Fine Arts Association provides voice for the arts in Fort Dodge

It’s a dream that one fine day will become a reality – when the curtain rises and performers take the stage for the debut of the Phillips Middle School Auditorium.

The renovation work now under way in one of Fort Dodge’s most historic buildings is the result of the blood, sweat and tears of many members of the Fort Dodge Fine Arts Association which is now raising funds to get the project completed.

Amy Kersten Bruno, program coordinator for the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and a board member of the arts association, said the goal is to begin use of the auditorium in spring 2022.

The association is a nonprofit (501 3 c) that has created a voice for the arts in Fort Dodge, Webster County and the surrounding region by helping facilitate, coordinate, advertise and grow the arts.

“FD Fine Arts is just another way that brings the citizens of Fort Dodge together as a community,” said Alaina Porter, who took part in many performances growing up in Fort Dodge, from age 6 on, and is now a sophomore at Iowa State University in Ames. “It gives everyone involved a chance to express themselves through music, art, and performance, all while bonding with those around them, and providing entertainment to the rest of the town.”

Porter, whose mother, Amy, has been heavily involved in the performing arts and whose father, Roger, is the city’s chief of police, believes it “allows people to never stop doing what they love, which is really important to those who use their musical hobbies as an outlet, as a distraction from stressful lives, or simply as a source of happiness.”

The beginnings of the Fine Arts Association trace to 1983 when it was incorporated as a nonprofit; back then, the group produced a paper calendar of annual events and put on the Oak Hill Arts Festival. Now it makes strong use of social media and email to get the word out. It has grown rapidly in the past six years to more than 60 members – including the Comedia Players, the Fort Dodge Symphony, the Karl King Band and the Blanden Memorial Art Museum.

Among other groups that are members of the association: Arts R Alive in Webster City, Comedia Musica, Fort Museum and Frontier Village, First Covenant Church, First Presbyterian Church, Hawkeye Community Theatre, Legacy Learning Boone River Valley, New Covenant Christian Church, Shellabration, Webster City Community Theatre, Willow Ridge and Vincent House.

Executive Director Shelly Bottorff, whose salary is paid by the arts association and Iowa Central Community College, said it is difficult to find available rehearsal and performance space. Many locations are affiliated with schools, and users must work around the schools’ schedules, their rehearsals and performances and the school day and calendars. Such rentals also can be expensive.

The association found a solution in the form of the auditorium in a 99-year-old building located at 1015 Fifth Ave. N., listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that was home to Fort Dodge Senior High from 1922 to 1958, North Junior High from 1958 to 1984 and Phillips Middle School from 1984 to 2013. It and Fair Oaks Middle School (once South Junior High) were sold to Foutch Brothers LLC of Kansas City around 2015-16 to be converted into apartments.

The association forged a partnership in 2019 with Foutch Brothers, developers of the Phillips Luxury Apartment project, to renovate the Phillips Middle School Auditorium. It’s located right inside the front door of the building housing the apartments. A lease signed with Foutch Bros. on May 14 allows the arts association to use the auditorium at no charge as long as it spends at least $15,000 in capital improvements each year. When performances begin, there will be a revenue share with the building’s owner.

As funds become available, work progresses to restore the auditorium which seats about 600. The stage has been resurfaced, public restrooms renovated and the main floor carpeted. Among work still to be accomplished: obtaining a stage curtain, repairing and cleaning seating, and installing lighting and sound systems. To date, the association has raised about $58,000 of the total project cost of at least $150,000.

“It will be a great asset for all of the city and surrounding area to upgrade the Phillips auditorium,” said Larry Mitchell, founder of Comedia Musica and choral director at Fort Dodge Senior High for 31 years.

“We did almost all of our regular high school a capella concerts on that stage,” Mitchell said. “The stage had great sound. Having been active in the performing arts for over 40 years in Fort Dodge, I couldn’t be more delighted with the Fine Arts organization under the leadership of Shelly Bottorff.”

The association works hard at promoting adults and students who take part in the arts – through an email distribution list of 2,000, social media including its own web site and a Facebook page with 2,300 followers, Twitter, Instagram, newsletters, Twist and Shout, the Business Connections publication and The Messenger.

