Only in Lawrence: Ann Evans ‘lived and breathed the Lawrence Arts Center’

Deanell Tacha, left, and Ann Evans, right, celebrate the Lawrence Arts Center's 40th anniversary at a 70s-themed block party, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, at 940 New Hampshire.

In the winter of 2007, Ann Evans stepped down from her position as executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, an organization she started in 1975.

Once retired, Evans said she found herself with too much down time. She began growing ill.

“During the time I was retired, which was about six years, I had major health problems,” she said. “I figured it was because my body had time to collapse and that I had better get busy again. I missed being engaged in the community.”

A native of Paola, Evans, now 68, said she learned early on that she was meant to work as an administrator for the arts.

Evans belonged to her high school’s band as she grew up. One year, as the group prepared for an important concert series with a prominent musician, she found herself doing everything but playing music.

Deanell Tacha, left, and Ann Evans, right, celebrate the Lawrence Arts Center's 40th anniversary at a 70s-themed block party, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, at 940 New Hampshire.

“We were so busy getting ready for the concert, and I was in charge of the event,” she said. “By the time the concert came along, I hadn’t rehearsed any of the pieces. I was selling tickets and administrating without even knowing it.”

With no real interest in becoming an artist herself, Evans said, her interest grew in facilitating the arts into whichever community she was living in.

After graduating from Kansas University with a degree in elementary education, Evans discovered she wasn’t cut out for the teaching life, although she considers her year-long run teaching fourth grade a valuable experience.

Living and working in places such as London, Boston and upstate New York, Evans recalled, she found herself working at an arts center in the Empire State, a position she previously knew nothing about. And a position that would ultimately change her life.

“I didn’t even know these kinds of opportunities were there before,” she said. “Most of us didn’t grow up with these things, we had to learn about it as adults. I was fortunate that I was in that place. It was luck, pure luck.”

Moving from one job to the next, Evans and her then-husband found themselves back in Lawrence in the mid 1970s. Simultaneously, a group of community leaders and city commissioners in town decided the area was ready for an arts center.

Evans heard about the upcoming project through her sister and decided to apply for the executive director position.

“In hindsight, I was probably the only one who applied who had worked for an arts center before,” she said. “They hired me in the fall of ’74, and we opened in the spring of ’75 with one exhibit and one workshop.”

The center originally opened inside the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.

Prior to the opening, the building sat empty for a number of years, suffering significant damage during the vacancy.

“All that was renovated when we opened was the front center of one floor, like a quarter of the building,” Evans said. “It was a month-to-month struggle finding funds to renovate the building. There was a lot of work to be done before we could have programs in it.”

Not only was Evans actively involved in jumpstarting the center’s programs and exhibits, said Ric Averill, her longtime friend and colleague at the arts center, but she also took a hands-on approach to some of the grimier issues at hand.

“She did everything from bailing water out of the basement to drywalling and painting,” he said. “She just lived and breathed the Lawrence Arts Center.”

From the mid ’70s to 2002, Evans worked tooth and nail to expand and enhance everything the Lawrence Arts Center had to offer.

Along the way, the center veered away from the stereotypical and expanded its levels of involvement. Today, the organization boasts a pre-school, classes and clinics and features plays, dances and musical events.

Over the years, Evans’ personal tastes began to change alongside the center’s interests.

“I’ve been evolving the more I’ve been exposed to different art forms,” she said. “I’m particularly interested in the visual arts, but the more I get exposed, the more I learn, and I get even more excited about it.”

In one way or another, the Lawrence Arts Center and staff have touched most of the people of Lawrence, Evans said.

“My kids of course grew up there,” Evans said. “They and lots of other Lawrence kids grew up with the art classes, theater, dance, swing, same as they would go to baseball or soccer practice and have games. They did both, and it was just a part of growing up in Lawrence, Kansas.”

Even the Lawrence Arts Center’s current CEO, Susan Tate, can recall the center’s early days.

“My family and I loved coming to the arts center starting in the late ’80s in the Carnegie,” Tate said. “Our daughter attended classes, and my husband and I attended many events over the years. We have a great affection for Ann and what she’s done in creating the arts center.”

Tom Carmody, who served for several years on the center’s board of directors, said much of the organization’s early success can be attributed to Evans’ easy-going and affable personality — and her tireless work ethic.

“And she loves art, and she loves kids,” he said. “And she is so good at both. And she’s a very positive person, and very determined. It doesn’t surprise me that she kept it going.”

For as long as Evans kept the arts center running, the community has been just as involved, she’s quick to add.

“People say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but that’s not necessarily true. If you build it, it can still be an absolute failure,” she said. “But in this case it wasn’t. It’s because of a need within the community. People understood that they really wanted arts in the community, and the support and the freedom we’ve had over the years has been astounding.”

Arguably one of the culminations of Evans’ career was the center’s 2002 move to its new building at 940 New Hampshire St., said Ben Ahlvers, the center’s exhibitions director.

Ahlvers echoed Evans’ sentiment about support from the community, noting that Lawrence provided the demand for the arts and Evans was more than happy to provide that service.

“I mean, if you look around, you don’t see many art centers of this size for a town of this size. You’re more likely to find a place like this in Philadelphia or Chicago,” he said. “And Lawrence wants it, otherwise it wouldn’t be here.”

Last weekend, the center celebrated its 40th anniversary with a ’70s-themed block party in front of the building.

As Evans mingled with the crowd and spent time visiting with her granddaughters, she noticed a large number of familiar faces in the crowd, several of whom came over to speak with her.

“Quite a few kids now have come back here, and their children are in the programs, just like my grandkids are,” she said, recalling a slide show of past arts center generations. “It was really fun to see those and recognize the young people. We watched them grow up.”

Last winter, after realizing that she missed the community and deciding that retirement wasn’t for her, Evans said, she accepted a position with KU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The institute focuses on providing short college courses to participants above the age of 50, and her position, Evans jokes, is something a bit more “age appropriate.”

The institute’s director, Jim Peters, said Evans is both an essential and pleasant part of the organization’s team.

“She’s a bright spot in the day. She comes into work and brightens the workplace,” he said. “Even today, there are many people who come to classes who have some sort of prior experience with Ann.

“I think she’s a big asset to the city of Lawrence,” he added.

While Evans continues to broaden the horizons of Kansas’ senior citizens, Averill noted, her lasting legacy will always be the Lawrence Arts Center, and that organization will brighten the community for generations to come.

“They just keep getting better and they keep getting bigger,” he said. “And she started it all.”