construct an auditorium and a traveling exhibition hall at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park has picked up momentum in recent weeks, but the project is by no means a new idea.

In fact, city officials have explored the notion in one form or another for more than 15 years.

Farmington Museum director Bart Wilsey said the projects were identified in a strategic plan compiled for the museum in 2003. They also were included in a conceptual design plan produced for the museum in October 2007, a document that ultimately led to the construction of the so-called "energy wing."

A lack of funding for the auditorium and exhibition hall meant they went nowhere in 2003 and 2007.

"We thought it was too pie in the sky and that we didn't have any way to pay for it," said Wilsey, who recently celebrated his 20th year at the museum.

That may prove to be the case in this instance, as well. But the two projects already seem to be drawing more serious consideration than they did in their earlier iterations.

City officials, potential stakeholders and representatives of a Santa Fe-based design firm will meet March 12 to outline the parameters of a conceptual plan that will explore the proposals. The $55,000 study — paid for by the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation, the Farmington Museum Foundation and the city of Farmington — will examine the real costs of construction and upkeep of the facilities, how the comparable facilities that already exist in Farmington would compare to them, and how the proposed facilities would fit in the museum's footprint.

The study will be conducted by Conron & Woods Architects, the firm that produced the museum's 2007 conceptual design plan and designed its energy wing.

The projects were given new life last fall when the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation offered the city $750,000 for the construction of a new auditorium at the museum. While that offer was under consideration, city officials decided to explore the associated idea of constructing the traveling exhibition hall, as well.

That development caught Mick Hesse, a CGAF board member who presented the group's offer to the City Council, off guard.

"I was surprised because we were sort of struggling with our original offer," he said, explaining that there had been little movement on the issue and he wasn't sure how seriously city officials were taking it. "So when the second one came in, it was a big surprise."

Hesse was pleased to learn the city not only was still considering the auditorium proposal, but that it was interested in combining it with a larger project.

"That tells me they have thought things through since we started this process many months ago," Hesse said. "We have this beautiful dream of the museum being a flashpoint."

Since floating the proposal in October, Hesse's group has secured pledges from the philanthropic arms of two local energy companies — Pesco and the Merrion Oil & Gas Corporation — for each to donate a total of $75,000 over a three-year period for the auditorium. That brings the total amount offered for the project to $900,000.

The CGAF also has pledged to donate a baby grand piano to the facility at an additional cost of between $25,000 and $35,000, Hesse said.

Assistant City Manager Julie Baird has said the auditorium likely would seat 200 to 225 people. Hesse said he envisions such a facility having an adjacent green room in which those delivering presentations at the facility would have an opportunity to get dressed and get prepared. He also said that ideally, it would include lighting, a public address system and video/projection equipment.

He believes the museum and community arts groups would make great use of such a facility, identifying dozens of uses for it. Wilsey backed up that assertion, presenting The Daily Times with a list of nearly three dozen types of events that could find a comfortable home in an auditorium. That includes events the museum has presented in the past, events it stages currently and new events it could welcome if it had such a facility.

The museum currently stages such events in its education rooms or galleries, each of which have limitations in terms of size or suitability for oral and/or visual presentations. Wilsey noted that the museum's Curator's Choice Lecture Series, presented by Jeffrey Richardson, is particularly popular, sometimes drawing crowds that push the education rooms to their capacity of approximately 100 people.

Turning to his computer, Wilsey conducted a quick survey of how many events the museum played host to in February that would have been suitable for an auditorium. He quickly identified 14 such events.

"That is a lot," he said. "And this is, to be quite honest, the slower time of year. In the spring, summer and fall, we would get more use out of it."

In addition to its current list of offerings that includes lectures, Chautauqua presentations, demonstrations and children's activities, Wilsey said an auditorium would provide a suitable space for the screening of 3D films, large-format films and those associated with the traveling exhibitions to which it plays host.

"It would allow us to go into this list and do more than we've ever been able to do before, on a regular basis, anyway," he said.

Hesse said his arts foundation would like to see such a facility made available for rental to local arts groups at what he termed a "reasonable and affordable" rate, though he acknowledged he didn't have a figure in mind.

His group also has stipulated that its gift is contingent upon the facility being named for Connie Gotsch, the late Farmington author and radio show host who died in 2012, and that the nonprofit organization that bears her name be allowed to hold its meetings there.

Hesse said he was distressed to learn there may be a narrative developing in town that the arts foundation is pushing for the construction of the auditorium primarily for its own use.

"That's not the case," he said. "We really need to emphasize the idea that we expected the museum would use this way more than we did. We have very little we want to do (in terms of events). That's not our thing. We facilitate and make opportunities for other groups to perform. … This is more to help the museum fulfill its mission in the community."

Wilsey said it is unfortunate that the motives of the arts foundation are being questioned.

"The key thing is, the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation doesn't need to do this," he said. "They want to do this. To be honest, the benefit to the museum is long going to outweigh the benefit to the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation. We are going to program the heck out of this."

Hesse said he believes the addition of the exhibition hall to his organization's original proposal will help.

More: City awards contract for conceptual plan for proposed auditorium project

"I think it increases (the chances of the auditorium being built)," he said. "Obviously, somebody higher up thought this was a good idea. I think it's moving the ball closer to our thing. I think it's a great thing."

Wilsey said a traveling exhibition hall would closely resemble the museum's existing Cassie Stiles Dallas Exhibit Gallery. He said such facilities are, by nature, large, empty boxes with high ceilings that are flexible enough to welcome anything from visual art to dinosaur displays. He said it would need to be approximately 5,000 square feet — enough space for a single large traveling show or two or three smaller ones.

"Something like that gives us the flexibility to take on blockbuster exhibitions," he said.

Having a hall dedicated to traveling exhibitions would allow the staff to dedicate the existing gallery to a permanent display on Farmington history, something Wilsey regards as an important part of the museum's mission. He said if he had to choose between the two proposed projects, there is little doubt about which one is a higher priority.

"If I had my druthers as a museum director, I'd have a traveling exhibition hall first," he said.

More: Arts foundation offers to help fund auditorium at Farmington Museum

But he is excited about the synergistic opportunities the two rooms would afford.

"The key thing with both of these is the true beauty and power would be to have a traveling exhibition hall and then have our programming assisted with an auditorium across the hall," he said.

The possible placement of the two rooms is one of the issues that will be examined by Conron & Woods, but the conceptual design the firm produced in 2007 had them located at the northeast corner of the building. That space remains unused 12 years later, consisting of a gravel surface and extending from the flag plaza at one edge of the parking lot almost to the Animas River, which runs behind the museum.

Both Wilsey and Hesse understand the decision about whether to build both, one or neither of the projects will come down to the City Council, and that decision will be based largely on financial feasibility. In addition to the construction costs of the projects, they would carry with them increased maintenance, utility and staffing costs for the museum, which already operates on a tight budget.

"That's their job," Wilsey said of the city administration and City Council. "I can present what kind of benefit it would be to us, but, ultimately, it's their decision."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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