Entering Maryville College campus from Lamar Alexander Parkway, the Clayton Center for the Arts is one of the first buildings you see, its shining wall of windows welcoming everyone to MC.
Despite the pandemic restrictions, the Clayton Center is continuing its mission of the last decade in enriching the lives of the Maryville students, faculty, and community members. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Clayton Center’s operation, calling for a look back at its progress and a glimpse to what’s in store.
The current General Manager of the Clayton Center, Mr. Blake Smith, was hired in 2013 and has since worked diligently to operate Clayton and fulfill its mission of, as Smith said, “enriching intellectual and cultural life” in the Maryville community. Smith and the rest of the staff take pride in being able to bring in art, music, and many types of performance events that people in the area might not have the opportunity to experience otherwise. But even before Smith’s arrival, the Clayton Center has always been a place where expression, performance, and culture thrive.
MC professor and artist Dr. Carl Gombert shared his reflections on the first concerts he experienced at the Clayton Center. He first recalled playing on the 100-foot-wide Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre stage during the 2010 Grand Opening, describing it in one word: “magical.” He remembered feeling amazed while sitting in the audience during an Emmylou Harris concert, never having thought a fourteen-time Grammy-winning artist would be performing in Maryville, Tennessee.
Herein lies the most connective aspect of the Clayton Center: its ability to share once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to its community. Smith recalled a similar memory of attending one of the Appalachian Ballet Company’s performances. After watching the audience fall in love with the show, he sat amongst them, rewarded by being able to bring them into a room of culture, art, and community.
Smith said he sat back and just said, “Yes.”
In 1999, the Wilson Chapel and Fine Arts Center that had stood on campus since 1950 was in disrepair. Thus, plans for the Clayton Center came into existence under MC President Gerald Gibson and Blount County Chamber of Commerce President Fred Forster.
After gathering over $47 million in funds from a variety of sources including Alcoa and Maryville cities, Maryville College, and the state of Tennessee, the plan to demolish the Wilson Chapel and Fine Arts Center and rebuild came to fruition in 2007. Finally, in 2010, the Clayton Center’s doors swung open as an educational facility, a community project, and a business venture.
The main building of the Clayton Center houses three art galleries, the Phillip Fulmer Family Special Events Room, the Haslam Family Theatre, the Grand Foyer, and the Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre. The recital hall building, across the plaza from the main building, includes the Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall and two more art galleries. The buildings also include faculty and staff offices, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, and a music library.
The buildings are separated by an intricately designed plaza into which the golden mean, a symbol of virtue, beauty, and equilibrium, and the nine Greek muses are inscribed. The plaza also functions as a place for a variety of outdoor events and features water fountains that bring children to play during the summer to keep the campus lively even in the off-season.
Besides bringing non-local performances to the community, The Clayton Center makes use of its facilities by showcasing student and faculty work. Aside from attending and performing in concerts, Gombert has been a featured artist in the galleries several times over the past decade and called it a “fantastic honor.”
MC senior music education major Haylee Wilson offered a similar perspective and went on to praise the professional opportunities Clayton provides through student performances and exhibits.
“It allows students to get a taste of real-life performance,” Wilson said.
Unfortunately, this year has taken its toll, and as with many music venues, art galleries, and theaters around the world, the Clayton Center has had to cancel and postpone many of these “real life” events.
According to Smith, he and the rest of the staff started planning tenth-anniversary events in fall of 2019 in order to reconnect alumni and members of the community through bringing back shows and throwing a season opening party. Since the beginning COVID-19, they have been reimagining what will come next.
The staff is working tirelessly, according to Wilson, to keep comfort and community maintained inside the buildings, allowing for some in-person gatherings to take place safely.
“Seeing fine arts faculty and the Clayton Center staff work to keep the experience alive has been really heartwarming,” Wilson said.
She lamented the cancellation of “Shrek: The Musical” in mid-March of 2020, but it is just one example of the staff’s diligence throughout this hard season to make necessary cancellations or adjustments. She also says the staff has taken time to listen to students’ opinions and needs, which has made it easier to tackle this semester.
Smith, an optimist and a vibrant lover of the arts and Maryville, is working progressively, thinking ahead to what will come next, not only for 2021 to make up for the minimal celebration of the tenth anniversary year, but also for the long-term. In the future, he said he would like to see the Clayton Center engage even more with faculty and students to expand the potential he believes is untapped. He and staff are also focusing on bringing in more diverse programming.
But this season’s abnormalities aren’t keeping the calendar clear. The Clayton Center still featured some events this year, including films from the Southern Film Circuit and art exhibits that are free to students whether online or in-person. The staff is also working to finalize plans for concerts with local musicians through the spring season which will be free or discounted for students as well and will hopefully be able to be held in-person.
Gombert emphasized the wonderful work the staff carries out–in a pandemic or not–and says that it’s the staff who make the Clayton Center so invaluable. Overall, the one encouragement from each Smith, Wilson, and Gombert is for everyone to keep supporting the arts, now during the pandemic, and afterwards for the next decade to come.