Boise's Art Block 

The beating heart of the creative community

In a mirror-lined studio, a group of budding ballerinas try to contain their energy while in the building next door, an ensemble of woodwinds is warming up not far from where the city's next operatic season is being planned.

Step down the street and actors are blocking a scene just across the road from where the next world tour is being plotted by a group of modern dancers. It's just another day in Boise's Cultural District, an area that forms the beating heart of the city's arts community.

At the core is an area that encompasses a little more than one city block, but the collection of buildings is home to the largest arts organizations in the Treasure Valley: Boise Philharmonic, Opera Idaho, Ballet Idaho, Boise Contemporary Theater, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Trey McIntyre Project.

"Boise is lucky to have that core from which all that art and creativity can emanate," said Julie Numbers Smith, executive director of Ballet Idaho.

The artistic congregation was part plan and part magnetism. Numbers Smith, who spent eight years as the executive director of the former Boise City Arts Commission, said two major factors led to what has become Boise's art block: The creation of the city's Cultural District, thanks in part to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the vision of J.R. and Esther Simplot to create a permanent home for the philharmonic, opera and ballet companies.

The Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, built in 1992, fills the block between Eighth and Ninth streets and Fulton and Myrtle streets. The ballet, philharmonic and opera share rehearsal spaces, resources and classrooms, and all have youth programs, where the next generation of artists learn.

"[The academy] is forever filled with little ballerinas and musicians and singers," Numbers Smith said. "The fact that the block is populated with children coming up into those arts is very beneficial to the city."

Tom Bennett, executive director of the philharmonic laughed as he described the daily reminder he gets around 3 p.m. when young dancers in Ballet Idaho classes take to the floor above his head.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "It's about kids and the arts. It's a nice reminder."

Tom Tompkins, manager of the Simplot Academy and principal violist for Boise Philharmonic, calls the relationship "symbiotic."

"It makes perfect sense to put these groups together," he said. "We know each other, and we're all contributing to the vitality and the artistic health of the community and the state."

That vitality is partly what drew organizations like Boise Contemporary Theater, Treasure Valley Institute for Children's Art and Trey McIntyre Project, all of which have either offices or performances spaces neighboring the Simplot Academy.

Matthew Cameron Clark, BCT artistic director, said the company was looking for a home not only in downtown but in that specific neighborhood. When the former Frontier Wholesale Warehouse came up for sale, he jumped at the chance to transform it into a theater complete with office space and a black box performance area, renaming it the Fulton Street Theater.

BCT quickly partnered with Idaho Shakespeare Festival, which rents year-round office space and uses the stage for summer rehearsals. The space is also home to both Balance Dance Company and Drop Dance Collective, as well as summer theater camps put on by ISF.

Being in the same building allows for a lot of collaboration, both formal and informal, Clark said. "A lot of great opportunity comes out of that shared space."

Just around the corner from Fulton Street Theater is TRICA's temporary home while the nonprofit finishes renovations to a former church in the North End.

The children's arts-education organization uses various spaces around town to hold its classes and camps thanks to community partnerships, said Founding Director Jon Swarthout. Additionally, discounted rent and grant support have helped TRICA grow as it awaits a final move.

Among those partnerships is Trey McIntyre Project, which looked at more than 100 spaces across the valley in its own search for a permanent home. Regardless of where they looked, they kept returning to downtown.

John Michael Schert, executive director and dancer with TMP, said that it's more about collaboration with the city as a whole and using the energy of the place. "[We wanted to] use the city's best attributes," he said.

Schert likes the fact that the Cultural District helps offer identity to another neighborhood of Boise, making it more familiar and appealing to the public at large.

The physical proximity has spawned several artistic collaborations that some feel may never have happened without the shared space.

Many point to Boise Philharmonic Music Director Robert Franz's series of programs last season that saluted other arts organizations, including Ballet Idaho and ISF.

That proximity also makes things easier. "For me, it's just more of a practical thing. We use the same facilities to rehearse and perform. I like face-to-face meetings, even unannounced ones," said Mark Junkert, executive director of Opera Idaho.

"To be able to go to work in that center—as we're growing the city and growing the cultural district—is an exciting thing," Numbers Smith said.

By having so many leaders in the arts community in one area raises the public profile of many of the groups.

"Arts attract people," Numbers Smith said. "People want to come and see and be and understand and be around the creativity of what arts can do ... This is a business center for arts, and it's a part of the downtown vitality.

"I go back to the original vision," Numbers Smith said. "It was more brilliant than people realize."

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