Q&A: Robin Marrouche, Executive Director, Kimball Art Center

Robin Marrouche tells SmartPlanet about the importance of good architecture, the benefits of holding a design competition, and how to be a part of this small center's renovation.
Written by Beth Carter, Contributing Editor

Yesterday kicked off the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where the tiny mining-turned-resort town is transformed into a bustling city of Hollywood's who's-who, film crews, onlookers and movie-goers.

On Wednesday, SmartPlanet featured a story about the Kimball Art Center in Park City's design contest to find the best plans for their renovation and expansion project. The local art and community center has been converted for the film festival into the HP Sundance House, and the five final designs will be exhibited for the duration of the festival using photographic light-box displays and videos of the models that use augmented reality technology.

We had the opportunity to talk to the Executive Director Robin Marrouche about the benefits of a design competition, the importance of good architecture, and what the future holds for the Kimball Art Center.

SP: What gave the Kimball Art Center (KAC) the idea to hold a competition?

Bill Kimball transformed a dilapidated auto garage into a nonprofit art center in 1976. He donated the building and the land and we have served our community and visitors well for several decades but with growing demand for our programs and an expansion in our activities means we have exceeded capacity and outgrown the space.

Kimball Art Center’s Board has been discussing an expansion and renovation for several years but the timing was never right. One of our Board members Hank Louis is an architect who also teaches at the University of Utah. He impressed upon us the benefits of the competition route for both the genius creativity and diverse design options it presents and also the public dialogue, excitement and buzz it creates.

To prove his point a couple of years ago Hank dedicated an entire semester with a for-credit class of his architecture students to each design the Kimball Art Center of the future and we gave them an exhibit to show their final designs. The designs were all noteworthy and outstanding. It made us realize that a national competition would be an interesting and creative way to allow us to choose the best overall fit from a stable of great ideas from some of the top design minds in architecture today.

SP: What do you think that good architecture can do for the Arts Center, for Park City?

We will be able to reinvent and revitalize an historic structure into a significant cultural hub at the literal, geographic and emotional intersection of town. Important architecture will enhance the landscape of Main Street and boost the long-term economic viability for Old Town. It will also create a much-needed, public, multi-use gathering space filled with inspirational two- and three-dimensional art and sculpture.

As a state-of-the-art center in a prime location, we will be able to offer our members and visitors expanded exhibitions and more diverse educational offerings for classes and school tours. We already act as a free supplement to arts education in the Utah schools and will be able to further that role with improved facilities and technology.

It will also be a showcase building for the future Sundance House during the festival. More importantly however, we will be able to offer more arts-related activities to enrich the lives of people in our community twelve months of the year.

SP: How do you hope to put Park City on the map for reasons other than its renowned ski resort and the Sundance Film Festival?

We will offer more reasons to be here for cultural reasons, in addition to recreation year-round for tourists. Additionally, with important employers like Adobe and eBay increasingly seeking to relocate workers to Utah we’ll help build the case for Park City’s up and coming arts and culture scene, in addition to its reputation as an outdoor Mecca.

Consider Park City’s current reality through the numbers: we are a resort town of 7,500 full-time residents in a state of under three million people yet annually Park City alone hosts over two million visitors. Seventy percent of our homeowners are not permanent residents. The majority of our annual revenue is generated over a four month winter period. There is a temporary seasonal population explosion.

With an exciting new arts attraction we can help Park City draw more cultural tourism year round and hopefully retain more of these part time residents for longer stays. The net result is that we assist in keeping the city vibrant by contributing to a thriving arts scene.

SP: Since you are hoping visitors and residents will weigh in with their favorites/least favorites, what place will citizens have in the final selection process, and why is their input important?

We are a community art center, not a museum. Therefore it is vital to understand what the community wants in their new and improved facility so we can better serve them. The public has a voice in this process, but not a vote. The jury has the ultimate vote. However we are asking people for their opinions and impressions so we can bundle the responses and create an unedited report for the jury to look at the impact and impressions each design has left on people.

One of the most compelling things about these competitions is that they are designed to encourage public discourse and should be as transparent as possible. We wanted a way to channel opinions and let the community hear and be heard so we aren’t operating in a vacuum.

Change is always hard. This approach gives people more time and opportunity to buy-in to the idea so they’ll be anticipating it and excited when it happens.

SP: Some of the firms selected have worked on some very high profile projects--do you think the big names will affect the jury's decision?
The design that offers the best solutions to suit the Kimball Art Center’s exhibition, event and educational programming needs will be the ultimate factor for the jury in deciding the winner.

SP: What guidelines did you give the designers before the pitches were submitted?

Our building committee sent out a letter of invitation to 18 architects letting them know they were on our short list briefly describing our history and outlining the general objectives and scope of project before they submitted their pitches and letters of intent.

SP: What were the guidelines given to the contestants for their submissions? Budget?

We gave the architects a binder with complete background details, the site’s overall footprint, the city’s guidelines for building in a historic district and the Kimball Art Center staff’s overall programming, education and space requirements and our/the public’s wish list. We asked all of them for an inviting, well lit entrance at the pivotal Main St. and Heber corner.

Architects were asked to design to an initial preliminary hard construction cost budget of $6 million, knowing it was an early estimate and the number may change once a winner is chosen. Beyond that, we did not want to impede on their creativity by dictating design elements.

SP: Other than their input on the winner, how else have you involved the community of Park City in the competition?

The Kimball Art Center puts on the second largest annual event (after Sundance) with the Park City Kimball Arts Festival each August. It draws over 55K people and generates over $18.2 million of economic impact for the city. This year we put a giant four sided chalk board smack dab in the middle of the festival in front of the site of the future building announcing the competition and asking people to share their hopes and dreams for a new building and help us to build the future of art in Park City. The responses were great, everything from “sculpture garden”, to “digital installations”, to “more classroom space”.

SP: What do you think the greatest impact of the competition will be on the KAC? What is the best case scenario for you concerning the future of the center?

The greatest impact will come from contributing a new and improved art center and state of the art landmark building to Park City. It will allow us to better serve our community and launch our exciting new programming ideas to make our mark on the national arts scene. The best case scenario will be to look back and see a well loved, well utilized facility that helped to spark an entirely new arts movement in Park City.

We want to help make a significant impact on our community’s vibrancy and vitality and brand Park City as an emerging arts destination. As such we view this as part of a larger effort for change. We are also already working in partnership with other groups like The Park City Performing Arts Foundation, Symphony, Spiro Arts, Sundance and the Municipality to discuss ways to infuse arts and programming in new projects and infrastructure improvements, artistic spaces and enhancements as a concerted effort together over the long haul.

SP: What are the biggest challenges the redesign will face in the coming years?

It is a challenge to construct a contemporary addition in a historic district. It will require educating people that the National regulations for historic preservation dictate that you must build an addition that is “of its time” and not a replica of the old building. You must be able to distinguish the historic building from the new so you can truly appreciate and value the one of the past. That is how communities best evolve and grow to meet future dynamics and still preserve their heritage.

SP: Any final thoughts?

I was very moved by a Letter to the Editor in our archives that Bill Kimball wrote in 1976 about why he was launching the Art Center. His wish was to create a place that would “allow people to expand their interest in the arts and to fulfill their lives beyond the necessity to make a living.” It was such a noble reason and it inspired us greatly. I hope this project will both protect and bolster his legacy in the future. He has sadly passed away, but we dearly hope to make his family proud.

The finalists' projects will be on display through January 29, and the winner will be chosen in February. For a complete list of the finalists, photos of their designs, and videos of their presentations, click here.

Image: The BIG/Ingels pitch for the new Kimball Art Center

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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