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Arts Center the Fruit of Years of Effort

September 22, 1996|Daniel Cariaga | Daniel Cariaga is The Times' music writer

This week, San Luis Obispo opens a new, $30-million, three-theater performing arts center with attractions scheduled to fill the hall for 10 days.

The center, which is on the Cal Poly campus, was financed with funds from the state (via Cal Poly University), the City of San Luis Obispo and a local arts support group, the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center. It's billed as the only major performing arts center between Thousand Oaks and San Francisco.

According to Clifton Swanson, director of the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival and a member of the Cal Poly faculty for three decades, the new center is the culmination of years of effort in the Central Coast city, population 43,000.

"When I first came here, in 1967," Swanson details, "there was a bond issue on the ballot for an arts center. It was roundly defeated--by a majority of 87% to 13%. Clearly, the time was not right. Then, over the years, a number of other performing arts center proposals were made. And not one of them stuck."

Still, there were glimmers of hope. For one thing, Swanson's own artistic venture, the Mozart Festival, begun in the '70s, prospered, proving the appeal of such cultural attractions.

"Around 1984, the then-mayor, Melanie Billig, started the ball rolling, and wouldn't let up. She brought together the constituents and began to launch this project."

Still, construction didn't start until 1994. Ron Regier, managing director of the center, says the project took so long "because of funding crises--a statewide bond issue that was rejected at one point, for instance--and because we were conscious of possible pitfalls."

The center, designed by Arthur Erickson Architects and completed under the auspices of Alberto Bertolli, is a multitiered glass and steel facility with three auditoriums that can stage simultaneous presentations. The major theater, Harmon Concert Hall, holds an audience of 1,350. In addition, there is a 300-seat performance/rehearsal pavilion and a 180-seat classroom/recital hall.

Among the attractions scheduled for the opening are the San Luis Obispo County Symphony, the SLO Mozart Festival, pianist Jeffrey Kahane and Feld Ballets/NY, with a total of 115 events planned for the first season.

"Each of our constituents--the university, the foundation and the city--does its own schedule planning," explains Regier. "There is no formula for allotting how the auditoriums will be used, So far, we've all gotten along on goodwill."

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