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2019-04-01 / Features

Imagine ...

An arts and innovation center is opening in downtown State College. It’ll take a village to bring it to life.
By Sarah Rafacz | Photos By Georgianna DeCarmine

Photo Courtesy 3 Dots DowntownPhoto Courtesy 3 Dots Downtown

Imagine a place where you could see an improv show one day and an art exhibit the next. Imagine a venue where you could enjoy a catered brunch on Sunday and a lunchtime concert on Monday. Imagine a space where you could explore and create and innovate.

3 Dots Downtown, scheduled to open in late April at 137 E. Beaver Ave. in State College, is an arts and innovation center that’s “only limited by the imagination of State College.” Inspiration for the center’s name came from the ellipsis — the dot, dot, dot at the end of a sentence that many people use to indicate that something else is coming.

“There’s really this hunger for having a space (that) creatives and artists and innovators (can) call home,” says Spud Marshall, 3 Dots innovation director whose résumé includes launching Trailhead and co-founding New Leaf Initiative and co.space.

The vision for 3 Dots is to host artistic and innovative experiences, which might seem a little nebulous. Because it is. James Tierney, 3 Dots board member and co-owner of Happy Valley Improv, says they’re going to find out what those experiences are as they go.

The 3,200-square-foot space — the longtime home of Gift Adventures — could be used for all sorts of arts: black box-style theater, poetry readings, concerts, filmmaking, dance, ceramics, sculpture, photography, paintings and more. The venue has some limitations, such as the configuration of the space not lending itself to a full theatrical production, but Jason Browne, 3 Dots board member, says that just forces even more creativity.

Photo Courtesy 3 Dots DowntownPhoto Courtesy 3 Dots Downtown“You might not see the traditional version of The Nutcracker in 3 Dots, but you may see some weird, cool offshoot of it that’s like, ‘Who would even think of this? This is cool; I want to come see what this is about,’” says Browne, who co-hosts a morning radio show on B94.5 (WBHV-FM).

The 3 Dots concept is unique to the area. Robyn Krause-Hale, who works in Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture and is a 3 Dots board member, loves the “unpredictability” and “surprise” integral to the 3 Dots vision. It’s truly a space for exploration.

Centre Foundation Executive Director Molly Kunkel, who also serves as 3 Dots board chair, has secured financial backers through the Knight Foundation Fund and Kalin Family Fund. Thanks to that effort, 3 Dots has enough startup money to fund basic operations, such as paying the rent and a full-time managing director, for about three years. That’s a “fantastic luxury,” according to Jeff Erickson, who’s been working on 3 Dots’ business model and spent his career as an entrepreneur and marketer. “It’s pretty magic that Molly was able to make that work.”

“We have this three-year runway where we can really experiment and create and try different things,” Marshall says, which is why he’s eager to see the space open as soon as possible. The turnaround time is quicker than most organizations launch. But, given Marshall’s seemingly boundless energy, it feels slow to him.

“We’re trying to make it happen fast. It seems like so many times in communities where ideas like this will come and they almost die just because they take so long to make them happen,” says Kunkel, who’s been thinking about bringing an arts and innovation center to State College for a couple years.

She started seriously working on the idea about a year ago. Simultaneously, Marshall says, conversations were happening around town about the need for a space like 3 Dots. Those conversations emerged from monthly potluck brainstorms that Marshall and his wife hosted at their home and through the ideas funded by Trailhead’s monthly $1,000 grants.

“Part of what we realized is that there is a lot of art that’s happening, but it doesn’t get promoted and it’s not open to everybody in the community frequently,” Kunkel says. 3 Dots will be a visible space that’s easy to get to.

Krause-Hale is hoping 3 Dots will complement Penn State’s various arts offerings, as well as the other spaces already operating in town. “The arts work together in the community. This is a splendid opportunity for the arts, through 3 Dots Downtown, to be integrated with the downtown mission of bringing the community downtown to enjoy what downtown has to offer, to make arts more integral into the downtown and integral into people’s lives.”

The community has been instrumental in the dreaming, designing and creating of 3 Dots. Since the lease was signed in January, scores of community members have lent their talents and time to the development of the space and its overall mission and vision. 

“I’ve been really blown away by how much excitement there is,” Kunkel says.

About 350 people have been involved in 3 Dots in one way or another; 135 of them participated in eight design charrette in late January to help create the vision for the look, feel and use of the space. People want this space to be a blank canvas, Marshall says, where they can come in and make their mark on it. It will be a completely flexible space, with the ability to move furniture in and out and change the lighting with an app.

Marshall — with faithful canine companion Bodi ever at his side, or under his feet — is spearheading the renovation effort, which is mostly cosmetic, with help from many volunteers.

The outpouring of support from the community has been wonderful, Kunkel says. Folks are already interested in renting the space, volunteering and signing up for the mailing list. “I think it’s really critical to the success of the space and, also, hopefully indicative of how much the community will use it once it’s there.”

“This is one of those places that will be organic and take in the thoughts of others and not just be a static blob in the community. … It’s 3 Dots, which means that your dot dot dot is also included in that,” Browne says. “It will evolve. It will change. It’ll modify.”

Another important aspect of 3 Dots is its work as a community connection point. The plan is to have open hours with volunteer hosts who are able to not only welcome curious passers-by to the center, but also to the greater region. The hosts will be trained to connect people who wander into 3 Dots to organizations, events and opportunities in the community where they can get involved.

Marshall finds those kinds of connecting points to be sparse in State College, so he’s hopeful that the volunteer hosts can “animate” the entry space of 3 Dots to make it feel like a place where newcomers and longtime residents alike can find their tribe.

“We want to make sure that people who move to our community get excited about our community and want to stick with our community and give back to the community,” Tierney says.

3 Dots also fits in with a larger movement of creative and innovative businesses opening their doors.

Across the United States, Tierney says, “downtown revitalization projects are really becoming the norm.” With spaces such as Happy Valley LaunchBox, New Leaf Initiative, The Makery, The Make Space and others, “there’s all this energy flowing in. We think we can fit with that to try and really be this open door to the community.”

Marshall sees these businesses as providing an important function in State College, where people can not only consume the culture, but also see themselves building something in town that continues to strengthen that cultural fabric. And 3 Dots could fit into that, too.

“I’d love to see this as an incubator of sorts for arts and culture-related initiatives,” he says. It’s a way to facilitate community place-making.

“We’ve got to create spaces that jibe with what the community wants, and that’s what we think we’ve got going here,” Erickson says. “And we have the wonderful ability to test that theory out for three years.”

After the initial funding for 3 Dots runs out, the organization, which is  going the nonprofit route, will need help from benefactors and community members to sustain itself.

“We are very confident that people are going to walk into the space and say, ‘This is super unique, super awesome. It’s what’s putting State College on the national map for arts and innovation. How can I help out?’” Tierney says. “And I’ll say, ‘How much do you have in your checking account that you can help us out with?’”

To get involved, visit 3dotsdowntown.com. •SCM

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