October 2006 Letter from the Director

Dear Friends of Centrum,

As I write, we are in preparation for the first of three fall master classes—a weekend for 20 mandolin and bass players to study with Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and John Clayton.

Next month, Dirk Powell and the Foghorn String Band will be in residence for a three-day intensive for 25 musicians, and novelist Dorothy Allison will work with 12 dedicated writers. November is also the first gathering of the Youth Leadership Board, a colloquium on the future of youth programming at Centrum.

These intimate learning experiences are a new direction for off-season programming at Centrum and are part of the reason that overall workshop attendance is up so significantly over 2006. This year, over 2,100 students of all ages and backgrounds and from all over the country—and from even farther shores—will have gathered at Fort Worden for a Centrum learning experience. We will exceed last year’s paid and scholarship tuitions figures by some 17%. (Ticket sales will also be up about 18% over 2006.)

Over the last three years, we have made large and small changes to Centrum offerings. We have taken and continue to take risks with new artistic leadership and direction.  We are so grateful to the communities around Centrum who are guiding and supporting these changes. (Contributions are also up by 7% over 2006.) It is your vision and generosity that we celebrate. Thank you!

Speaking of change, Centrum is truly at an historic juncture. As I write, a broad public is reviewing two possible options for the future of Fort Worden State Park.

Since I came on as director nearly three years ago, I have been engaged in informal and formal conversation with Fort Worden Manager, Kate Burke, and a host of staff, commissioners, advisors, consultants, and constituents who are involved in the long-term planning process for the Park. The outcome of this process will have profound implications for Centrum.

As you know, Centrum and Fort Worden came into existence through a partnership between the Washington State Park and Recreation Commission and the Washington State Arts Commission. There was a deep vision and great excitement about a magnificent state park that would also be an international “Center for Creativity.” In the 34 years since that paperwork was signed much of the promise of that partnership has been fulfilled.

Very few state parks in the country offer such glorious natural and built environments. Miles of sand beach, breathtaking vistas of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, serene wetlands, dense forests, and turn-of-the-century military architecture—replete with severe yet enticing concrete bunkers and gun emplacements—occupy 440 end-of-the-road acres that have provided decades of retreat, renewal, and discovery for the millions of visitors who have passed through the park gates since 1973.

And a profound part of the experience of retreat, renewal, and discovery has been provided by the artists, students, audience members, donor, and volunteers who have built Centrum into an internationally significant gathering place for creative endeavor.

The partnership between Fort Worden and Centrum is unique among all state parks in Washington and under Kate Burke’s leadership we have the opportunity to take this partnership a whole new level.

If everything is so great, you might ask, “Why does anything have to change?”

All of the people involved in the planning process are in agreement on the answers to this question.  First, although Fort Worden is well funded relative to other state parks in Washington, the demand for ongoing and deferred maintenance outpaces available public resources. Every year the to-do list grows longer while the funding stays relatively flat. Status quo means continued deterioration of the facilities at Fort Worden. (Because the Park is owned and operated by a governmental agency it is very difficult to attract significant private investment or philanthropy.)

The second reason is that Kate Burke needs—and Fort Worden needs—clarity about business development at the Park. Over the years, in addition to serving as a learning center, Fort Worden has developed as an affordable conference center used by a range of outside groups: kayakers, football teams, family reunions, and professional and religious groups. Both the education economy and the conference economy have grown, but they are different economies with different needs and audiences. In terms of operations and capital improvements Fort Worden is increasingly in the position of competing against itself.

We are at the point where the public needs to make a choice about which one of these economies will be the driver at Fort Worden. In the end there will still be a mix. A lifelong learning center will also attract outside conferences and family reunions. A vacation retreat and conference center will still have some level of cultural programming. (And the campgrounds will continue to be some of the busiest in the state.)

The reality is that either option requires Centrum to take a significant leap in what we do and how we do it. The learning center option might seem “easiest” for us. But this option requires that we really step up and become a much bigger player at the Fort with a far greater financial responsibility.

I have been at the table since the beginning of this process and understand the risks and rewards of either option. But it is not for me or anyone else at that table to decide. It is up to you and the thousands of other individuals whose deep connection to and passion about this place will be the guiding force.

The difference for Centrum is very significant. Centrum’s—and the Washington State Arts Commission’s—founding vision, our current plan for growth, and 34 years of residential learning, creation, and performance are very much in sync with the vision of a lifelong learning center. Centrum would be part of a consortium of other organizations devoted to providing residential learning, and be managed by a nonprofit foundation or public development authority that would integrate marketing, fundraising, and business services for all partners. Centrum would rededicate itself to cultivating new audiences and donors to significantly increase revenues available for operations and capital improvements at the Fort.

Centrum would evolve very differently if Fort Worden were to commit to developing its capacities and facilities as a vacation and conference center. We could still be active users of the performance venues and we could still provide off-season programming at the Fort. But this option—financed significantly by private investment—would shift facility priority—especially in high season—away from nonprofit arts programming.

If you have not already, please let your views be know, as soon as possible.

On behalf of all of us at Centrum and Fort Worden, thank you.

Thank you so much,
Thatcher Bailey