It might have been conceived as a way to class up downtown Tracy, but its reach was always supposed to extend beyond Central Avenue, drawing interest and creativity from outside of Tank Town’s interstate triangle. In that way, program manager and gallery supervisor William Wilson II said, a renewed regional focus at the theater is just painting by the numbers: “It’s really a return to our roots.”
Those roots needed tending, however, because the recession parched the tree. More than once, the theater and education center has had its budget trimmed. It went from costing the city general fund $1.3 million in 2007-08 to costing $800,000 in 2009-10. And those numbers continue to shrink.
When the cuts came, the Grand had to scale back, rethink what it offered and how to fulfill its mission.
In the end, it was a blessing in disguise. Now refocused and on more stable footing — thanks to a novel approach to filling its galleries, studios and stages — Wilson said the Grand is reclaiming its promise.
“We definitely dealt with adversity in the first few years that nobody could predict,” Wilson said. “A saving grace through that is that we were still young, and there are so many patrons still finding us for the first time that we were able to weather those setbacks … much better than other types of art venues.”
It’s not just that companies from all over the city and the Central Valley perform on its stages, that nationally acclaimed artists are featured in its galleries and that half its visitors come from outside of Tracy’s city limits.
It’s that the Grand features something not found at any similar center between Modesto and Sacramento: the art of teaching.
“The thing that makes the project ultimately special is the commitment to arts education,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who can often be found in his office off one of the theater’s ground-floor galleries, said it’s his goal to build a ladder of programs that lets students — beginners through professionals — sharpen their skills.
That includes giving artists without a studio of their own a place to hone their craft.
“It gives folks working in our industry a home,” he said.
It also creates an art community, a cauldron of creativity that can lead to bigger and better things.
And Wilson hopes the theater has already found the step to reaching that figurative “next level.”
Last weekend, the Grand kicked off its 2011 Professional Development Workshop, a series of seminars, lectures and classes designed for art world professionals — or skilled and enthusiastic amateurs and students.
“We’re about lifelong learning and providing those opportunities,” Wilson said, “whether you’re a grade-school student or whether you’re a 70-year-old who’s been painting for years.”
The classes — a few are free, most cost about $15 and none costs more than $35 — cover dance, drama, music and visual arts (including, for full disclosure, a photojournalism class taught by Press photographer Glenn Moore).
Wilson hopes the series grows into a full convention-style lineup, attracting artists from not just the region, but all across California. It’s a vision of the Grand as a hub for creative, vital people who can inject energy and life into the city.
That’s why it’s critical, at this point in its growth, for the Grand to get support from homegrown groups and individuals. And not only from artistic types — from anyone and any group that cares about the future of the city.
Because the Grand’s dream-big plan can only mean good things for Tracy. Especially downtown.
More activity at the Grand means more business for local merchants and more economic opportunity for a city that seems to crave it.
According to Wilson, there’s only one real pitfall — finding enough space and support for all the action.
“The place is so busy, and there are only so many people who work here.”
The crunch could get worse as the Grand’s gravitational pull grows. But popularity seems like a pretty good problem to have.
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