Leader of arts center retiring

Ann Evans steered institution for more than three decades

Ann Evans has steered the Lawrence Arts Center from its humble beginnings 33 years ago in the half-renovated Carnegie building to its status now as the bustling core of the Lawrence arts scene. On Thursday, Evans announced her retirement; her last day as executive director will be Dec. 31.

When people think of the Lawrence Arts Center, Ann Evans hopes what comes to mind are stimulating classes, riveting performances and stunning exhibitions.

It might embarrass her to know that what also springs to many people’s lips is her name.

“She’s been iconic,” said John Olson, a member and past president of the arts center board. “When you think of the arts center, you think of Ann Evans. The two are intertwined forever.”

Indeed, Evans has steered the arts center from its humble beginnings 33 years ago in the half-renovated Carnegie building to its status now as the bustling core of the Lawrence arts scene.

But it’s time to move on, she said.

On Thursday, Evans announced her retirement; her last day as executive director will be Dec. 31.

“I decided it was time for me to figure out what the next phase of my life is going to be,” said Evans, who turns 61 in December and who has two grown daughters.

Evans informed the arts center board of her decision at its meeting Thursday morning.

Her tenure ranks off the charts in terms of the amount of time most people spend as executive directors of nonprofit organizations, said Rick Mitchell, arts center gallery director.

“I think the average nationally is more like five or six years,” he said. “At 33 years, she is in a class by herself.”

Community institution

Jed Davis remembers how Ann Evans caught the attention of Lawrence Arts Commissioners when they were interviewing candidates to lead the center.

“She had an engaging personality and certainly a go-getting kind of energy that we all thought would be great for the arts center,” Davis said. “She certainly proved us right in the choice. She’s done a fabulous job.”

Under Evans’ leadership, the arts center has grown from offering 20 classes to 240 students annually to offering 450 classes to 8,500 students.

Evans also oversaw the expansion of the center from the Carnegie building, where it opened in 1974, to the state-of-the-art facility it now occupies in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street. The three-level, 40,000-square-foot building is home to theater, dance, visual arts, exhibition and arts-based preschool programs.

Marilyn Dobski was president of the arts center board during the planning and eventual opening of the new building.

“When we envisioned what the arts center would become, we envisioned it as a community building,” she said. “I think it’s become a place that people come to and feel comfortable there, and Ann’s really been a part of that legacy.”

Evans counts that level of comfort among her proudest accomplishments.

“The fact that an arts center is an institution in the community and that it’s just part of our way of life is really rewarding,” Evans said. “I know that there are so many adults and kids who have benefited in their personal life because of their experiences here.”

Many gifts

Louis Copt has known Evans since he moved to Lawrence in 1976 and, as a struggling artist, immediately hooked up with the arts center as a way to meet other artists and show his work.

Over time, the accomplished painter has come to teach classes, serve on the board and donate a piece each year to the Lawrence Art Auction. He always has been struck by Evans’ infectious enthusiasm.

“Her stamina just astounds everybody,” he said. “I’ll see her there in the morning for a meeting. When I’m teaching a class in the afternoon, I’ll see her there. Then I’ll go to a performance at night and I’ll see her there.

“I ask her if she’s got a cot down in the basement. She’s always there. That’s what it takes to make it successful – a hands-on kind of director.”

Despite her constant involvement, however, arts center staff members say Evans doesn’t micromanage.

“It may sound a little self-serving for me to say, but I do think she has a gift for hiring good people – people who can do the job and really be self-starters,” Mitchell said. “If you look at the program directors, most of them were the originators of the programs that exist here.”

‘Jewels of the state’

Evans grew up in Paola, where she took piano lessons – “I never practiced,” she said – but otherwise had little exposure to the arts. She earned a degree in early education at Kansas University and worked at an arts center in Albany, N.Y., before moving back to Lawrence to run the arts center.

She remembers that the Kansas Arts Commission had only been around about a year.

“We got one of the very first grants that the KAC ever gave,” Evans said. “That was the money for my part-time salary.”

Evans’ role has burgeoned far beyond part-time and extended outside her arts center office.

She has served on the Kansas Arts Commission and the Kansas Humanities Council, as well as on review panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and Kansas Arts Commission. She has juried art exhibitions throughout the state.

Evans also has received a Phoenix Award and a Kansas Governor’s Arts Award for her roles as arts advocate and educator.

She doesn’t know what she’ll do next, although she plans to stay in Lawrence and said it will be interesting to see the arts center evolve.

“It will be fun to see what the changes are,” Evans said. “And you know I might not agree with them, but that’s great.”

The board planned to reconvene this morning to discuss the appointment of an interim director and the launch of a national search to hire Evans’ replacement, Olson said.

A public celebration to honor Evans will be scheduled for early 2008.

“She deserves huge accolades and huge thanks from this community for what she’s done,” Copt said. “The arts center is definitely one of the jewels of the state.”