The Tenth Muse

Artists and small arts groups find an inspiring new (and old) home.

For years I've been trying to make people read How Buildings Learn, which is one of those "Oh, now I get it" books. It's by Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog guy, who turns out to be an architectural revolutionary who gives a '40s-vintage gas station and Mount Vernon equal time. The only buildings he turns his nose up at are those too badly designed or built to evolve in response to human needs.

Steve Anderson, director of development and marketing at Muse--Tucson's Home for the Arts, aka the International Arts Society building, aka the old Lohse YMCA at Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street, hasn't read this sacred text, but he and his colleagues at Muse are completely in sync with Brand's credo of the ever-learning structure.

Anderson, Muse director Karen Greene and their allies are bringing this forlorn mass of utilitarian brick--currently hunkered down charmlessly behind a cracked parking lot--back to life as a community center for the arts. The transformation doesn't show yet on the outside; so far, Muse hasn't even been able to afford signs. Inside, though, there's a resurrection going on, and the non-profit venture has just reached the operational break-even point.

Once the center of neighborhood activity, the Y stood empty after Lohse YMCA moved downtown in 1992. It was threatened with demolition and afterlife as a parking lot before being purchased in 1997 and turned into the International Arts Center. The visionary but feckless new owners saw it as a community for artists, 53,000 square feet of unpretty, run-down but infinitely adaptable enclosed space, and they thought it could make a profit. It didn't.

In the summer of 2000, when the principals were about to walk, Karen Greene's family stepped in. They're Shamrock Contracting, the people who refloored McKale, and they'd done some work on the old Y.

Greene started cleaning the monster up again and incorporated as a non-profit. In March of this year she hired Anderson--whose background is in theater and architectural restoration--to gather support, articulate a mission, write a credible business plan and get the community involved. "This building needs to be for the community," Anderson says. "It's obvious."

Scroll forward to a cold, rainy Saturday earlier this month and an open house at Muse.

All but three of the umpteen studio spaces have been rented out to artists, community and arts organizations and local businesses, and even with a Cats game on TV, the funky old halls and rooms and stairways are hopping with varied busy-ness. In the 6,000-foot Nations Hall--think big high school gym with a functioning stage--a graduation for Desert Institute of the Healing Arts has just ended, and 500 chairs are being stacked even as kids and adults start arriving to set up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters event.

"People find their way here," Anderson says. "There are more than 200 performing groups in the city that can't afford Pima or Leo Rich, and all sorts of other groups who need a big room once in a while. They need us, and they find us." Rent is by the hour and reasonable: The big hall has hosted dance jams, the odd UApresents production and myriad little theater and dance performances. Swing dance lessons happen twice a month in the smaller hall next door and several dance schools and companies use the wooden-floored studio down the hall.

A gallery and a pottery studio on the main floor have just opened, and four teen-aged girls are giggling in the pottery shop (supervised by potter-in-residence Maxine Krasnow) while, next door, figure sculptor and maintenance honcho Richmond Prehn works from a full-sized nude that's been modestly swathed for the occasion. The Arizona Fencing Academy is upstairs; Arts Reach Native American Student Writing Program is down.

In the basement, Rick Wheeler stands in Desert Light Design studio, talking to visitors against a backdrop of his big, luminous watercolors and Cliff Crutchfield's 360-degree photos of southern Utah. Down the hall, artist Sammie Alijagic, in residence for less than a week, comfortably occupies two rooms, one an old shower "complete with actual, historic soap scum." The inimitable beat of--what else?--The Village People's "YMCA" comes from a boombox in the corner.

Upstairs, World War II flier Roy Bass is leaving after a portrait sitting, his uniform over his shoulder and his Distinguished Flying Cross back in its case. Painter Robert Rowland, who works in egg tempera, is doing a series of portraits of veterans for an exhibition that opens here February 18, 2002. Muse's partners for the event include the Southern Arizona Veterans' Administration, Library of Congress' Veterans History Project and the Arizona Inn.

"Everything we do is a collaboration," Anderson explains. "And the more people in Tucson know us, the better. What we want is for people to say to themselves, 'I don't have anything to do. Hey, I'll go see what's happening down at Muse.'"

Anderson and Greene even have plans for bringing life back into the part of the complex that longtime Tucsonans remember most fondly--the huge indoor pool.

Standing empty in the darkness, its uncountable square-inch tiles dry, the big pool waits to become a pool-theater--a natatorium--with steeply raked seating rising up out of the deep end and far up toward Sixth Street. The old bleachers on the side will become a permanent exhibit devoted to the history of the Y, and the whole place will swim in aqueous blue light. It will cost $3 million, at least, and fundraising has just begun.

"We'll keep as much of the feel of the pool as we can while making the space a working theater. There are so many memories under this roof."

Anderson points up into the shadows, to marks on one of the great white roof beams. "A gentleman came in and wanted to see if his handprints were still up there. The kids used to put some kind of black stuff on their hands and then try to slap the beam when they came off the high-dive."

The shrieks and splashes, the sound of hurrying feet and the guard's whistle--even the high-dive itself--are long-gone, but the handprints of once-young Tucson show-offs are still visible, ghostly black on white, in the darkness under the roof.

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