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11/12/2013 10:57:00 AM
New art in an old school?
The Gallery in Williams' Kris Williams hopes to transform old elementary school into center for the arts
David Miller, Chris Miller, Andrea Dunn, Bonnie Dent and Kris Williams stand in what could be turned into an artist live/work space in the old elementary school building in Williams. Ryan Williams/WGCN
David Miller, Chris Miller, Andrea Dunn, Bonnie Dent and Kris Williams stand in what could be turned into an artist live/work space in the old elementary school building in Williams. Ryan Williams/WGCN
Williams, Dunn and Miller look at floor plans for the building. Ryan Williams/WGCN
Williams, Dunn and Miller look at floor plans for the building. Ryan Williams/WGCN

Ryan Williams
Managing Editor

Over the past few years, Williams has developed a small but thriving art scene with the Gallery in Williams sponsoring an art walk and the Open Studios sponsoring art and photography classes. But the Gallery's Kris Williams wants to put Williams on the art world map.

Williams is creating the Williams Alliance for the Arts. According to an early draft of the group's mission statement, the alliance's goal is to create an art space and promote events "that will help guide (Williams') future growth in a direction of culture and creativity."

The Alliance's biggest goal is turning the vacant school building located on Sheridan Avenue into the Williams Center for the Arts.

"We have a grand vision of seeing that turned into a regional center for the arts," Williams said.

Williams said she is working to establish a non-profit organization.

"We need to have a non-profit group so we can apply for grants and funding," she said. "We can't do it until we have an official group, one that is recognized by the IRS, a 501c3."

Turning an old school building into live-work artists lofts, while a big goal, has been done before.

Williams said the Curley School Artisan Lofts in Ajo, Ariz. and the Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery located in the historic Hotel Jerome are examples of successful art spaces housed in older buildings.

"Williams has so much going for it as far as location," Williams said. "It's easy to get to. I just think it is a natural fit and a wonderful opportunity.

Bruce Bennett, the old school's owner, is on board with the idea.

"He wants something to happen in there," Williams said. "He doesn't want to have to support it forever."

Bennett said if a group like the Williams Alliance wants to buy the building he is willing to help as much as possible to make it work.

The building is about 40,000 square feet on 22 lots. Bennett said he's looking to sell the building for $50 per square foot or around $2 million.

"The $50 per square foot is a very fair number and that's about what I have in it," Bennett said. "I've got 31 pieces of property right now and they're all for sale. And I'm not getting any younger."

He added that Williams' idea is a good one.

"It would bring artists into Williams, which would in turn generate more business," he said. "It could be a win-win deal. Her idea has got the lead position in what could happen with the school."

With its classrooms, multi-purpose rooms, outdoor spaces and cafeteria, Williams said the building would make an ideal center for the arts.

She envisions the center offering classes and activities for all ages including visual art, dance, music, yoga, cooking and gardening. The school building provides space for conferences, art shows, receptions and seminars.

"For the youth of our community, to offer them art classes, music classes. Yes, the school district is doing something but this would be something much more," Williams said.

The center would also house working artist studios and residences for artists.

Williams hopes to get a grant from Art Place, a collaboration between 13 national and regional foundations and six of the nation's largest banks.

She said it will be tough to get an application in for the 2014 grant cycle but 2015 could be possible.

"Most granting agencies want you to be in business for at least a year," Williams said. "They want to know that you're legitimate."

Williams is also looking to make the center a reality by collaborating with another group called Art Space. Art Space helps create art spaces in older buildings. To date, the organization has completed more than 33 projects. Art Space owns or co-owns all the buildings it helps develop.

"Now, that's my dream," Williams said. "That's the 100 percent we got it all scenario. They say 'oh yeah, that sounds great. You know we don't have a facility in Arizona. Let's just go buy this building.' And now we get the grants for the renovation and all that."

It is no small feat to transform a historic building into an art center or loft spaces.

Gary Bachman, Pima County Community Development and Housing Planner, said it took about $10 million to turn the Curley School in Ajo into artists' lofts. Pima County ended up contributing around $700,000 to the project.

Bachman said most of the money for the Curley School project came from low-income housing tax credits.

"The issue is putting together a credible project that would get a score on the application and ultimately get investors to buy the credits," he said. "That's really the challenge. I remember having meetings in the middle of summer in this dusty old school saying, 'Well, how are we going to get $8 million?"

While turning the old school in Williams into an art center could be difficult, Williams sees an art center in Williams as a big draw. She spoke to an artist from Scottsdale who said he would jump at the chance to rent a living space and studio in Williams during the summer months.

"But don't limit it to that, advertise worldwide," Williams said. "You'd get international artists coming here. And once you got them, if they gave a class or something you'd get people from all over the world coming to take their class. And they need a place to stay, they need a place to eat, they're going to buy groceries."

While creating a Center for the Arts in Williams is at the core of the Alliance's mission, the group also hopes to promote other events in Williams like an art fair centered around the Babbitt-Polson Stage.

Anyone interested in joining the Williams Alliance for the Arts can contact Williams at (928) 310-6287.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Article comment by: annette satterlee

Hooray! This would be a fabulous addition to Williams and the historic neighborhood. The old school is crying out for something like this and would be fabulous. I don't have an artsy bone in my body but would be willing to volunteer time in other ways.

Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Article comment by: Linda Creager

I have some time but not much money. This would be a dream come true!!! I am willing to help where I am needed!!

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