The seed for the new James C. and Mary B. Martin Center at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee, was planted 30 years ago. That is when conversations about an arts center that the city and the university could use began.
That seed began to grow in 2012 when Dr. Brian Noland (university president) formed the Committee for 125 to create a vision for the university. That vision included a new arts center. ETSU then formed a group of faculty/staff and community members, the Arts Initiative Steering Committee, to begin fundraising for the building, addressing curricular needs in the arts and exploring opportunities that would impact students across the university. Dr. Paul Stanton led the group, and other members included Dr. Bert Bach, Dr. Gordon Anderson, Dr. Wilsie Bishop, Mrs. Nancy Stanton, Sandy Powell, Ed Gerace, Gary Mabrey, Harold Dishner and more.
“We are at the end of a long tunnel, but we have reached the destination, or at least the first stop in a bright future,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin Center at East Tennessee State University. “It has been a long process, especially since it’s been nearly a 30-year dream for the university and the community to have a performing arts center.
“Construction started in fall 2017, actually about three years ago, so the fact that a building of this size and complexity was completed in this amount of time is pretty remarkable. Denark Construction and the design team from architects, McCarty Holsaple McCarty, have done a remarkable job.”
The 93,000 square-foot center opened in October. In addition to offices, dressing rooms, green room, instrument storage and utility rooms, it contains the Grand Hall, Recital Hall, black box theater, practice rooms, choral rehearsal space, percussion rehearsal space and instrumental rehearsal space.
The Grand Hall seats more than 1,200 and provides a performance space that can be used for concerts, traveling theatrical shows and large dance performances, among others. The stage floor has an aerated polymer surface for sound absorption. There is a sophisticated sound system, multi-level orchestra pit and fly system.
The Recital Hall, which seats slightly more than 200, features wood finishes accented by a natural wood stage floor and crystalline acoustics, making it a “more intimate” venue, DeAngelis says.
Once it is appropriate, ETSU’s department of music will transfer many of its recitals and chamber events to the Martin Center venues.
“We are excited about our new Recital Hall for small, more intimate performances, and the large Grand Hall for our larger performances,” says Music Chair Dr. Matthew Potterton. “We have not had a good performance space on campus. This [new center] will provide a state-of-the-art Recital Hall and Grand Hall for our performances.
“We have been so thankful for area churches that have allowed us to perform in their sanctuaries, but a university needs to have a professional performance space.”
Choral, orchestral and percussion rehearsal rooms feature acoustical wall and ceiling surfaces and sound and projection equipment.
The third venue in the Martin Center is the Bert C. Bach Theatre, a black box theater with flexible seating and staging options. A tension wire grid above the staging area allows lighting to be hung wherever needed for differing productions, while all surfaces, including ceiling and floor, are painted black for maximum lighting effect.
“The Bert Bach flex stage will provide our students with the latest technology and performance opportunities,” says Department of Theater and Dance Chair Karen Brewster. “Our designers and tech staff will be able to do almost anything in that space. We can conceptualize our shows in almost any way we think is best, not limited by proscenium walls or fixed seating. It will be a wonderful place for theater-making, teaching our students and entertaining our audiences.”
At the Martin Center, a scene shop is only separated by a multi-story door – and narrow sound and light locked corridor – to allow sets to be assembled and moved directly to the black box stage with ease, while the costume shop with dye room is just across the hallway.
“Our current scene and costume shops are old, repurposed locker rooms in the basement of Brooks Gym,” Brewster says. “The new scene and costume shops in the Martin Center are state-of-the-art learning laboratories with the latest equipment and will provide much more space than what we have currently.”
Highlights of the 3,000-square-foot Tindall Lobby include polished terrazzo floors and carpet, chandeliers and light fixtures, lobby video monitors for each venue and an elevator to access the second level and balcony of the Grand Hall.
Outside, the Sonia S. King Plaza is situated on the southern and eastern sides of the arts center with a canopied walkway connecting the Millennium Center and the Carnegie Hotel with the new facility. Landscaping, lighting and walkways were completed in September and early October.
As thoughts turn to programming, the music, theater and dance departments and the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts are exploring ways to safely – and possibly virtually – share the arts with the campus and the region. Staff is considering live-streamed and pre-recorded events, as well as possible outdoor staging.
Once the building was turned over to ETSU in October, some music and theater classes were moved to the spacious Martin Center where social distancing is more easily accomplished. More classes will be housed in the center in spring.
“It’s just so exciting to think that so much has been completed,” DeAngelis says. “Many of our arts students’ and faculty and staff members’ needs are going to be addressed in this building. We can’t wait to share the Martin Center with not only the campus, but also the community that has shared this dream with us for so long.”
The opening of the new building allows the university to use existing performance spaces, such as Mathes Hall Auditorium and the Bud Frank Theatre as teaching spaces that provide for social distancing.
The Martin Center has a contract with Johnson City, allowing the city to host 10 events at the center.
“With more events and events of general interest, we hope citizens of the region will spend more of their entertainment dollars here in our community. We also hope some of the events will contribute to tourism interests. When people attend events in the arts, they are spending money in our community and with local businesses—dining before a show, purchasing new articles of clothing, gasoline and more.
“The arts also allow us to view many issues through a different lens. As we move into a post-pandemic period, the arts should help us heal, reflect, and process what we’ve experienced,” DeAngelis says.
The Martin Center has appointed an advisory committee to provide suggestions for future programming, although large public performances will not occur until Fall 2021.
“The committee recommended a performance series called the Ovation Series that will combine the existing Mary B. Martin School of the Arts series and a new series of events that are more driven by entertainment value. MBMSOTA’s funded events will be more in the fine arts realm and will continue to address curriculum interests of the university. The new series will be more commercial in nature and of broader appeal. We’ll schedule musical theater and dance, all kinds of music (bluegrass, country, rock, classical, jazz and many more), variety acts, films, lectures and more.
“The Martin Center is first and foremost a teaching facility for the university, and we’ll have many opportunities for the public to join us for performances and other activities. Once we’re allowed to expand offerings following the pandemic, it will be possible for community organizations to make arrangements to schedule activities in the building. That said, ETSU needs must be addressed first, and the schedule for the building will be limited during significant time periods. We hope to work with others when feasible to do so outside of our academic needs,” DeAngelis says.
For more information, visit www.etsumartincenter.org or call 423-439-8587. To support the center with a gift toward programming, contact Michael Webb, director of development for ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, at 423-439-5775.