Bob Yates Dives into the Dairy Arts Center
City of Boulder Council Member Bob Yates delightfully explores the Dairy Arts Center in his recent e-newsletter “The Boulder Bulletin.” Yates also introduces the Dairy’s new executive director, Melissa Fatham who is looking to showcase diversity to strengthen the center and the community.
Diversity at the Dairy by Bob Yates
Visitors and newcomers to Boulder are sometimes perplexed when we tell them that our plays, performances, and movies are “at the Dairy.” Looking at the beautiful arts center at 26th and Walnut, it’s hard to imagine that it once really was an operating dairy. Today, the Dairy Arts Center, with its three live stages, its cinema, its art galleries, and its education spaces thoroughly disguises the industrial milk processing plant built by Watts Hardy in 1971. After the dairy ceased operations in the late ‘80s, an enterprising group of artists and their supporters took over the facility and, by 1992, had converted the cavernous plant into spaces for performances. Twenty-five years later, thanks to millions of dollars invested by the community and the vision of renowned local architect Stephen Sparn, the Dairy Arts Center is a Boulder gem.
A seven-year, multi-million renovation of the Dairy, under the leadership of longtime Dairy board chairman Richard Polk, is almost complete, with less than $1 million left in the capital campaign. The 250-seat Gordon Gamm Performance Theater and its companion 116-seat Grace Gamm Drama Theater provide tableaus for Boulder performing arts troupes, with presentations as varied as thought-provoking plays by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, to expressive dance by Boulder Ballet, to the powerful vocal jazz voice of Hazel Miller, to soaring arias from the Boulder Opera Company. A third performance venue, the Carsen Theatre, provides a flexible, intimate space for drama and dance. A little side story on the Carsen: The theater was built at the Dairy in the 1990s, with the largess of donor Jimmy Calano, who named it after his young daughter, Carsen. Two decades later, Carsen Calano is a dancer and studies studio art at the University of Colorado.
But, the Dairy Arts Center is not limited to live performance space. The 60-seat Boedecker Theater shows both first-run and art-house films, often followed by audience talk-backs with actors, producers, and subject-matter experts. The McMahon, Addison, MacMillan, and Hand-Rudy galleries display traditional, ethnic, and progressive art from artists both local and national, nearly all available for purchase. At the intersection of the theaters, cinema, and art galleries is the Polk Café in the Stephen Sparn-designed soaring lobby, a place for sustenance and human interaction. And in classrooms throughout the Dairy, students aged three to 93 take lessons in ballet, drama, art, piano, and voice from tenant organizations operating at the Dairy, like the Parlando School for the Arts and Boulder Ballet. All told, there are more than 200,000 arts experience at the Dairy each year.
With a quarter-century of successfully providing a home for artistic expression and learning, you might wonder if it can get any better. The Dairy’s new executive director, Melissa Fathman, certainly thinks so. Melissa says that, while the Dairy has done a good job of serving a large portion of the Boulder community, there are groups that have been overlooked. She’s aiming to change that. “We’re talking a lot about diversity these days,” Melissa said. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘Why is diversity important to us?’ Of course, the answer is that, when you have diversity, you have a stronger community.” Melissa is keenly aware that the Dairy’s building is owned by the City of Boulder, leased to the non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that operates it. “We are stewards of this building,” she explained. “We need to constantly ask ourselves what more we can place here.”
But Melissa and her nonprofit board are doing much more than to just talk about diversity. Last November, the Dairy hosted a huge Dia de los Muertos celebration in collaboration with El Centro Amistad, and the organization plans other community-wide events showcasing less well-known cultures. The Dairy will soon launch a new festival called Theater Made in Boulder, featuring playwrights from diverse ethnic, race, and gender backgrounds and experiences. And, recognizing that the arts are often disproportionately patronized by seniors, the organization hosts Kids at the Dairy for aspiring young artists, and recently started a program called Blind Tiger, delivering latenight sessions of live music and edgy stand-up comedy, blended with craft cocktails. “The Dairy is a platform to highlight work that might not have the opportunity to be presented in other venues,” Melissa explains. “We need to see where the gaps are and try to fill them. We need to bring in people that may not have felt welcome before.”
This dizzying array of choices will all come together on February 8, with an all-encompassing evening called “Peek: Revealing the Dairy Experience.” That night, visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy nearly every discipline that the Dairy offers, from dance to drama, from murals to music, from cinema to comedy, with food and beverage prepared by some of Boulder’s pre-eminent chefs and craft cocktail makers. Melissa promises that it will be a “smorgasbord of diversity,” with plenty of surprises. Tickets are now on sale at thedairy.org and Melissa warns that the event will likely sell out.
Classically trained in opera in the Midwest, with experiences in comedy and acting in New York City and a recent role as acting executive director of the Colorado Music Festival, Melissa brings to Boulder a passion for diversity of content and performance. On the job at the Dairy for only two months, she has wasted no time in demanding that her new home provide a place for the diversity that our community sometimes lacks. “We recognize the transformative power of the arts and their ability to uplift, challenge, question, and reveal,” Melissa explains. “It’s important that we include all voices. We want to make sure that everyone is heard.”
This article originally appeared in Bob Yates’ e-newsletter “The Boulder Bulletin” sent on Monday, January 1, 2018.