by Bev Rothenborg, Staff Writer
It was between 1961 and 1966 when the Washington State Arts Commission conceived the idea of a multi-purpose center to serve residents and visitors to the state. They investigated possibilities and nominated 22 potential sites. After site visitations, Fort Worden in Port Townsend won the official designation, and the site was deeded to the State Parks and Recreation Commission.
Both a general arts program concept and a facilities and conference center plan were developed. Negotiations continued between the Parks Commission and the Arts Commission in consultation with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In 1973 Joseph F. Wheeler was contracted to develop program ideas, secure additional funding, and implement first activities. Centrum was incorporated that year, and Governor Dan Evans included funding in a budget request which was passed by the State Legislature. Soon a mission statement was developed, and the first two summer workshops, creative writing, and classical dance, were presented. Between 1976-1980, summer programming expanded to include Chamber Music Port Townsend, Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Jazz Port Townsend,and a number of single performances.
In the early ’80s individual residencies for writers and visual artists began, and a theater workshop and performances were added. Around this time, major emphasis was placed on raising the level of private sector support to reduce dependency on state and federal government grants and contracts. Second emphasis was placed on increasing public awareness and interest in Centrum performances and programs. The State was awarded $250,000 in Centennial budget funds to be matched by private funds for renovation of a balloon hanger – now fondly known as McCurdy Pavilion—and the adjacent Littlefield Green. A capital campaign was launched. The project was essentially completed in 1990 at a cost of $2.3 million.
On June 9, 1991, the grand opening of McCurdy Pavilion featured the Seattle Symphony. This author began her appreciation of and annual attendance at all the concerts and festivals at this time, with involvement to include a five-year stint of serving on the board of directors during Joseph F. Wheeler’s tenure as president. In honor of his contribution to “advancing the discovery, experience, and enjoyment of the arts in Washington State,” the 280-seat Fort Worden Theater became the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater.
Centrum’s main summer venue, McCurdy Pavilion, at Fort Worden.
One of my most memorable and unforgettable experiences at McCurdy was in 1995 while I was seated near the front of the theater. I heard the most heavenly music floating through the pavilion from the upper levels. I turned to see Kenny G (Gorlick) slowly proceeding down the stairs while playing his wonderful saxophone. He had studied at Centrum’s Jazz Workshop early in his career and donated his SRO appearance as a benefit to offset the loss of public funding of the arts. He continues to perform around the US with a full touring schedule.
In 2013, Centrum marked its 40th Anniversary Season, and Robert Birman was appointed the Executive Director. In recent years, a capital grant was secured for new LED lighting in the Wheeler Theater, and a new multi-year commitment to its Native American Voices program for youth was launched. More recently, Centrum initiated the Creative Aging Conference in partnership with the Frye Art Museum. And finally, it canceled all in-person events in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. It shifted all workshop programming online and launched a new podcast channel. Hopefully, by the year 2022 we will all be able to attend our favorite workshops and concerts at Fort Worden State Park.