WashArts celebrates 10th anniversary

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They grow up fast.


A child born at the same time as the Washington Community Arts and Cultural Center would now be in the fifth grade. And that means a child who enlisted in a painting or music class with the center a decade ago would now – gulp – be in college or plying a trade outside the classroom.


A 10th anniversary is one of those landmarks where looking back and looking ahead are par for the course, and that’s been happening lately at the headquarters of the center, which is most commonly referred to in shorthand as “WashArts.” Having moved to new, one-story, handicapped-accessible digs at 70 South St. in Washington in late summer, the organization will be formally celebrating “the next generation” at a 10th anniversary gala Friday at 7 p.m. A formal affair requiring cocktail attire, it will feature music and art, as you would expect, along with a full gourmet dinner and drinks.


Sandee Umbach, WashArts’ founder and its current board president, first formulated the idea for the organization in January 2002. A poet, she saw the vast, airy space above Brothers Family Restaurant on the corner of Beau and Main streets in downtown Washington and decided it should be put to use.


“It came to me in a vision,” Umbach explained last week. “I really thought it was divinely inspired.”


She continued, “The original vision was to create an outlet for youth. We wanted to provide a creative outlet and for it to be accessible.”


From there, she teamed up with Jonathan Miles, who, at the time, was the director of the LeMoyne Multicultural Community Center in Washington, and started the arduous grant application process. By the time the fall of 2002 rolled around, they were ready for their initial slate of classes.


Classes then – and now – are available at affordable prices and for free for students receiving free or reduced-price lunches in their schools.


Umbach “wanted to extend the arts to the kids, and especially to those who weren’t being served in ways she thought they could be,” Miles said.


In its inaugural quarter, 50 students were enrolled in seven classes. Within two years, WashArts had grown by 400 percent, with about 200 students enrolled in 20 to 30 classes. In its first decade, its offerings expanded beyond such bedrock areas as the visual arts and poetry to metals, jewelry design, graphic design, digital video and photography. Throughout its life, WashArts’ annual budget has typically been in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $200,000.


WashArts’ first home had its advantages, namely a commanding view of the Washington County Courthouse and a central location in downtown Washington. On the downside, though, you had to hike up, up, up a formidable set of steps to reach it. While it was one heck of a cardio workout, it was hardly handicapped accessible, and, in the end, it proved to be too high a mountain to climb.


After several years of looking for new locations around Washington, Umbach and the board settled on the new site, a former seller of butcher-shop supplies located across the street from Ross Mould Inc. At the new facility, which cost close to $1 million to renovate, they’ve installed a soundproofed recording studio in what was the company’s vault. They also have a space for classes and hope to eventually add a theater and art gallery.


“We want to make this everyone’s art center,” Umbach said. Once the gallery and theater are added, she believes it will make Washington an arts destination and enable WashArts to stand toe to toe with any of the other arts organizations in the Pittsburgh region.


“It’s very difficult to make it to your 10th year,” Umbach said. “It doesn’t get any easier. It’s so dang hard to keep a nonprofit going.”


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