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Armory With New Arsenal

Renovation adds space and commitment to the arts in Pasadena.


"As with so many renovation projects," says Scott Ward, sitting amid new construction at the Armory Center for the Arts, "it began with, 'Well, wouldn't it be great if we could utilize that storage space

It is a couple of weeks before Saturday's official unveiling of an extensive remodel at the Armory, and Ward, the executive director of the exhibition and art education center in Pasadena, is monitoring banging hammers, buzzing drills and the rest of the rush to finish the nine-month project.

Outside the nearly finished offices, he finds architect Donna Vaccarino on the new mezzanine that bisects the center's vast two-story central space. Vaccarino helped transform the building once before, when the arts organization took possession in 1987.

"You don't often get a chance to redo something you did 15 years ago," she says, looking happily from rafter to deck as her latest plan for the center takes shape.

From this section of the mezzanine, you can see into the exhibition space on the building's south side and into classroom space on the north side. Right now, the workers in both areas are dappled by brightly colored light. As the work on the renovation goes on, an exhibition celebrating the rejuvenated space is also under construction, and it involves using the overhead skylights to create a stained-glass-window effect.

All morning, artist Jane Mulfinger has been up on the roof covering the skylights with a patchwork of old clothing--mostly bright blues in the front skylight, hot reds in the rear. Mulfinger calls her work "Armory as Cathedral." It's one of 11 installations commissioned by Jay Belloli, the Armory's curator, for "New Work, New Spaces," which opens Saturday.

From time to time, Mulfinger descends to the mezzanine to get a viewer's perspective. "I didn't know what to expect," Vaccarino tells her on this trip, "but it really transforms the whole space; the colors are caught all over."

Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts traces its history back to 1947, when the Pasadena Art Museum formed an education department. In 1974, the department became the Pasadena Art Workshops, and when the 1930s-era Armory building was made available by the city of Pasadena, the group moved there and renamed itself accordingly.

"The building had been a badminton club," recalls Vaccarino, of her first go-round with renovating the space. "It needed an enormous amount of work."

However, the budget for converting the building was limited to $600,000. Programming was also more modest then. When the renovation was completed in 1989, the center had eight full-time employees and an operating budget of $500,000; today there are 24 employees, plus nearly 100 part-timers and teachers, and a budget of $2 million.

The lease was up on the Armory last year, and the center's board members considered other options before deciding to enlarge and upgrade the 21,400-square-foot space. They liked its location, at the north end of Pasadena's Old Town night life and shopping district, and a subway stop is scheduled to open across the street in 2003. And the building was already familiar to art lovers as a place to see contemporary regional work, to music lovers as the site of open rehearsals for the Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, and to art students from children to adults.

The upgrades include added central air-conditioning, retrofitting for earthquakes and an elevator for handicap access. Vaccarino suggested adding the mezzanine to the central space, which not only connects the front and back areas of the building at the second-story level, but also wraps around the north classroom side of the building. The mezzanine, with its own narrow gallery space and a new studio structure in the Armory's former parking lot, together add 6,800 square feet to the center.

The total renovation package, including furnishings and new art equipment, is costing $2.4 million. "It does show ambition, but it also shows an attainable goal," says Ward. "We've already raised 98% of those funds." For "New Works, New Spaces," Belloli, the curator, handpicked 11 mostly mid-career artists from the Southern California area. They are Lynn Aldrich, Marsia Alexander-Clarke, Geoff Allen, Deborah Aschheim, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Tamara Fites, Michael C. McMillen, Jane Mulfinger, Pae White, Steve Roden and Lisa Yu.

Belloli tapped some with specific locations in the Armory in mind, but the fact that there will be installations from the roof to beneath the floor is, as he says, "serendipities of the show." His first priority was simply "looking for artists who could do interesting works in the spaces I had available." With Mulfinger, for example, "it struck me right away that her work was wonderful, and then I thought she might be interested in the skylight."

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