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With new arts center, former McNally Smith president hopes to rebuild ‘what we all lost’

July 15, 2018

On the Friday after July 4th, Harry Chalmiers, the former president of McNally Smith College of Music, stood in the vaulted sanctuary of the former St. Pauls Episcopal Church on the Hill on Summit Avenue. He pointed out changes made over the past few months.

The pews are gone. The large crucifix that stood on the carved rood beam is in storage. The floors are smooth. The ceiling is no longer crumbling.

Once fallen into disrepair, the historic church designed by French immigrant Emmanuel Masqueray is being born again as the Summit Center for Arts and Innovation.

One reason: great acoustics. Another: size. Seating 400 to 500, its rare among Twin Cities venues.

The Summit Center is already drawing attention. The Twin Cities Early Music Festival will hold concerts there in August. The SPCOs Liquid Music Series and the Walker Art Center want to use it next March.

The St. Paul Conservatory of Music has moved into the education wing.

New owner John Rupp, the St. Paul real estate developer behind the University Club, the Commodore and W.A. Frost, originally planned to call it St. Pauls Center for Performing Arts.

That honestly didnt do a lot for me, Chalmiers said. Its already in use in about five different places in St. Paul. And my vision is to have this be very different than just a rental hall.

Chalmiers sees the Summit Center as a place to create and collaborate. He believes it can help rebuild a community that was shattered last December when McNally Smiths owners, Jack McNally and Doug Smith, abruptly closed the school. There wasnt enough money to make the final payroll.

Like everyone else who worked there, Chalmiers lost his job. He gave the bad news to the students and dealt with the media. He scrambled to find solutions for suddenly displaced students. For more than a month, he worked with the board without pay on ways to bring the college back to life.

And he had his own future to think about. He wondered what he would do.

In February, Rupp called with a proposal. Would Chalmiers come to work for him on a historic church he had just bought? Its a loose arrangement, and Chalmiers doesnt know where it will lead, but hes excited by the possibilities.

And not just for the building. In late June, Chalmiers posted an invitation on Facebook for former McNally Smith students, staff and faculty to meet at the Summit Center and explore the possibility of creating a place where we might be able to regain at least a portion of what we all lost.

Seventeen people came. Plans were made to gather again in two weeks.

In a recent interview, Chalmiers shared perspectives on the past and dreams for the future.

On what might have been

The fact is, [McNally Smith] was a for-profit college that was owned by two shareholders. For all of my tenure there, we worked pretty effectively together, but we had one primary and constant source of disagreement, and that was how profits were distributed.

Early on, when we were making a good profit it was not an obscene profit, but we were doing very well as a business I proposed a three-way profit split: a third to the shareholders, a third to cash reserves and a third to reinvest in the program. Lets just say that didnt happen.

In the final analysis, if we had a million to a million and a half in the bank, we could have weathered this.

On his personal aftermath

I never felt so heartbroken and so angry at the same time. Its not a good combination. I felt very empty. At commencement [McNally-Smiths final graduation on Dec. 16], I presided over it, I gave my little speech and went home, and of course I felt rotten. But I felt especially rotten. I came down with the flu and a 103-degree fever for five days.

On the McNally-Smith community

What became apparent immediately when McNally Smith closed, precipitously and with no notice, was how the community of students, faculty and staff arose together immediately to help take care of each other.

Faculty and staff worked for days, weeks and in some cases months for no pay, and being owed back pay, just to take care of the students and each other. The power of that community was very impressive. It helped us through a rough time.

It quickly became apparent that this was one of the things everybody was missing so much the community of artists, the learning community. All that was taken away.

So I started thinking, and a couple of people I talked to said, What about this new thing youre doing? This Summit Center place? Is there any opportunity to have a meeting space where people can gather to visit with each other, exchange ideas, update people, make connections, make appointments to rehearse and play and work together?

McNally Smith had built, I think, the finest curriculum for contemporary music education in the country. And we had this very close-knit community that was very supportive. I thought of trying to put something together here that might provide some of what was lost.

On the immediate future of the Summit Center

Weve got a long way to go, but were starting quietly now. Were having an event here in late August as a dry run, to try it out. I need to stress that we are in the process of getting permits from the city and licensing and all that. Were moving forward and its going well. I feel hopeful, almost confident, that by this fall well have all the permissions in place to begin to operate. We hope to have a liquor license for beer and wine at concerts and events.

On Summit Centers potential

Education could be part of what we offer. Im not talking about starting a new college. But it could be another type of community of interest to creative musical artists and others. One that provides experiences and opportunities you struggle to find when youre entirely on your own.

For example, I would like this to be the most technologically capable facility of its size in the Upper Midwest. A place where technology exists, where experimentation can happen, where we create innovative new works together. So we build community, we build new artistic possibilities, strange collaborations, and things you dont run into all the time. And diverse programming.

On what the center might look like in two years

Somebody wrote a book about the Third Place. Youve got your home, youve got your workplace. Most people like to have a third place. Maybe for some people, this becomes that kind of place a community center for arts, ideas and stimulation. The way people would just hang around McNally Smith, whether you were a student, faculty or staff.

We liked each other, and we were united by a common passion not just for music, but for being creative and having values consistent with that.

If in two years we have something that is there or getting there, that unites those qualities around art and creativity and community, Ill be very happy.

Pamela Espeland is the Artscape columnist at MinnPost and blogs at bebopified.com.

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