When the Center for the Arts opened, President George Johnson called it the beginning of a dream. He and his wife Joanne believed a top-class performing arts venue would bring the local community to Mason. It did, and it eventually brought a visit from a United States president.
Mason President George W. Johnson and his wife, Joanne Ferris Johnson, were enthusiastic patrons of the arts. They believed that the performing arts were a unifying force, bringing people from all walks of life together. Therefore, a high-quality venue would bring the community to the Mason campus and foster ties that would benefit students long after graduation. Given the commonwealth's tight budget situation at the time, Johnson believed it was unlikely that he would receive additional funding for a performing arts center, so he decided to get creative with his approach. He submitted a proposal to the legislature asking for $40,000 to dig a hole in the ground with a sign calling the hole a "performing arts center". His bluff worked. The ludicrous proposal attracted Richmond’s attention, earning him a meeting to discuss his true vision for Mason’s performing arts center, which the legislature eventually agreed to partially fund. However, additional funding was needed to create the grand theater that President Johnson envisioned.
Joanne Johnson served as the chair of the George Mason Fund for the Arts during her tenure as Mason’s First Lady. She led the fundraising efforts for the Center of the Arts, including the annual Arts Gala, a night of dining and entertainment with the goal of raising money for buildings and programs to support the arts at Mason. Each year ahead of the Arts Gala, beginning in 1983, Mrs. Johnson led a group of women in crafting an item they would later auction or raffle to fund performing arts and cultural projects at Mason. Two of the more notable items they produced as part of this effort were the Mason Heritage Quilt from 1984, which is on display in the lobby of the Center for the Arts, and a yellow MG TB kit car. At Mrs. Johnson’s request, students also helped at the gala. The gala became the first step in the Johnsons’ vision to connect the community to Mason through the performing arts. The Center for the Arts represented the culmination of Joanne Johnson’s arts fundraising.
Overall, the Center for the Arts took ten years of fundraising and approximately three years of construction to complete for a total cost of $10.6 million. The Center for the Arts was initially called Humanities III because it was the final building in Mason’s Humanities complex, which included the deLaski Performing Arts Building (Humanities I), completed in 1988, and the Music and Theater Building (Humanities II), completed in 1989. When the Center for the Arts opened, it was one of the most state-of-the-art theater facilities in the United States. George Izenour, a theatrical and acoustical consultant, designed the building’s Concert Hall, which was called its “crown jewel.” Izenour developed the first electronic dimming system for stage lighting in 1947 and later invented an electronic winch system to move scenery. He designed a convertible theater for Harvard University in the 1950s and eventually helped develop over 100 theaters across the United States. Mason’s Concert Hall features the technical innovations for which Izenour was known. Its maximum seating capacity is two thousand in concert mode, but the space can be reduced to eight hundred seats in theater mode for smaller, more intimate performances. Its acoustic panels also adjust to provide excellent sound for both settings. In addition, the Concert Hall features an adaptable stage. In addition to the main stage, a front “lift” stage can be raised to increase space for actors or provide additional portable seating. It becomes an orchestra pit when lowered.
The Concert Hall opened on October 6, 1990, with a black-tie event and an atmosphere of joyous excitement. EGOT winner Marvin Hamlisch hosted the formal opening night celebration, featuring performances by the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line, opera singer Roberta Peters, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, comedian Robert Klein, musical satirist Peter Schickele, and the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Despite the famous names on stage, Hamlisch declared, “There are a lot of wonderful performers here this evening, but the star is undoubtedly the theater.” President Johnson gave a speech that night, explaining his hope that the venue would bring cultural enrichment and build strong community ties in Northern Virginia.
Initially, Mason students had difficulty believing the new building was for them. In January 1990, Broadside shared artists’ renderings and reported detailed specifications for the Center for the Arts in a two-page spread to mixed responses from students. However, as opening night neared, students across all majors shared President Johnson’s enthusiasm and belief in the Center for the Arts’ potential to grow Mason’s prestige. In addition, they realized they could spend their time there since 500 free tickets for each performance were allocated for students. An average of 74% percent of free student tickets were claimed during the Concert Hall’s inaugural season. Despite the high percentage, for the following academic year and performance season, the Center for the Arts combined its outreach efforts with Broadside to make the process for reserving tickets clearer and stress that there was no dress code.
Today, Mason still offers free tickets for students to events at the Concert Hall. Performances with free student tickets are made public through the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Student tickets are also reserved via Mason360. In its 32-year history, over 120 Grammy winners have performed at the Center for the Arts. It has hosted world premieres of theatre, dance, and concert performances. The Center for the Arts has also been the site for political events and debates, including two visits by President Barack Obama. On January 8, 2009, President Obama, then president-elect, delivered his plan for economic recovery from the Great Recession to the American public from Mason’s Concert Hall. He returned on October 5, 2012, as part of his re-election campaign. The Johnsons’ vision of the Center for the Arts bringing prestige to the university and connecting the community to Mason has been fully realized.