Arts group donates $500k to San Juan College for Little Theatre renovation

Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation makes total gift of $750k

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Senior physical plant director Chris Harrelson, San Juan College foundation executive director Gayle Dean and Gonnie Gotsch Arts Foudnation treasurer Cathy Pope take a look around the college's Little Theatre, which will be renovated, thanks to a $500,000 gift from Pope's foundation.

FARMINGTON — A nonprofit arts group that had offered city officials $750,000 toward the construction of an auditorium at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park instead will fund the renovation of the Little Theatre at San Juan College and help create an endowment that will underwrite its use by other local arts groups.

The Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation, based in Farmington, has donated $500,000 to the San Juan College Foundation for the project. It has donated another $250,000 for the endowment, which will be augmented by donations or pledged donations from Pesco and the Merrion Family Foundation to bring the total endowment to $350,000.

The interest generated from the endowment will create funding that will allow local arts groups to use the facility for free once a year, said Cathy Pope, the treasurer of the CGAF. The money also will be used to support music and fine arts programs at the college, including the purchase of equipment and the hiring of guest artists and instructors to help lead special programs, she said.

"It's a win-win," Pope said of the agreement her organization made to donate the money to the college foundation. "The college gets an upgraded theater, which it badly needed, and the fine arts programs get money they needed, and local arts organizations get the benefit of using (the theater)."

The gift brings to an end a long period of uncertainty about the fate of the proposed project. CGAF board member Mick Hesse presented the offer for the $750,000 gift to the Farmington City Council in October. But the proposal was tabled in February so a Santa Fe-based design firm could complete a $55,000 conceptual plan for the addition of the auditorium and a possible exhibit hall at the museum.

The renovation of the Little Theatre at San Juan College will include a refurbishing of the backstage area where performers prepare themselves.

Pope said over the past several months, it had become clear the city was not ready to move on her organization's offer, adding that the estimated costs of the proposed auditorium/exhibit hall project were so high, it was deemed unfeasible for now. The city was looking at tackling the project over the long term, but CGAF officials wanted to proceed with something immediately.

They found an eager partner in the San Juan College Foundation.

"She was elated," Pope said of her initial conversation with foundation executive director Gayle Dean on the subject, adding that Dean's attitude seemed to be, "Shall we start tomorrow?"

Dean didn't hide her enthusiasm for the project, explaining that the 35-year-old Little Theatre at the college is badly in need of a facelift.

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

"It's why we're here; it's what we do," she said of how her foundation facilitates such projects. "We're thrilled about the renovation of the theater, but we're equally thrilled about the endowment we will hold in perpetuity."

Chris Harrelson, the college's senior director of the physical plant, said the renovation will result in the replacement of the theater's 345 seats. Those seats are only 16 inches wide, he said, and the new seats will be roomier and more comfortable. But that will result in a slight reduction in seating capacity, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 seats, he said.

Changes like that will make a big difference to those who attend performances at the theater, said Linann Easley, the college's director of the fine arts center.

"We've done several renovations over the last couple of years to the technical aspects of it, but we haven't been able to manage any renovations to the front of the house," she said.

Easley knows from personal experience what an issue the theater's aging seats are.

"It seems like you would have to sit in four or five seats to find one that isn't broken or doesn't have springs coming through," she said.

The theater's lighting also will be replaced, and additional Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant seating will be added. New carpet also will be installed, and the interior of the theater will be repainted, he said. The project also will include a renovation of the backstage area, where performers dress and prepare themselves for shows.

Redesign plans are already in the works, and Harrelson said he expects the renovation to get underway in January. Harrelson said the work will render the theater unusable until the renovation is finished, which college officials expect to be sometime late in the spring semester.

"The arts are extremely important to our students and our community," Dean said. "We're just proud to be a part of it and do everything we can to make that better for our students."

San Juan College senior physical plant director Chris Harrelson displays the seating in the Little Theatre that will be replaced when a renovation of the facility begins early next year.

It won't just be San Juan College students who benefit from the gift, she noted. The ability of local arts groups to use the facility once a year at no charge will provide a boost for many of them, Dean said.

"The (current) rent of the theater is a detriment to some small organizations," she said. "They might love to use it, but they might not have the money to do it. So this endowment opens huge possibilities for them."

Easley noted that the Little Theatre is the only such facility of its size in this market, and having it available for free on an annual basis presents an exciting opportunity for many groups.

"This will allow those groups to present in a high-quality format at a price that's super affordable," she said.

The theater's busy periods now are the March-April and October-November windows, she said. Easley said she will work with those community groups to spread out their events and ensure the theater sees greater use across the calendar.

Dean expressed her gratitude to the CGAF for the gift.

"This is one of the nicest things that has happened to us in a long time," she said.

Pope said she appreciated the way the college foundation moved on the offer so quickly.

"Before the ink was even dry on the (gift) agreement, the planning was underway for the project," she said. "It's a natural marriage."

The theater will be renamed the Connie Gotsch Theatre and will feature a display about its namesake, a former San Juan College radio host and patron of the college's music and fine arts programs who died in 2012. Dean said the display would honor Gotsch's work in the community and her legacy.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.