A spiffy arts center makes brave debut in northern Maine. Orono welcomes role of cultural host

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``I have been told that I'm at the edge of civilization, and this is not a logical spot for an arts center,'' says Joel Katz, executive director of the new Maine Center for the Arts here at the University of Maine. North-central Maine does seem an unlikely spot to build a first-class arts facility. The town of Orono, a five-hour drive from Boston and just north of Bangor, is so close to the wilderness that the sign for the nearby airport also has a small ``Camping'' sign underneath.

But there's nothing small-time about the imposing, angular, brick hall jutting out of the edge of the Orono campus. Or the tux-and-fur-clad audience of 1,600 snuggled into the plush, wide seats. Or the 600 people who couldn't get in.

Public support for the facility has been ``absolutely astounding,'' says Mr. Katz. Subscriptions sales top 30 percent for the entire season, and some events are already sold out. The $7.5 million cost of building the center was raised entirely from private and corporate donations (with $350,000 to go). No tax dollars or university money were used, says Katz.

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The isolation of the campus didn't stop Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, from coming and giving a congratulatory speech. Or Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern from performing in the gala opening. This appearance was hailed as the first time Mr. Ma and Mr. Stern performed together with a symphony.

But the programming is sensibly designed to appeal to Maine's sparse and multifaceted population: It includes the Trisha Brown Dance Company, the national tour of ``A Chorus Line,'' the Irish folksinging Clancy Brothers, jazz pianist Marian McPartland, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and French mime Marcel Marceau, as well as lectures by anthropologist Richard Leakey and Holocaust survivor Simon Weisenthal.

``Our goal is to be able to expose the citizens of Maine and the adjacent regions to many different cultures in the world,'' says Katz. ``We have such a varied program because of different tastes in the state. The fine-arts audience is not sufficient to have totally classical programming; so we have popular events, children's events, lectures, and travelogues.'' The 1,600-seat Hutchins Concert Hall, designed by architect Eaton Tarbell of Bangor, was planned to fit these various needs. The acoustics, designed by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, feature adjustable ``clouds'' -- disks suspended from the ceiling that allow for fine-tuning for various kinds of music. The stage floor is Western fir on top of plywood laid over one-foot hollow squares designed for dancers' needs. The concert hall is wide and shallow, ensuring good sightlines from all seats; it features European-style seating (no center aisle but more leg room). The brilliant red facility has many open spaces, an ingenious ramp system, state-of-the-art sound and light systems, and a computerized box office. There will be wireless headsets at each seat for occasional simultaneous translation in four languages.

It also has a museum wrapped around it -- the Hudson Museum. During intermission, audience members strolled through to look at pre-Columbian sculpture in the museum's Palmer Gallery.

The center has been a long time coming. It was first suggested by servicemen returning at the end of World War II. In the '70s, the University of Maine's board of trustees authorized such a center -- and a hockey rink. The rink was built four years later, says Mr. Katz; the Center for the Arts took 14 years. Six university presidents came and left before the project was finished, and it was often mired in design changes and budget revisions. Maine is among one of the poorest states per capita.

``This certainly is a bold, almost brash move on the part of the University of Maine,'' says Dave Cadigan, performing arts associate with the Maine Arts Commission. ``But what a statement of faith!''

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