Filed Under Places

The Center for the Arts

Bringing the Community to Mason

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.

Images

Springtime at the Center for the Arts
Springtime at the Center for the Arts Cherry blossoms bloom in front of George Mason University's Center for the Arts Source: George Mason University Creative Services Creator: George Mason University Creative Services Date: circa 2000s
President George and First Lady Joanne Johnson and raffle winners with MG kit car at the Arts Gala
President George and First Lady Joanne Johnson and raffle winners with MG kit car at the Arts Gala George Mason University President, George Johnson and First Lady Joanne Johnson and raffle winners with MG kit car at the 1985 Arts Gala. Joanne Johnson and group of her friends helped assemble a light yellow MG kit car to be raffled at the Arts Gala to raise money for Mason's Fund for the Arts that year. Source: George Mason University photograph collection, #R0120 Box 32, Folder 3 Creator: George Mason University Date: November 16, 1985
Joanne Johnson and an unidentified individual check on the construction progress of the Center for the Arts
Joanne Johnson and an unidentified individual check on the construction progress of the Center for the Arts Mason First Lady and an unidentified individual in the Center for the Arts during construction. They are standing on the balcony above the lobby. Source: George Mason University photograph collection, #R0120 Box 36 Creator: George Mason University Date: circa 1990
Architectural Drawing, Center for the Arts
Architectural Drawing, Center for the Arts Architectural drawing of the Center for the Arts on George Mason University's Fairfax Campus. Source: George Mason University photograph collection, R0120 Box 39, Folder 2 Creator: Bill Bailey Date: 1989
Center for the Arts Opening Night Gala Rehearsal
Center for the Arts Opening Night Gala Rehearsal Martin Hamlisch and the cast of Broadway's A Chorus Line performed at the Opening Night Gala for the Center for the Arts. Here, Mason President George Johnson and Joanne Johnson, Chair of the Fund for the Arts rehearse the grand finale with them ahead of the gala performance. Source: George Mason University Photograph collection, #R0120 Box 90, Folder 1 Creator: Steve J. Sherman Date: October 6, 1990
Center for the Arts, George Mason University at night
Center for the Arts, George Mason University at night The Center for the Arts is illuminated at night. Source: George Mason University photograph collection, R0120 Box 39, Folder 8 Creator: George Mason University Creative Services Date: circa 1993
The Center for the Arts and Mason Pond in Fall
The Center for the Arts and Mason Pond in Fall The Center for the Arts is seen behind and reflected in Mason Pond in 2007. Source: George Mason University Creative Services Creator: Evan Cantwell Date: June 3, 2007
President-elect Barack Obama meets with George Mason University personnel during his visit to George Mason University's Center for the Arts in 2009.
President-elect Barack Obama meets with George Mason University personnel during his visit to George Mason University's Center for the Arts in 2009. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama meets Mason Provost Peter Stearns and Vice President Christine Lapaille ahead of his address to the nation at the Center for the Arts. Source: George Mason University Creative Services Creator: George Mason University Creative Services Date: January 8, 2009
Antecedent by Lila Katzen in front of the Center for the Arts
Antecedent by Lila Katzen in front of the Center for the Arts George Mason University received this sculpture, Antecedent by Lila Katzen, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in January 1983. It is 6 ft. high, 11 ft. wide, and 25 ft. long and was completed in 1975. The sculpture was originally located on the north side of Fenwick Library's Wing-A until the early 2000s. Although it did not move until about a decade later, the idea to relocate the sculpture to its present location in front of the Center for the Arts was first publically proposed in the February 18, 1991 edition of the Broadside by Denise Dougherty, a correspondent majoring in art history. Source: Mason Creative Services Creator: Mason Creative Services Date: September 20, 2011
Attitude,  a sculpture by Doris Catullo rises above a group in the Lobby of  the Center for the Arts Concert Hall.
Attitude, a sculpture by Doris Catullo rises above a group in the Lobby of the Center for the Arts Concert Hall. Attitude by Doris Catullo from 1993 features prominently in the Concert Hall lobby. The sculpture, named after the ballet pose depicted, is 60 inches high and 52 inches wide. Source: George Mason University Creative Services Creator: George Mason University Creative Services Date: March 18, 2012
New George Mason University President Gregory Washington speaks in the lobby of the Concert Hall.
New George Mason University President Gregory Washington speaks in the lobby of the Concert Hall. Dr. Gregory Washington, George Mason University's eighth president, is introduced by the Board of Visitors at a reception at the Center for the Arts on February 27, 2020. Source: George Mason University Creative Services Creator: Ron Aira Date: February 27, 2020
"Joanne Johnson contributes to GMU community"
"Joanne Johnson contributes to GMU community" Broadside article profiling Mason's First Lady Joanne Johnson and her work as the Chair of the Arts Gala Committee in the 1986 Orientation Issue. Source: Broadside student newspaper collection Creator: Nancy Smith Date: 1986

Location

Metadata

George Mason University Past and Present Team, “The Center for the Arts,” The Mason Experience: Past and Present, accessed April 21, 2024, https://pastandpresent.gmu.edu/items/show/12.