UCI arts center overcomes hurdles

The Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine will formally open its newly completed Contemporary Arts Center on Nov. 9.

The long-awaited, $42.35-million building — equipped with state-of-the-art studios and spaces for displaying, staging and producing art — will be the new anchor for the art school complex. Faculty members and school and campus administrators say the center will allow the school's departments to leap ahead with early 21st century artmaking, exhibitions and research.

"The basic concept was to envision a space flexible enough that would take the school to the next level," said Joseph Lewis III, the school's dean. "The building really gives us the ability to put together all the cutting-edge stuff."

For example, the building houses a 2,000-square-foot Performance Capture Studio, which combines motion-capture technology used for 3-D productions with a green screen stage for making high-definition video.

The combination is rare for a university art school, UCI officials and faculty members said.

Such technology, and special effects created by it, has appeared in "Avatar" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

The center's completion, however, was stalled for six months in mid-construction. First started in December 2007, and originally scheduled to be finished in August or September 2010, the project stopped cold back in January 2009, another casualty of the reeling economy, UCI officials said.

UCI suspended the project only a month after construction workers fit the last girder in place atop the structure's frame. The state had halted the selling of voter-approved bonds to finance University of California building projects.

Faculty members, administrators and students at UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, had to wait it out for 180 days until the spigot of dollars for state school building projects reopened.

"It was completely out of our control…," said Toby Weiner, the school's director of space planning and facilities. "We had to wait for the state to say there was enough money to start the project back up."

Lewis, who came to the school as its new dean in March 2010, praised UCI Chancellor Michael Drake for keeping the pressure on UC system and state officials to fast-track funding for the building's completion as soon as bond money became available again.

"I just wanted to make sure that this was the highest priority for the university, and I'm glad that they listened," Drake said.

He never doubted that the project would be finished.

"The question was how long were we going to be left with just a skeleton," Drake said.

Culver City-based Ehrlich Architects designed the five-level building to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards, as well as cater to the space needs of UCI's various art department, school officials said.

Along with the Performance Capture Studio, the center houses the new Meyers Sound Design Studio, a black box mixed media performance space, a costume design studio, a colloquium room with a trio of projection screens and a 4,000-square-foot art gallery. The center also accommodates offices for faculty and staff. The fourth floor features 30 smaller studios reserved individually for fine arts graduate students.

"A large new gallery space will double the University Art Gallery's capabilities," Miles Coolidge, associate professor and chairman of the Studio Art Department, said in an e-mailed response to questions, referring to the school's older exhibit space, built in the 1960s. "We will now be able to host professional exhibits of the highest quality, while simultaneously providing more opportunities for students to show their work."

In addition, university officials and faculty see the center as enhancing the possibilities for inter-disciplinary partnerships at UCI, as well as creating potential alternate streams of revenue through renting out some of the studios to media production companies.

UCI dance and media arts Professor John Crawford envisions inter-disciplinary projects between dancers and UCI's scientific researchers.

"This new building is where that kind of collaboration can thrive," he said.

Dean Lewis likened the prospect of leasing out studios to "appropriate entrepreneurship," saying it might be part of a future trend for sustaining California's public universities financially in ways that don't rely taxpayer dollars.

He also favors breaking down the silo mentality separating academics dispersed among the university's schools.

"In all, we're all very excited about our new future in the Contemporary Arts Center," Coolidge wrote in his e-mail. "Our major challenge is how to make the most of its new capabilities in an era of rapidly shrinking university support for the arts. Student and faculty sweat equity can take us only so far."

imran.vittachi@latimes.com

Twitter: @ImranVittachi