How the new Center for Visual & Performing Arts at Arlington ISD meets the future of work in the arts

Exterior Center for Visual & Performing Arts at Arlington ISD photo by Chad Davis
Exterior Center for Visual & Performing Arts at Arlington ISD photo by Chad Davis
Photo: Chad Davis

How well are we preparing today’s students for the future of work?

And how is education supposed to train students for a future that has yet to be defined?

Research by global consulting firm, McKinsey, predicts that ”the hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9% automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work (18%).”

What if the very programs that struggle for funding are the ones most needed for what comes next? What if arts education is essential to train students for a future that is still being written?

The digital future accelerates the need for artists.

Natalie Nixon, in her article for Inc. Magazine on Why the Future of Work Needs Artists, highlights how student artists develop cultural fluency and the ability to think in the abstract. They create portfolio experience and learn to visualize from a unique point of view. Most importantly, the arts foster curiosity and the ability to imagine — essentials in a world where most future jobs don’t even exist yet.

In the past, work in the arts wasn’t as abundant. Student dreams were limited to Broadway, playing in a city orchestra, or hoping for a television talent search to give them a break. It’s no wonder many student artists were encouraged by parents to “have a backup plan.”

But now, this shift to a digital future requires a volume of artistic content. Creators are in increasingly high demand for the very skills that arts programs foster — like the ones at Arlington Independent School District (AISD) — such as music, acting, writing, ideation, and visual arts.

This increased demand is putting pressure on schools for facilities to support their arts programs. And it’s a tough path to get there.

For school districts across the US, the road from a need for facilities to opening day is a long one. Planning, pursuit, bond measures, and meetings with stakeholders creates a lengthy process. By the time, the district finally selects an architect and sits at the table to begin the design, the needs of the project can have multiplied exponentially.

The pressure is on for district leaders across the United States, and Arlington ISD was no exception. The state of Texas is well-known for its incredible investment in student athletes. But historically, the arts programs haven’t been as well-funded. But what happens as that trend changes?

Entry to Concert Hall at Center for Visual & Performing Arts at Arlington ISD Photo by Chad Davis
Entry to Concert Hall at Center for Visual & Performing Arts at Arlington ISD Photo by Chad Davis
Entrance to Robert G Copeland Concert Hall Photo: Chad Davis

The decision that changed the trajectory of Arlington ISD’s arts complex.

Initially, the district was planning a single venue with around 2,000 seats. High seat counts are a common design directive from school districts for arts venues. The driver is often the ability to host graduations. There is a logic to it. If a school or district will only be able to build a single arts venue, then shouldn’t it be as big as possible?

The challenge multipurpose venues face is that the needs for theatre and for music conflict with each other — they require different forms, seating layouts, backstage capacity, and have opposing acoustic needs. While it is possible to create exceptional multipurpose venues, it requires substantial budgets to support all of the variables. The part that can’t be solved with money? Scheduling for competing user groups.

Leonardo Gonzalez Sangri, Principal and Director of Education for HKS, the design architect for AISD’s Center for Visual and Performing Arts, explains the decision that resulted in venues aimed at student’s future professions.

“There was a point early in the process where the stakeholder conversations began to focus on artist development. How could we connect to student futures by allowing them to build their experiences in venues that would equate to professional venues? This conversation led to the idea that we were going to deliver very specific high-performance spaces to these students that were not available to them otherwise. Separate music and theatre spaces that would be appropriately sized for student’s future professions that could propel them to the top among their peers after high school whether college-bound or professional. The shift would elevate the path and improve the student experience, delivering two venues posed a great challenge that meant a rigorous approach to uncovering tremendous value.”

Interior of the Robert G Copeland Concert Hall taken from stage
Interior of the Robert G Copeland Concert Hall taken from stage
Robert G Copeland Concert Hall Photo: Chad Davis

Want to stay in budget? Bring out the process and discipline.

Gonzalez Sangri continues, “The leadership at Arlington ISD (AISD) were highly supportive of design thinking and open to going through a process without knowing the answers beforehand. That let the team explore different options and generate different solutions. The team at AISD was also very strong with decision-making and follow through. They were visionary enough to understand this project had a unique potential and gave trust to the design team to deliver as promised. Their whole team showed incredible discipline.”

