Arts Alive

Emilie-Noelle Provost on October 29th, 2018

Middlesex Community College’s New Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center Puts Creativity Center Stage

At a time when many colleges and universities, and even secondary and elementary schools, are dedicating large portions of their budgets and resources to STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives, it’s become increasingly rare to find an educational institution that’s working to advance, or even actively support, education in the fine and performing arts. But Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Lowell and Bedford, is bucking that trend. This September, the school opened the doors to its new Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center on Central Street in Lowell. 

The 190-seat proscenium theater inside Middlesex Community College’s new Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center in Lowell is designed for teaching with extra-wide catwalks to accommodate students and a control room large enough to hold 12 people. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Originally built in 1876 as the Boston & Maine building, the structure that MCC’s arts center now occupies served train passengers and cargo transport until 1895, when it was closed by the railroad due to the rerouting of rail traffic. From about 1911 until the mid-1970s, the building was used as a theater and retail space. It then sat vacant for several years until 1989, when the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and Lowell National Historical Park saved it from demolition. The building was purchased by MCC in 2008. After years of fundraising efforts, the school was finally able to begin construction of the arts center in 2015.

Today, the arts center is home to MCC’s theater, dance and music programs. There is a 190-seat proscenium theater, a 103-seat recital hall, and a 900-square food dance studio, as well as classrooms and music practice rooms. All of the spaces are acoustically isolated.

“All the performance spaces are built for teaching,” says MCC President James Mabry. “The theater’s control room is large enough for 12 people, and the catwalks are wider than usual to accommodate students.”

Mabry is optimistic that the new center will help increase enrollment in MCC’s performing arts programs. “We haven’t had a dance studio in a long time,” he says.  “We’re hoping to build the program back up.” Mabry also notes that for the first time ever, Lowell High School has more students participating in the arts than in sports programs, according to former Lowell High School Headmaster Brian Martin. “We see that as a positive sign that we are onto something,” Mabry says.

Top left: MCC music professor Orlando Cela conducts a music theory class inside one of the arts center’s new classrooms. Bottom left: Originally built in 1876 as a railroad depot for the Boston & Maine Corporation, the structure that MCC’s arts center now occupies was purchased by MCC in 2008. It opened to students this past September after a lengthy renovation. Top right: MCC President James Mabry (front) with the school’s Chair of Performing Arts, Karen Oster. Bottom right: President Mabry visits with a group of MCC theater students. Photos by Kevin Harkins.

“The folks from Merrimack Repertory Theatre walk in here and their jaws drop,” says Karen Oster, chair of MCC’s performing arts. “At a time when a lot of college arts programs are being cut, ours are being enhanced. We’re working with local high schools to develop dual credit programs. We’re not just cheaper, students here are getting an incredible experience, as well. We have things that many four-year colleges don’t.”

The new arts center also serves as the home base for MCC’s Music Outreach Program. Run by the music department, the program offers concerts, lectures, master classes and workshops to students at Lowell High School and other local high schools. The music department also offers programming to members of UMass Lowell’s Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA).

While Mabry emphasizes that academics are the main purpose of the new building, he says MCC’s goal is to eventually serve as a resource for the local arts community. “At some point,” he says, “it would be great to get some paying customers in here.”

But the arts center won’t be completely off-limits to the public. On Dec. 1 and 2, MCC’s theater department will stage performances of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” in the proscenium theater. A dance recital is planned for Dec. 12, and MCC’s A World of Music Concert Series, which formerly limited performances to the Bedford campus, began offering additional concert dates at the new arts center in October.

For more information about events, concerts and academic programs offered at MCC’s Academic Arts Center, visit
Middlesex.Mass.edu/AcademicArtsCenter or call (800) 818-3434.

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