City ‘evicts’ artists to make way for Little Acorn at Community Center

Artists and others given notice in March and April.

A band of artists that has been meeting and creating on Mercer Island for the last 18 years will have to find a new home after the city announced in April it could no longer host classes at the Community and Events Center.

“It’s actually the last place on Mercer Island where adults can gather and make art together,” said Lorri Falterman, coordinator for the Mercer Island Sculpture Group.

Falterman is a professional sculptor and a painter who, though she has her own studio, says the arts and crafts room at the community center has been one of the only places artists can assemble and create together.

Members and participating artists say the decision is a stark contradiction of the community center’s mission, which promises to allot space for the arts. Programs are planned already for September, though no classroom space has been assigned. Steve Strong, an Island artist, says the city promised to look at alternate sites in churches and synagogues but hasn’t found any adequate space.

“While the Community Center maintains high quality specialized athletic spaces, including a weight room and dance room, it is apparently unwilling to continue providing a special space for producing visual arts,” reads a statement issued by the group.

The city is leasing the space to Little Acorn Day School, which earlier this year was given notice to vacate its current facility at the North Mercer campus, alongside Country Village Day School and Youth Theatre Northwest. Even with the new home, Little Acorn will have to shrink its class size by about 20 students, said president Tiana Traylor back in March.

“I know it’s portrayed as though we threw the arts out,” says Bruce Fletcher, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “But we don’t have space to keep everything… We decided to help [Little Acorn] preschool, which is great, but when you give something, you take something, which is sad.”

Fletcher says the city looked for alternate sites, but couldn’t find anything that would allow for both the messy nature of the art classes and the privacy necessary to continue hosting the occasional nude model. The department also got estimates to remodel one of their existing rooms, but between alterations to the floor, cabinet and sinks, determined it would cost about $35,000, more than it could afford.

Fletcher insists arts is still central to the community center’s mission. The center is participating in a visioning plan for the future that will help determine how the space is used and what areas of programming to prioritize. He points to the work of the Arts Council and a September gallery exhibit of the DePeau Figure Academy as examples of the city’s continued commitment to the arts. Fletcher is also hopeful that proposals for the Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) — a $20 million project planned for the corner of Mercerdale Park — will allow for a more permanent home for arts programming.

But artists worry that they won’t be able to find a new space in the near term. Strong says finding a new home is further complicated by its aging membership, many of whom aren’t willing to travel long distances. About half its students are from the Island; the other half commute from the Eastside and Seattle, making Mercer Island the perfect middle point.

“It’s very sad. We’re not giving up,” says Fletcher of the hunt for an alternate site.

Several members took their grievances to City Council, but Falterman said they got little reaction from council members.

“The community center is becoming a purely athletic facility,” said Strong. “The Parks Department has been phasing out the arts for a number of years. Ten years ago, there were a lot more programs and 20 years ago, even more than that.”