AISD had a guiding principle. The question was always: “How can this building be the bridge for AISD’s high school art students to connect to their professional futures?”

“The client’s frame of mind meant that every time we were at a crossroads, we had an overarching goal for these buildings. This focus on bridging students to their futures really elevated the ask. It forced us to look for ways to get them there. We were continually making sure we could get everything we were drawing in the budgets.”

As with most projects, the team had a list of items that might be sacrificed if needed during value engineering (VE), but the clarity of mission took some options off the table. “We discussed reducing the height of the concert hall and ultimately struck it from the list. That would hurt the music, which meant sacrificing the real goal of the project,” shares Gonzalez Sangri.

Theatrical, acoustic, and technology design firm, Idibri, worked with HKS to develop the form of the venues and help them protect the professional arts edge with creative solutions that would stay within the budget.

Interior of the theatre at the Arlington ISD Center for Performing arts
Interior of the theatre at the Arlington ISD Center for Performing arts
Interior of the theatre at the Arlington ISD Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Photo: Chad Davis

Future focus in purpose-built venues

“AISD already had incredible arts programs,” says Robert Rose, Senior Vice President for Idibri. “I really felt this in one of the first uses of the concert halls when I heard a men’s chorus. Each of those students were singing with the kind of confidence that comes from knowing what they can do within a professional-level space.”

The Robert G Copeland Concert Hall seats 1,200. It’s reverse-fan shape was designed by Nicholas Edwards of Idibri who provided the acoustic design of another local facility — Dallas’s Meyerson Symphony Hall. Variable acoustics allow the hall to be tuned for a small ensemble or large orchestra. For the district-wide facility, this flexibility means that performances by all elements of the music program are supported.

It was also important to engage other sense. “Every single light in the concert hall is a color-changing LED. Not only is this the trend in professional performing arts venues, but it gives students a huge pallet to play with and learn on,” highlights Rose.

The 450-seat studio theatre features motorized rigging. This a both a safety feature and allows for teaching students on gear that equips professional theatres. Since digital design of virtual scenery is the future in both television and stage, the theatre includes a large LED backdrop where students design digital sets.

The art gallery was designed to showcase student visual arts with a high-finish design to give a true gallery feel. The center also includes studios for Dance and Visual Arts.

Art Gallery Photo: Chad Davis

The best projects inspire a feeling of authorship.

When you go through a design process that deeply involves the client, the result is a feeling of ownership.

“I was walking the project the other day and ran into Linh Nguyen, Visual Arts Coordinator for AISD. He was part of the stakeholder group who had input on the facility decisions for the project. Linh called me over to walk the Visual Arts Studio. They had just finished classes. As he spoke, he was speaking to me with complete ownership. Our process afforded him that experience. It was HKS’s design. It was Linh’s design. It was every teacher, administrator, parent, and student that had authorship and drove the decisions that resulted in this space,” highlights Gonzalez Sangri.

“The most exciting thing about this project is that it will afford students opportunities to develop into problem solvers. Exposure to the arts opens new pathways in their brains. It will help them become creative thinkers, equipped to decipher a yet-to-be imagined future.”

Project Information

  • Project type: New Construction
  • Complete: 2020
  • Construction Cost: $46 million
  • Total sf: 93,000
  • 450-seat theater
  • 1200-seat concert hall
  • 2,200 sf art gallery
  • 3,800 sf visual arts studio
  • 3,400 sf dance studio
  • Instrument Repair lab

Project Team

  • Strategy and Direction: Arlington ISD
  • Architecture and Design: HKS
  • Theatre Consulting, Acoustics, & Technology: Idibri
  • General Contractor: Adolfson & Peterson
  • Civil- Glen Engineering Corp.
  • Structural — JQ Infrastructure
  • Mechanical — TLC Engineering
  • Electrical — Yaggi Engineering
  • Landscape Architecture — Caye Cook & Associates
  • Food Service — Food Design Professionals

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