Looking Forward to Fall with The ETSU Martin Center

While much of the country has had to pause operations at some point in 2020, construction on the James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts on State of Franklin Road was able to continue with only a few COVID-19-related delays. On top of that, the 93,000-square-foot Martin Center for the Arts was ready for occupancy in October. 

“Wise purchases of materials and equipment on the part of general contractors Denark Construction of Knoxville in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, enabled construction to continue while many businesses and projects had to temporarily shut down,” says Facility General Manager Pamela Adolphi. 

The arts center project, designed by architects McCarty Holsaple McCarty, also of Knoxville, is a nearly 30-year dream for the university and the community, made possible through the support of many donors, including James C. Martin and his daughter, Sonia King, and the City of Johnson City, Washington County, Eastman Credit Union, General Shale and the ETSU Foundation.

Opening in a Pandemic

Opening in the middle of challenging times has delayed a grand opening and inaugural season of events, but as a part of East Tennessee State University, the Martin Center has been able to turn its spotlight on academics, accommodating on-ground music classes and recitals, as well as theatre and dance recordings for web with the social distancing possible due to the size of the Center’s spaces.

“ETSU has been transforming the arts in the region for more 100 years, going back to the early 1900s when the Normal School band would perform in the region raising support for higher education and telling the story of the school that is today East Tennessee State University,” said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. “The arts are a vibrant part of our story today and the opening of the Martin Center for the Arts realizes a dream that began more than a quarter-century ago.”

“While we had hoped to open last fall with much celebration and a slate of events, we are nevertheless thrilled to be in the Martin Center after so many years of planning and watching the dream become reality,” says Jen Clements, executive director of university events. “As we prepare for a possible fall 2021 opening, we are busily addressing the university’s academic needs and making sure the center is ready for our patrons of the arts and for the kind of performances we’ve always imagined.”

Summer 2020 brought many changes and completions at the Martin Center. Fixed seating in the ETSU Foundation Grand Hall and the Powell Recital Hall was installed by the end of July. Also in July, flooring in the Recital and Grand halls was laid and sound systems installed and fine-tuned in the three venues and music rehearsal rooms. Sound-controlling draperies were installed in all venues, as well, as well as other unique design details, to enhance acoustics for a wide variety of performance needs.

Additionally, in the 1,200-seat ETSU Foundation Grand Hall, the fly system for the Eastman Credit Union stage, multi-level orchestra pit and sound system were functional by mid-July. Furnishings for dressing rooms and green rooms for each of the venues and offices were in place by September. 

The orchestra sound shell assembly – on the Grand Hall stage – was also a July project, Adolphi says, followed by the last phase of “sprung” stage floor installation with an aerated polymer surface. Even the stage floor offers sound absorption and resonance, says Martin Center Technical Director Ken Cornett.

The Recital Hall, which seats more than 200, features wood finishes accented by a natural wood stage floor and crystalline acoustics, making it a more intimate venue, especially for music events.

Looking to the Future

Once it is appropriate, ETSU’s Department of Music will transfer many of its recitals and chamber events to the Martin Center venues. During fall semester, Music and Theatre and Dance, which have instructional spaces in the facility, recorded student performances from Martin Center venues for posting online.

“We are excited about our new Recital Hall for small, more intimate performances, and the large Grand Hall for our larger performances,” says Music Chair Dr. Matthew Potterton. “We have not had a good performance space on campus. This [new center] will provide a state-of-the-art Recital Hall and Grand Hall for our performances. 

“We have been so thankful for area churches that have allowed us to perform in their sanctuaries, but a university needs to have a professional performance space.”

Choral, instrumental and percussion rehearsal rooms feature acoustical wall and ceiling surfaces and sound and projection equipment. 

The third venue in the Martin Center is the Bert C. Bach Theatre, a black box theater with flexible seating and staging options, with a seating capacity around 200. A tension wire grid above the staging area allows lighting to be hung wherever needed for differing productions, while all surfaces, including ceiling and floor, are painted black for maximum lighting effect. 

Additional Performance Space

“The Bert Bach flex stage will provide our students with the latest technology and performance opportunities,” says Department of Theatre and Dance Chair Karen Brewster. “Our designers and tech staff will be able to do almost anything in that space. We can conceptualize our shows in almost any way we think is best, not limited by proscenium walls or fixed seating. It will be a wonderful place for theater-making, teaching our students and entertaining our audiences.” 

At the Martin Center, a scene shop is only separated by 19-foot-tall double doors – and narrow sound and light locked corridor – to allow sets to be assembled and moved directly to the black box or Grand Hall stage with ease, while the costume shop with dye room is just across the hallway. 

“Our current scene and costume shops are old, repurposed locker rooms in the basement of Brooks Gym,” Brewster says. “The new scene and costume shops in the Martin Center are state-of-the-art learning laboratories with the latest equipment and will provide much more space than what we have currently.”

Highlights of the 3,000-square-foot Tindall Lobby include polished terrazzo floors and carpet, chandeliers and light fixtures, lobby video monitors for each venue and an elevator to access the second level and balcony of the Grand Hall.

Outside of the arts center, landscaping, lighting and walkways were completed in September and early October on the Sonia S. King Plaza, which is on the southern and east sides of the center, with a connecting canopy between the Millennium Center and Carnegie Hotel and the new facility.

What’s to Come

As thoughts turn to programming, Music, Theatre and Dance and the Martin Center are exploring ways to safely – and virtually – share the arts with the campus and the region. While spring semester events will remain live-streamed and pre-recorded, the Martin Center should present its first season in fall 2021.

“We can’t wait to share the Martin Center with not only the campus,” says Clements, “But also the community that has dared to dream with us for so long.”

For more information, visit etsumartincenter.org, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or email at artsinfo@etsu.edu.