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Arts & Culture

The Argyros Performing Arts Center In Ketchum Races To The Starting Line

Tom Michael
Boise State Public Radio

Sun Valley is known for its high seasons, with skiers flocking to the resort in winter and music-lovers gathering under the pavilion in summer. Now, a new performing arts center wants to give audiences year-round entertainment.

In the past few months, circular saws and hammers have been the sound of the Argyros Performing Arts Center, at the southern edge of Ketchum. But soon, it will be sounding more like the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, for example, which will hold a winter concert here.

At a site visit back in October, weeks before the scheduled opening, with construction crews all the way from Alaska, the activity was non-stop. Tim Mott was standing in the middle of the main space, leading a hard-hat tour of donors over the din of constant construction. He’s been the driving force behind this $15 million effort.

"Here we are," he exclaimed. "We’re right on Main Street, right near the southern entry of town, two blocks from the middle of town. I mean, what a statement."

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Tim Mott stands on the balcony of his office in Ketchum, October 2018,

One of the donors, Tony Price, asked him, "What remains to be done?" Mott laughed, "You mean what are we going to do in the next five weeks?" With resolve, he said, "We’re going to open in five weeks."

There’s a lot of pressure to meet the Thanksgiving Weekend opening date. A dozen different trades were working simultaneously on this day.

"Fourteen activities, 65 people here," explained construction supervisor Leonard Lowen, who wears the deadline tension on his face. "It’s not a big building. It’s small. It requires a lot of coordination and keeping everybody cool."

He paused and then repeated it like a mantra: "We can’t lose our cool."

Like Sun Valley itself, this building is not run-of-the-mill. It’s expensive and ambitious. Mott walked his visitors through four innovations.

"So the first thing is: the stage," he said. "Where’s the stage? We don’t have a stage." The stage can be made as needed, with adjustable blocks, anywhere along the flat floor.

The second innovation, said Mott, "is telescopic seating. Those 210 seats, when they collapse, they fit in that alcove back there. So it’s rake seating. It’s 12 rows of 17 seats, and it collapses into a space that’s 4-and-one-half feet deep." 

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Construction crews on Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum race to finish their work before its grand opening, Fall 2018.

These aren’t your father’s gymnasium bleachers either. "No, no, no," he confirmed, "it’s theater-quality seating.  They’re individual seats. They’re upholstered. The company that did our seating system, they’re in Belgium. That was a hard decision to go off-shore." Ultimately, the venue will have more than 400 seats.

Mott pointed to the ceiling to highlight the third feature. A large wide grid suspended from the ceiling and made of super-strong cable, instead of the usual pipes for hanging equipment.

"The innovation is the tension grid. That wire is the same high tensor cable that they use when they drag airliners around on a runway. It’s 97% transparent, so all the lighting goes above it.

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
A stack of well-worn architectural blueprints at the Argyros construction site, October 2018.

Days earlier, Mott walked out onto the suspended grid with the construction crew chief. It bounced a bit, but "it’s a much safer environment to work in." And an improvement over the traditional, narrow catwalk.

The fourth innovation cost more than a million dollars – the sound system

"What it enables you to do is digitally to create the illusion of being in any kind of space," Mott said. "So we can make this room sound dead, like a cinema sounds. Or a little more lively, like a chamber hall. We can make it sound like we’re in a Gothic cathedral with 300-foot-high ceilings."

And it is odd, not finding traditional acoustical panels on the wall. "What it means is that you do the acoustical treatment digitally rather than physically." He asked the group of donors on the tour, "Does anyone have noise-cancelling headphones?" Yes was the answer.

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Douglas Rankin joins the Argyros as executive director, in downtown Ketchum, October 2018.

"So the way that noise-cancelling headphones work," Mott explained, "is that in each ear cup, there is a microphone. The microphone listens to the background noise and creates a wave form that is 180 degrees in opposition. It injects it into the signal and so it cancels out the background noise. That’s how it works."

Douglas Rankin is the executive director of the Argyros Performing Arts Center. He has launched new arts centers in Illinois and in California.

"And while I thought I was semi-retired," he joked, "I came in contact with this particular project and just figured maybe I had one more. One more building in me."

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
A work crew from Alaska pauses to pose behind the Argyros Performing Arts Center in the final weeks of construction, October 2018.

Rankin has already programmed a special engagement with the dancer Isabella Boylston, a Sun Valley native.

But a dedicated labor-force will be his challenge. “I have to admit I’ve never worked with seasonality before," he said, "How they population moves around from seasons to season, from high season to - terms I’m just learning now - like 'slack season’.”

Mott hopes Sun Valley can someday be more like Apsen and Martha’s Vineyard, famous tourist towns with no true slack season, or slow season. 

“We’re going to help banish slack season in this town,” he predicted with wry determination.

While that remains to be seen, these men are putting this ambitious plan to its ultimate test – the audience.

"Even though we have different backgrounds," Mott concluded, "I think one of the things that Doug and I share is  that both realize that you can engage in building something and creating something that otherwise doesn’t exist. And when you do, number one, you’ve got to live with a high degree of anxiety And the other thing is that you’ve got to really be prepared to experiment."

He paused. "But there’s only some much you can know on paper."

The Argyros Performing Arts Center has passed this paper stage and on November 24 will be opening its doors to the audience.

Find Tom Michael on Twitter @Tom2Michael

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio