Raising the Roof

April 1, 2016

From the April/May 2016 issue of
Sactown Magazine.

By Anna Petkovich

E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts opens in midtown

The E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts will host a community open house Saturday, April 9, after opening in late March as the first multi-organization arts complex of its kind in Sacramento. Formerly the Fremont Adult School in midtown, the Studios is now home to the Sacramento Ballet, the Brazilian Center for Cultural Exchange, Sacramento Preparatory Music Academy, Alliance Française, Capital Stage and the McKeever School of Irish Dance.

A project 10 years in the making, the Studios’ mission is to be a cultural resource for the community by providing space for different organizations and promoting performing arts programs.

The former Fremont School is now the home of several performing arts organizations in Sacramento.

“Sacramento needs a middle ground where it’s sort of incubating and growing a mid-level arts scene,” says Richard Rich, board of directors president of the E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts. “The Studios allow that level of activity to grow. You jam all kind of disparate arts elements together and you stir it and see what comes out of it. That’s where the promise exists.”

At the open house on April 9, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., community members can take in live performances from the Brazilian Center and Sacramento Preparatory as well a sneak peek at a ballet rehearsal, chalk art and a chance to explore the building, which dates back to 1923, when it first opened as an elementary school.

A class photo from 1942, taken in front of Fremont Elementary School.

After becoming an adult school in 1980, the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) finally shuttered the building in 2012 due to budget cuts. It was vacant until last year when the E. Claire Raley Studios began breaking ground with the local team of Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture and Rudolph & Sletten construction.

While each tenant is responsible for its renovations—practice rooms for Sacramento Preparatory, mirrored walls and changing rooms for the Sacramento Ballet—the operating company, the Studios for the Performing Arts, provides affordable rent and use of communal areas like the auditorium (which can be rented by any community member or organization) and spacious back lot.

“I hope we’re a resource,” says executive director Megan Wygant. “That’s the most important thing to me.”

Studio space for the School of the Sacramento Ballet at CLARA.

The initial concept for the Studios, also created with Dreyfuss + Blackford and Rudolph & Sletten, was a brand new complex that housed California Musical Theatre, the Sacramento Ballet, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Opera. After fundraising stalls and a shifting mosaic of involved organizations, the Studios’ board struggled to find a suitable space—until the day that Rich looked out his front window at the vacant Fremont School. The board reached a deal with the district, an agreement that exchanged use of the building for performing arts education for students in underserved schools.

“The mission changed right then,” Rich says. “Suddenly it went from the professional performing arts groups to providing arts education.”

According to Wygant, that relationship with SCUSD students is still being worked out. “It’s sort of all over the map,” she says of the partnership, which will include scholarships and specially focused classes. “The goal is ultimately for it to be streamlined so that when you are a school that’s involved with the studios, there’s an ongoing relationship.”

For Ben McClara, president of Sac Prep, which hosts private lessons and group classes as well as a summer program, the space represents a new vehicle for engaging the community. “We’re excited to bridge the gap between public and private music education—that’s why we’re here ,” McClara says. Plus, he adds, it is an upgrade in terms of acoustics and atmosphere from their former space in an office building.

The Studios also offers the opportunity for groups to build upon prior work and ambitions. The Brazilian Center, located in the school’s old cafeteria, is looking to renovate the kitchen and outdoor space to enhance their cooking classes, and has already succeeded in installing a new stage, where it hosts samba and tango classes weekly.

Fundraising continues to be key as the space is rife with vestiges of its former life—blackboards line the walls of classrooms awaiting renovation and long hallways will soon be transformed into galleries showcasing the work of local artists. While the Studios’ $6.5 million opening budget covered the bare bones, the organization is looking to continue fundraising for various projects, including creating an outdoor theater and starting a cafe in the former teachers’ lounge to maximize the usable space.

“I want this place packed to the gills with different arts events every night,” Wygant says.

For now, however, Wygant says everyone is happy to be in the space after years of waiting.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the building,” she says. “We’ve been dreaming about the day that we’re all finally here, and now we are.”

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