More than 15 years ago a group of Tuolumne County arts visionaries embarked on a mission: To create a Community Arts and Cultural Center at the Sonora Dome. At the helm of that group, known as The Dome Steering Committee, was an energetic woman with a solid background in the arts: Connie O’Connor-Varvandakis. At that time Connie was Central Sierra Arts Council’s President of the Board of Directors.
Now Connie O’Connor-Gahagan serves as CSAC’s executive director, and one day almost two years ago she brought an architectural model of that same Dome to CSAC’s HQ. ”Wouldn’t it be great if we could pick up this dream again?” Connie’s unfailing commitment to the arts in Tuolumne County never stopped for even one minute!
And now fulfilling that dream is at hand. Sonora Union High School District and CSAC have recently entered a partnership that allows CSAC to offer its newest community arts program, Kids Art Studies Academy, in the former Sonora Parent Nursery School building on the Barretta Street Dome Campus. KASA, as it will be known, will give students of all ages a place to develop their artistic talents. And so, this exciting vision of “CSAC at The Dome”is already underway.
On October 6th, from 9:00 to 4:00, CSAC will host the grand opening of KASA (in the completely renovated building) with a great Tuolumne County Youth Arts Festival of visual art, music and spoken word performances. The event is held in conjunction with the California Arts Council’s California Arts Day. And the timing couldn’t be better! “The demand for community-based arts classes for both Youth and Adults is high,” says O’Connor-Gahagan. “This Summer we had to turn away kids for our annual Summer Arts Camp. For the first time in eight years, registration for the camp was full a month in advance! We had a waiting list of more than 30 students.”
The history of the Dome Building reflects the most important highlights of the town’s history. The original schoolhouse was built in 1858 on the same site. But as the town grew so did its needs for a larger school building. So, in 1909 construction began on the now famous landmark building. But in 1973 students were required to vacate the building due to California’s rigorous earthquake standards for school buildings. From 1974 to 1982 the facility was occupied by Tuolumne County Office Education, then later became the headquarters for Sonora Union High School District offices.
But in recent years the Dome Building has been in flux. As school budgets have shrunk and special programs have been diminished, school facilities use also falls into question. In 2005 SUHS was forced to close its Sonora Parent Nursery School program, a parent cooperative nursery school that had served hundreds of families for 57 years. As its building sat vacant and the Dome Building’s maintenance was in question, worries mounted on the future of one of our community’s most cherished architectural treasures.
“From a stewardship perspective, the worst thing that can happen is to have an empty public building that’s not being used,” Sonora Union High School Superintendent Dr. Michael McCoy said. But then McCoy, a long-time aficionado of the arts, joined the CSAC Board of Directors. Soon he became aware of the need for community arts classroom facilities, prompting discussions about pairing two important community needs: Protecting the Parent Nursery School Building, and fulfilling a need for more arts programming for Tuolumne County students and residents of all ages.
After critical joint negotiations, the rent is set at $1 a year for CSAC to be able to use the Sonora Parent Nursery School building. “We’re taking an unused amenity and honoring the purpose for which it was constructed,” said McCoy. “I just can’t wait until a year from now to step in and see what is happening.” And now everyone’s heads may turn in a new direction on the status of the historical Dome Building.