“For me, this organization thinks outside of the box,” Bottorff said. “We are able to shift in order to fulfill current needs. We are a creative force and willing to try it all with the goal of celebrating, connecting and collaborating with, the arts in our area.

“We held a student art show earlier this summer. I look forward to making this an annual event. The look on the kids’ faces when they see their artwork displayed in a real-life gallery is pretty amazing.”

Shining Star, delivered monthly by email, is into its fifth year of featuring those as young as kindergartners through college students. Local art and music teachers, theater directors, speech coaches, private teachers and community leaders nominate students for this honor. Selection is based on participation, leadership, willingness to learn, kindness, interest in and passion for art, music and/or culture.

Ella Champagne, a freshman at FDSH active in Stage Door Musicals and Blanden camps and activities, is among the young people who have been featured in Shining Star.

“Ella thought it was really great to be recognized for all the different music activities she’s participated in through the years,” said her mother, Amy Champagne. “A lot of people commented on the number of activities she’s been in.”

The Artist Spotlight began more than a decade ago through Twist and Shout. The arts association took it over about three years ago and makes the monthly selection that highlights a professional artist who makes positive contributions to art and culture. Among those featured have been professional actors, photographers, musicians, teachers, stage directors, visual artists, and chefs as well as lifelong contributors to the art and culture scene in Fort Dodge – including community theater performers, hobby artists and more.

The four-year-old Fort Dodge Fine Arts Scholarship program provides scholarship money in memory of four artists who have passed away: Bill Kurtz, Becky Joslin, Paul Reisner and Jeremy Caldeira. The scholarships are administered in a partnership with Brutal Republic, a rock band that is one of the association’s for-profit Supporting Artists. It raises funds and selects recipients, and the association helps disburse the funds.

The association operates a Fine Arts Gallery at 921 Central Ave., in a building owned by Kevin Crimmins, who rents it to the group for a nominal fee, Bruno said. The gallery displays artwork, by appointment, and also is used for meetings. A portion of proceeds from sales of the artwork goes to the association.

Member artists also can display their work at the Shiny Top Brewery, owned by Todd and Nate McCubbin, and at Soldier Creek Winery, owned by the Secor family. Both companies are Supporting Artists of the association.

During the 2018-19 school year, students in the Athletics for Education and Success program operated by Charles Clayton wrote and produced a movie, ”Too Late,” and it premiered in spring of 2019.

“The AFES project was really amazing,” Bottorff said. “The students were able to create their own movie. They wrote the story, created the script, came up with camera shots, acted in, blocked…EVERYTHING for their movie, Too Late. The students had professional headshot photos taken too that were displayed in the lobby along with some of their original artwork. The Red Carpet premier was held at the Fort 8 movie theater. We had two showings. This was the first time the students had actually seen the completed project. This was really well attended by the community. The kids were so proud.”

One of Fort Dodge’s most visible art projects is the Grain Silo Mural, painted by Australian artist Guido van Helten, which at 110 feet high is the largest mural in Iowa. Bruno said the association is working with the city to get trail amenities, lighting and signage.

“Just about every time I drive by the mural, there are people looking at it,” she said. “It is a wonderful representation of Fort Dodge’s rich history of industry, agriculture manufacturing and more.”

Fort Dodge Mayor Matt Bemrich said the arts make a strong contribution to the area’s economy.

“It really defines a mission to embrace the cultural environment and complement other economic activities in the community – such as the agriculture sector, banking and finance, manufacturing,” he said. “They all have connections.”

Featured as a Shining Star in August was Aaron Amhof, who will be a junior at FDSH where he takes part in baseball, band, theater, choir and speech. His favorite moment on stage?

“The first time I stepped on stage for Comedia’s Mary Poppins,” he replied.

How will the arts be a part of your life in 20 years?

“In 20 years I strongly think that music and the arts will still be a big part of my life,” he said. “I will always keep singing and keep performing as much as I can.”

Music to the ears of the Fine Arts Association.


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