Banking on the future

Published 5:13 am Monday, April 29, 2013

Jennie Germain, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, stands across the street from the historic venue which will soon be expanding east.

Jennie Germain, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, stands across the street from the historic venue which will soon be expanding east.

The Austin Area Commission for the Arts Board of Directors is in talks to convert space in the old Bank Building to an arts center.

The move is part of the AACA’s plan to expand the Paramount Theatre and bring more attention to arts in the area.

Though still in the preliminary stage, AACA officials and Vision 2020 organizers have expressed an interest in getting a large arts center up and running. The center could serve as a hub for Austin arts through an art gallery, a potential performance space, administrative offices and more.

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“Our discussions have been, what is going to go in the art center idea, and what should stay at the Paramount,” said Jennie Knoebel, Paramount executive director. “We want to push both of these projects together at the same time.”

The AACA is in talks to use space inside the Bank Building on the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue North, which includes Philomathian Religious Books and Mickey’s Bar.

“The building itself is a piece of art, and so to have arts in it would be fantastic,” Knoebel said.

AACA officials said the Bank Building is one of several potential spaces under consideration. As the arts center project comes to fruition, the AACA will likely welcome outside groups such as the Austin Area Arts Center to be a part of the new AACA arts center.

“So far we’re trying to get information and gather data on how things function,” said Bonnie Lee, Art Center volunteer.

The AACA Board of Directors has also decided to expand the Paramount north and east instead of west, as architects Miller Dunwiddie had previously suggested. In addition, the AACA is looking into creating a highly visible arts center, which could include AACA staff offices and an art gallery.

That means the expansion will take up the entire 20 feet east of the Paramount under AACA control, as well as much of the north side of the Fourth Avenue Northeast property.

The question now, according to commission officials, is whether to add a second story onto the historic theater to create more arts opportunities.

“That’s one of the scenarios, and that’s part of the decisions to what we want to do with the expansion,” said Dave Sylte, commission board chairman.

The Paramount expansion will largely focus on improvements to patron and user experiences, according to Knoebel. That could include more lobby space, enhanced concessions, main floor bathrooms, improvements to the main floor dressing rooms and more space for performers to use when they’re not on stage.

Though architects are drawing up preliminary plans for the expansion, those plans likely won’t include much office space for Paramount staff.

The commission is instead hoping those will be located at the arts center.

The combination is part of a unifying move for the commission to represent many arts movements throughout Austin, according to Sylte. The arts maneuvering is also reflected in Vision 2020 tasks such as the Austin Utilities Downtown Plant Committee, which is looking at keeping part of the old downtown plant as another arts center in cooperation with the Austin ArtWorks Festival, which has also come under the AACA.

The AACA hired Miller Dunwiddie last summer to work with area arts officials in designing an expansion that would remain true to the Paramount’s roots as a historic theater while improving the venue to offer more arts experiences for residents. Architects presented rough ideas to the community last November after interviewing a group of arts officials and residents. Now that the commission board has decided to expand to the east, Sylte said residents could see a final proposal for the Paramount expansion in a matter of months.

Once that comes in and plans for an arts center come together, it’s just a matter of money before construction begins.

“We’re moving forward on these projects as quickly as possible,” Knoebel said.