story by Rhonda Crone, special to The City Wire
The Arts Center of the Ozarks is one of the oldest independent small theaters in the Ozarks.
“Created for people by people who cared about the arts being a part of everyday life,” the ACO leadership claims to be a fundamental part of arts and culture in Northwest Arkansas.
It began as the Springdale Fine Arts Center in 1967 and moved to a few odd spots around town, including the basement of a funeral home, an old post office, and an empty movie theatre.
It settled in its home on West Emma Avenue in 1973, and other than an addition in 1978 for flexible theatre space, it hasn’t changed much, if at all. But by the end of the year, visitors will notice a refreshed ACO through the Revitalization Project.
One aspect of the project fundraising is the Take a Seat campaign. Since they’re replacing all old theatre seating, the ACO is selling the old seats for $175, or two for $150 each. A donor plaque in your name, business or in honor of someone will be permanently affixed to a new seat.
Major grants that have supported the project include:
• A Matching Grant from the Walton Family Foundation for $478,250;
• The Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation for $200,000;
• Tyson Foods for $75,000; and,
• Wal-Mart Foundation for $50,000.
Other contributions have come and are still being sought from the ACO’s patrons, participants, and community supporters.
Kathi Blundell first found herself at the ACO way back in 1975 alongside husband Harry, but they didn’t plan on staying. Now acting as administrative director as well as being in charge of costume design and construction, one of Kathi’s hats is to oversee development.
“We have very few employees and we all wear many hats,” she said.
She spearheads the $1 million Revitalization project designed to beautify and modernize the building and its grounds.
“We’re doing things in waves,” she said, so there’s no set date for completion. “In the fall, you’ll notice a whole lot of changes.”
Those changes include exterior and interior. This summer, they installed HVAC and repaired the roof. Indoor changes include new flooring, seats, lights, and sound inside the theatre. In October, the exterior improvements will happen, then before winter hits, they’ll redo parking lots and green spaces.
“It’s also going to be energy efficient,” Kathi said.
Kathi and Harry, the ACO’s director of theatre, are personally and professionally invested to the ACO. When she began, she did costumes and acted, but eventually focused on costumes.
She’s has built an impressive vintage costume collection with garments that range from period pieces to the 20’s through 70’s, and it’s one of the largest in the state.
“We love period stuff,” she said.
But when they need garments from a more contemporary era, Kathi and her volunteers may construct them, or find the components in vintage shops in the area.
The ACO isn’t just a theatre. It also houses galleries that showcase more than 300 artists per season, offers classes and hosted five fundraising events last year.
Kathi speaks lovingly and enthusiastically about the small theatre that she and Harry helped grow to its status as a cornerstone for local arts. Now, they have more than 575 volunteers a year.
“We’ve always been an institution driven by the people we serve,” she said. “We have a non-elitist, grass-roots approach to the arts. We’re directly related to the people.”