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Selma's New Arts Center Makes A Bold Statement

The City of Selma opens the doors of its new Arts Center Wednesday evening with a ribbon cutting ceremony. And while the building's striking architecture is creating a buzz, its mission as a cultural center has captured the community's imagination. Valley Public Radio’s Joe Moore reports.

Dozens of painters, plasterers, and electricians were hard at work today in downtown Selma, putting the finishing touches on a new jewel in the city's downtown - the $2.5 million Selma Arts Center. 

"As soon as the open house is over the following we're going to keep working to finish up the rest of the work. We're about 10 days away from being complete on the project," says  Selma mayor Ken Grey.

But while some of the last details still need to be installed inside the 264 seat theater, the  building, which was designed by the world renowned architect Arthur Dyson and his firm DSJ, is already creating a community buzz.

"Sometimes in our other public buildings, we have a tendency to standardize those a bit, and here we basically gave him an open palette, and boy he really went for it," says Grey.

There's no doubt the building is a bold visual statement. Just ask Randy McFarland, vice chairman of the Selma Arts Council and a member of the Raisin Cain Players, a community theater group which will call the building home starting next month.   

"As you can see here in downtown Selma, architecture tends to be old fashioned, very traditional, very conservative, and yet the architectural team headed by Art Dyson designed a front of this building which is anything but conventional, anything but conservative, but it just absolutely says "arts" with a capital "A" and that was the intent," says McFarland. 

Situated on the west side of High Street, right in the middle of Selma's historic turn-of-the-last-century downtown, sits the theater. Its facade bursts out onto the sidewalk like a sculpture. Two huge plaster covered diamonds mark the entry, and giant beams jut out to form a canopy, not unlike the like wings of a fighter jet.  

"This was really exciting, especially from a small community like that," says architect Arthur Dyson. 

He says the site, hemmed in on two sides by other downtown buildings, provided the inspiration to do something different. 

"A lot of folks see obstacles, but sometimes they're opportunities in disguise. You have a great urban setting. You have a nice fabric of buildings that are very pleasant because they're very honest. They're an expression of the time in which they were done," says Dyson.

Dyson says instead of trying to replicate that century old look, he wanted to do something authentic to this era, that would catch the eye and represent the intended use of the space.  

"We tried to do something very clean, very honest, very simple. The building has these two geoforms in front of it that really are screens. They're going to be a backdrop. And so there will be colored lights that will be projected on those. So different times of the year, you'll see different things. On the Fourth of July it might have stars and stripes on it," says Dyson.

The look is cutting edge, but it's what will go on inside that will really has people excited.  

"As you walk through this little hallway where we are now with a low ceiling, and you turn the corner and all of a sudden it opens up into this great hall where the audience will sit and a huge stage which is actually deeper, including the work area, than the audience itself," says McFarland. 

State-of-the -art sound and LED lights have McFarland's group eager to launch their first production in the new space, The Sound of Music, which will open on September 14th. Dennis Adkins, the Director of the Raisin Cain Players says it's also a re-launch for the company itself, which has been silent for a couple of years in search of a new home.

"If you look at the first facility that we housed, it was in the Pioneer Village in an old wood frame structure called the old Unger Opera House. If you look at that and you see the peeling paint and the boards falling away and you look up and you see sky in the roof, that's kind of where we started. And to evolve from there to this beautiful modern theater, as a gem of the valley and the community as well, it's certainly something that thrills not only myself but all those involved," says Adkins. 

So how did the City of Selma come to open a first rate arts center in an era when so many other cities are simply struggling to survive?

Years ago, the city bought an old downtown furniture store to turn into an arts center. But before anything could happen, the roof collapsed and the building was a total loss. And another city owned building which had been used by the theater group was sold to the local hospital, which needed to expand. The money from the sale plus that from the insurance company, and donations was just enough to construct the new building, which Selma Mayor Ken Grey is happy to note is completely paid for up front. 

"It's a real investment for today and into the future for the generations to come in Selma, to give them an opportunity to express themselves. Selma is a community born out of the agricultural industry, but we have youth that's coming to life here, generations that are moving on,  they're out of the agricultural field and into other walks of life, and as that's happening, I think Selma is growing to accommodate that shift in its culture. And I think this is really progressive way of doing that," says Grey.

In addition to the Raisin Cain Players, the center will also host a variety of events, including a Latino arts series on the first Friday of every month beginning in November, as well as student groups and other arts organizations. 

Nicolette Anderson, the Arts Center coordinator is also responsible for the youth programs which the city runs. 

"I think that it's showing the community hope, I think it's showing them progress. I know that this building is going to bring downtown up a notch. It's going to help the businesses here, it's going to help the restaurants that are nearby," says Anderson. 

And according to Mayor Grey, the 12,000 square foot center is having an impact. Local businesses on High Street have recently completed renovations of their own storefronts and more are on the way. As far as the building's striking modern facade, he says it's already done its job.  

"If we get people to talk about art, then we have captured our job. I think that's what this building speaks to. If people love it, great. If they're adamant that they don't think they like it, they're still going to talk about it. And it still means they're going to talk about art. Not everybody likes every painting, not everybody likes every sculpture, but they will discuss it," says Grey.

And he hopes the new building and the programs inside will help enhance the quality of life for residents in the "Raisin Capital of the World."

"Basically what the Arts Center says about Selma is that the people here understand the value of all the arts in their variety of forms, toward the lifestyle that we would all like to live," says Grey.

The curtain will rise for the first time September 14th, 2013. 


Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).
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